Justin Allgaier did not expect to be sitting on pit road after the NASCAR XFINITY Series Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Instead, he thought he’d be celebrating his first championship since breaking into NASCAR’s top three divisions in 2008.
When the checkered flag flew, he leaned against his car, holding back tears as his face turned as red as his No. 7 car. He took a deep breath, signing as he stared at the Sprint Vision screen on the other side of pit road, showing race winner and XFINITY Series champion Daniel Suarez taking a victory lap, thinking that might have been him.
“We all had our heads really high that we made the final four, and we did what we had to tonight,” Allgaier said on pit road post-race. “We led laps. We pressured them. Hats off to Daniel. They were good.”
Allgaier was seen moments later holding his daughter Harper Grace, 3, shedding tears and squeezing her as he glanced up at the championship stage just across from him.
His face turned red once again, soaking in the fact that the championship race came down to a three-lap battle for the win.
Allgaier restarted sixth on the final restart after Ray Black, Jr. spun out with nine laps remaining in the race. Prior to the restart, he was third in the running order as Suarez and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones swapped paint for the race lead with less than 20 laps to go. As the two battled, he shrunk the gap between Suarez and Jones down to less than a second-and-a-half.
But on that restart, TriStar Racing’s Cole Whitt was told to stay out of pit road by crew chief Bryan Smith because the team did not have any sets of tires left. With one lap to green, one of Elliott Sadler’s JR Motorsports crew members can over to the No. 14 car’s pit stall, pleading with Smith to take the low line.
Smith ignored the plea.
“I was trying to give those guys as much room as possible,” Whitt said. “I failed to run with them and spun the tires. He just told us to stay out, just told us to go.”
The move stacked up the high side as Whitt claimed he spun his tires, giving Sadler the lead for a handful of moments before Suarez re-took the lead and drove off to become the first international champion in NASCAR’s top-three divisions.
“That call may work at Daytona or somewhere that puts you in a good spot,” Allgaier said. “All four of us were going to restart in the top 5. The battle for the championship was going to be epic, and we never even got the chance. This [No.] 7 team has been there and rallied. For it to come down to this moment is disappointing.”
Allgaier led six laps on the evening, propelling his way to the front of the pack after starting sixth, the worst of the Championship 4 competitors. But within the first few laps, his Chevrolet was battling with pole-sitter Suarez and Sadler for the lead.
As Allgaier spoke to the media, Kelley Earnhardt-Miller, co-owner and vice president of JR Motorsports, walked up pit road after what she called a night that should not “discount the effort in what we did all year.”
“Justin and his team had a great season,” Earnhardt-Miller said. “You just get disappointed when you’re running down here for a championship and you come that close.”
The team co-owner sat on top of the No. 7 pit box during the 300-mile race, with crew chief Jason Burdett, her brother Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Allgaier’s wife Ashley.
“I would probably be better suited to sit back and watch it on TV,” Earnhardt-Miller said. “I gave a lot of people a show on the pit box just because I’m very nervous. I tapped my foot and jumped up and down. You’re nervous for everyone because you want it so bad. Justin drove his heart out tonight.”
Allgaier ended the evening in sixth in the race and third overall in the XFINITY Series standings. As he made a return to the XFINITY Series following a two-year stint in NASCAR’s premier division, the three-time series winner had a career-high 13 top 5s and 27 top 10s, shattering his previous record of eight top 5s and 20 top 10s in 2010 with Team Penske.
While Allgaier will dwell on Saturday evening’s race for quite some time, he understands the situation at hand.
“The four of us really ran together a lot [during the season], and I think we were respectable tonight,” Allgaier said. “It was super clean and a lot of fun battling it out. You can have 197 great laps and unfortunately, those final three are what kills it.”
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