A consistent season allowed Daniel Suarez to reach the Championship 4 round of the inaugural NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase, and in the season’s final event, Suarez was spectacular.
The 24-year-old started from the pole and went on to win both the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the NXS championship.
Suarez, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, became the first Latin American driver to win a championship in one of NASCAR’s three major divisions.
“I don’t think I can speak English right now,” Suarez said after emerging from his car. “My family has worked super hard since I was 11 years old to get me the right equipment, to get better and to build, one day, to this.
“I’m just very proud of this team, everyone that has been helping me to get to this point. All my sponsors, my friends, everyone in Mexico, I just can’t believe it.”
Suarez probably had the best car on Saturday, but he still needed to put together a complete race to win the championship. His greatest challenger was probably fellow title competitor Justin Allgaier. Suarez, Allgaier and Kyle Larson repeatedly swapped the lead over the first half of the race. Suarez had the easiest time finding his way back to the front, and a slow pit stop on lap 30 during the race’s second caution did not set Suarez back for very long.
However, Allgaier and Larson had more success running the top lane through Homestead’s high-banked corners. While Suarez led, Allgaier was usually nipping at his heels.
Meanwhile, the other two championship contenders were racing further back in the pack. Elliott Sadler was biding his time through the early stages of the race, waiting for the right moment to run the top lane himself. Erik Jones was struggling with the balance on his car, especially due to a hole in the nose of his car.
On lap 125 of 200, Brennan Poole spun out after his tire went flat, bringing out the race’s fourth caution. All of the front runners pitted for four tires and fuel. Jones’ team patched the hole in his car, and Suarez was able to retake the lead from Ty Dillon by exiting the pits first. The race resumed on lap 132 but was yellow-flagged again five laps later for a multi-car incident on the backstretch. When pit road opened, Suarez and Allgaier took fuel only, while Sadler and Jones received four fresh tires.
Due to the rules on tire limitations in the XFINITY Series, Sadler and Jones had only one more set of new tires available. By not changing tires, Suarez and Allgaier had two sets left for the rest of the race. While the Nos. 19 and 7 maintained good track position, the fresh tires gave the Nos. 1 and 20 an advantage on the restart. With 50 laps to go, Suarez, Allgaier, Sadler and Jones were all racing first through fourth.
A caution for debris on lap 159 allowed everyone to pit again, with Sadler and Jones putting on their last set of new tires. Suarez lost the lead after Aric Almirola stayed out, but quickly took it back after the restart on lap 164. Yet Suarez soon had to contend with Jones, his teammate. The repair job and additional adjustments made Jones’ car the fastest it had been all night. With 15 laps to go, Jones was on Suarez’s back bumper, looking for a way to pass the No. 19. Then, on lap 191, Ray Black, Jr. spun on the frontstretch, bringing out the race’s seventh and final caution.
The ensuing pit stops and restart were ultimately the turning points of the race. Suarez and Allgaier came to pit road and took their final set of new tires. Jones got a set of scuffed tires. But it was Sadler who won the race off pit road over Suarez, Jones, Dillon and Allgaier by taking two tires. Sadler had hit the wall during the scramble between the championship four 40 laps earlier. Crew chief Mike Bumgarner, filling in for the suspended Kevin Meendering, made the two-tire call, hoping to give Sadler the lead for the final restart. However, Cole Whitt had not pitted at all, meaning that he would line up in first place for the restart.
Sadler’s team pleaded with Whitt’s to let the No. 1 take the advantageous top lane, but to no avail. Instead, Sadler restarted on the bottom lane, with Suarez immediately behind him. Jones started directly behind Whitt in the top lane, with Allgaier behind Jones.
When the green flag finally flew on lap 198, Whitt struggled to get going. Jones and Allgaier were stuck behind Whitt’s No. 14 with no room to maneuver as many cars on the bottom lane rolled past them. Sadler held the lead only for a few seconds. On the strength of his new tires, Suarez jumped to Sadler’s outside and completed the pass for the lead in turn 2. Once he was out front, Suarez pulled away to take the checkered flag and the championship.
“I was a little worried, because I knew that the [No.] 14 wasn’t going to be as fast as everyone else there, but it worked out,” Suarez said.
Suarez ends the year with three wins, 19 top 5s, and 27 top 10s. He was exceptionally strong at the end of the season, finishing in the top 5 in all seven Chase races. Suarez was able to bring a second XFINITY championship to Joe Gibbs Racing. Crew chief Scott Graves, meanwhile, won his second championship in a row.
Sadler’s third-place finish at Homestead gives him second in the XFINITY standings for the third time in his career. Allgaier finished sixth at Homestead and third in the standings, while Jones came home ninth in the race and fourth overall. Sadler will continue in the XFINITY Series with JR Motorsports in 2017, while Suarez and Allgaier are also expected to return. Jones will be moving on to the Sprint Cup Series to race for Furniture Row Racing.
Dillon had an early exit from the Chase, but he did a fine job at Homestead, leading 17 laps and finishing second. He ends the season without a win but fifth in points. Dillon’s plans for next season remain undetermined.
Alex Bowman’s plans for 2017 are also up in the air. Bowman had a good run going in the JR Motorsports No. 88 car, racing in the top 5 early on. Yet Bowman faded late in the race, and he crashed while coming to the finish line after apparently getting hit from behind. Bowman was OK after the incident, but he deserved more than a 14th-place finish and a smashed-up racecar.
Ryan Reed was lucky to finish 16th. Truck Series regular, however, Jordan Anderson was not lucky at all. Reed spun out twice during Saturday’s race. The first incident was a relatively harmless slide through turns 1 and 2. However, when Reed blew a tire on lap 137, he slid along the backstretch. Jeremy Clements checked up to avoid Reed, and Anderson plowed into the back of Clements. Anderson’s No. 46 Chevy took heavy front-end damage and caught fire as a result of the contact. Anderson was unhurt, but he would finish 36th.
Underdog Performance of the Race
Ryan Sieg capped off his season with a respectable 12th-place finish. Although he got knocked out of the Chase in the first round, Sieg was still able to finish ninth in points. Also give credit to Blake Koch, who struggled at Homestead but finished seventh in points in the first year for Kaulig Racing.
Double Duty Interlopers
Sprint Cup drivers who qualified for the 2015 Chase were not allowed to compete in this event. However, NASCAR’s top level was still well-represented. Larson looked like a formidable challenger to Suarez early on. However, just like in Friday night’s Truck Series race, Larson faded down the stretch, finishing seventh. The highest-finishing Sprint Cup regular was actually Ryan Blaney, who carried the Team Penske No. 22 to a fourth-place finish.
Second-best among the Sprint Cup regulars was Austin Dillon, who rallied late in the race to finish fifth. Almirola, who tried a different tire strategy than the leaders on several occasions, wound up 10th. Matt DiBenedetto finished 40th, running only two laps before exiting the race.
A few Truck Series regulars also did double duty in the XFINITY Series this weekend. Cole Custer took the JR Motorsports No. 5 car to a 17th-place result. Custer will run full-time in the NXS in 2017 for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Matt Tifft, driving JGR’s No. 18 car, was impressive early in the race. Tifft was unable to make a lap in qualifying, but he came charging through the field and nearly cracked the top 10 in the first 10 laps. However, Tifft dropped off the pace on lap 174, apparently with a flat tire. He was able to make a pit stop and get back in the race, but the tire failure spoiled his top-10 run. Tifft wound up 25th, one spot ahead of fellow Truck Series racer Travis Kvapil.
“I just can’t believe it. I learned English by watching cartoons, as well as going to the (race) shop.” –Daniel Suarez
“It’s heartbreaking to be that close and kind of be in position there at the end. The guys made a great call to put me in that spot. We’ve had a great season; I’ve had the time of my life here at JR Motorsports.” –Elliott Sadler
“Obviously in this sport you gotta take chances sometimes, and (Whitt) took a chance. … I was super excited coming off of pit road, because it was all four of us that were fighting for this championship, going to have to battle it out.” –Justin Allgaier
“I thought the [No.] 14 would at least attempt to go. He just kinda sat there and didn’t even really attempt to go. So that’s pretty unfortunate. Really not a lot of respect for guys chasing a championship. I thought we were in an OK spot if he had gotten up to speed, and we would have kinda been able to go to the top and make something happen, but didn’t even get really that chance.” –Erik Jones
The Final Word
Suarez proved long before the Chase began that his team could be competitive everywhere. The question was, would Suarez be able to win the title knowing that it would come down to one race? The No. 19 team had plenty of speed but many times not as much as the Nos. 18 and 20.
At Homestead, Suarez brought all the speed he needed and then some. His two Chase wins, this weekend and at Dover International Speedway, were the only races in which he led over 100 laps. Yet the No. 19 team’s ability to grind out top 5s like no other Chaser could had to give them confidence. Suarez won an outstanding 10 races in 58 starts in NASCAR’s Mexico Series, but never won a championship. Thanks to a courageous move to the United States, a great support system and plenty of confidence in his abilities, Suarez is a NASCAR champion.
Unfortunately, the circumstances of the final restart will probably overshadow Suarez’s excellent race to some degree. From the Chasers’ point of view, Whitt and his team picked a really inconvenient time to gamble. The frustration of Allgaier and Jones is understandable, but Whitt should not take the blame for the last twist to the championship fight. Since instituting the Chase in the XFINITY Series, NASCAR has tried to promote the idea that drivers must place more emphasis on racing for wins. Whether or not the Chase really does place greater emphasis on winning continues to be debatable. However, Whitt did exactly what NASCAR intended. He and his team saw an opportunity to race for a win and took it.
If NASCAR insists on having a playoff format like the Chase, situations like this will continue to happen. It is true that drivers with no stake in the championship fight can and always have been able to affect the fortunes of championship contenders. However, when so much hangs in the balance for four drivers going into one race, and exploits of the non-contenders and their effects are going to be magnified.
For better or worse, the Chase did keep XFINITY fans on the edges of their seats until the final laps of the year. But for some, an entertaining championship race will not wash away the memories of runaway winners and Sprint Cup driver dominance. Only time will tell if NASCAR’s new rules put XFINITY races back into the hands of XFINITY drivers.
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