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(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP)

XFINITY Breakdown: Drive for the Cure 300

Since being announced as the replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88, Alex Bowman has earned his share of detractors. Entering the Drive for the Cure 300, the knock has been Bowman’s winless resume in all three of NASCAR’s top national touring series.

Time to go ahead and cross that criticism off the list.

Bowman was a top-10 car all night while his crew chief, Mike Shiplett, chose to not save a set of tires in hopes of a later caution. Instead, he had Bowman pit with many of the other lead lap cars for a bizarre caution with the car number board falling off of the flagstand.

When Joey Gase had an oil leak with just over 40 laps to go, the remaining lead lap cars who saved a set of tires pitted and prepared to make a run at the win. That left Bowman up front, running side-by-side with William Byron for two laps before securing the lead and never looking back.

The race was delayed some six hours by rain but ran the full 200 laps once it began.

Anyone could have won this race sitting in this car tonight,” Bowman said after the race. “I’m just honored that Chip Ganassi gave me the chance.”

The Good 

Sam Hornish Jr. doesn’t get to run very often in the NASCAR national series anymore. When he does he is making the most of his opportunities. After finally winning at Mid-Ohio earlier this season, Hornish came within one spot of a second victory for 2017. Hornish was disappointed in his post race interview, bemoaning that he thought he had the best car but failed to capitalize.

I had the car to win but made the right rear angry trying to pass Dillon. Once I got it settled down I was able to put him behind me but I just didn’t have time to work over Bowman for the win.” said Hornish post race.

Brennan Poole continues his assault on his first career win with a third, consecutive to five finish. Poole had contact with the wall early in Saturday’s race but aggressively worked back through the back and, with pit strategy putting him in a favorable position, raced his way over the final 34 green flag laps to garner his second consecutive fifth place run.

Poole has four top five finishes in 2017, which ties his output from 2016, with four races to go in the season. Poole has failed to put a complete race together that leads to Victory Lane, but his continuously improving efforts have him on the cusp of grabbing that long sought after goal of an XFINITY win.

The Bad 

Erik Jones had one of the two best cars for much of the first two stages of the event, taking the win in the first stage of the race and chasing his teammate to the line in the second. Unfortunately for Jones it all went south as he got a bit high coming off of turn number two on lap 121 and slid down the track, hitting the inside wall. His team managed to repair the car and it was able to continue in the race but it was never competitive again. Jones isn’t in these races to score points, he wants to win. Limping to a 30th place result, eight laps down, was far from what the team had planned.

Angela Ruch had a bad night. Her No. 78 was not only off the pace but it was handling horribly. She managed to make a couple outstanding saves off of turn four before eventually spinning in turn two to bring out the first caution of the night. That immediately drew the ire of Twitter trolls, bemoaning the fact that she was in the car at all. She came back on the track but some 15 laps later lost the battle with turn two a second time. This one resulted in contact with the wall and a quick end to her night.

The Ugly 

Justin Allgaier was a strong contender early in the race but had some debris go through the front of his car when Spencer Gallagher hit the wall on lap 62. In the end, his car ran hot before the team was able to effect repairs. He got back into the race and received a free pass but shortly thereafter the powerplant in his No. 7 gave up the ghost. Allgaier was already assured of advancing to the next round but it was a very disappointing race for momentum heading into round two of the playoffs.

There have been cautions in the past for deer running onto race tracks, drunken fans sitting on catch fences and even light shrouds falling onto the track from caution lights. Saturday night was the first time anyone could remember that the number board from the flag stand has fallen off onto the track. On lap 141 the metal sign, roughly the size of a suitcase, fell from the flag stand onto the front straight right at the start/finish line. Fortunately no cars made contact with the fixture, which would have been a very bad night for a contender.

Underdog Performance of the Race 

Running for an underfunded team in the XFINITY series is a tough challenge for sure. Running a partial schedule for an underfunded team is even harder. Corey LaJoie qualified his No. 24 JGL Racing ride 18th, kept his nose clean and finished off the race in the 17th position.

LaJoie is one of those drivers who is trying to make it in the national series on pure talent rather than securing a ride thanks to bringing sponsorship to the table. He’s been competing for BK Racing in the Cup series for most of the races this year while also adding seat time in a handful of races with JGL.

The challenge of racing a car that is utilizing less than the best equipment is daunting in and of itself. Keeping a car like that on the lead lap is an impressive feat. Doing that in a part-time effort is something very special. While LaJoie wasn’t in the top ten Saturday night, he stayed competitive with more well funded, full-time teams all night long. He continues to turn in yeoman like efforts in cars that are put together with heart, grit and determination.

Double Duty Interlopers

It is hard to call Bowman an interloper, although he is not eligible for series points, so he does slot into the category. He led the race one time, for the final 32 laps of the event.

Ryan Blaney, last week’s XFINITY victor held the point for 38 laps before settling for a third place finish.

Austin Dillon made a late race surge from the back of the top ten to garner a fourth place finish.

Daniel Suarez was the dominant car of the night before his pit road miscue. He led the event three times for a race high 111 laps before coming home a disappointing eighth having started on the pole thanks to owner points.

Ty Dillon was in the No. 3 for this week. He had a less than stellar run, starting in the tenth position and finishing fifteenth.

Erik Jones battled with Suarez for a good portion of the race at the front of the pack, leading once for seven laps. Unfortunately he lost control of his car on lap 121 and made contact with the inside wall off of turn two. He managed to finish the race but came home a disappointing 30th, eight laps down to the leaders.

Reed Sorenson and Gray Gaulding both started and parked within 15 laps.

Quotable 

We just weren’t good enough. You heard [Ryan] Newman say it last weekend. We gave away some points in the previous two races and tonight we just couldn’t get it done. And come on, it came down to one teammate catching a guy and me catching a Chevrolet by inches to not make the playoffs. That’s fun. Nothing ever comes easy for us and [crew chief] Shane Wilson. We wouldn’t want it any other way.” – Brendan Gaughan

I was terrible on restarts. That is another reason we lost tonight. If I had been better I think we’d have won the race.” – Sam Hornish Jr.

The playoffs in any sport result in moments that define people’s seasons. That is what happened tonight. We didn’t have a choice. We couldn’t come back next week and try and make something happen. We had to make it happen tonight and we did.” – Ryan Reed

Final Word

The logic behind the playoffs was to add some game seven moments to racing. While it doesn’t always work out that way, Saturday certainly had that feeling for a couple of race teams. Ryan Reed and Brendan Gaughan came into the race battling for the final spot to advance into the next round. As the laps wound down Gaughan and Reed were right together on the track. Reed lost a spot to Gaughan and then made a three-wide maneuver on the back straight to try and regain the position. Gaughan made a daring drive into turn three to hang onto the spot. Gaughan left Reed behind and charged after Elliott Sadler, the position he needed to advance to the next round. Gaughan never got there and Reed held off Brandon Jones for the position that locked him into the next round.

At the front of the field, Alex Bowman made some aggressive moves all night that eventually put him in position to grab the lead after a spirited battle with William Byron on the last restart of the night. Sam Hornish Jr. made a rare start, just like Bowman, and capitalized to come home in the second position, even though he felt he had a better car. Ryan Blaney narrowly missed back-to-back victories while Austin Dillon showed once again he’s a force to be reckoned with on Intermediate tracks. Finally Brennan Poole continues to knock on the door of that first win after rebounding from some early damage to round out the top five.

Charlotte is the home track for most NASCAR teams and it put on a great show at the end, which can mask a rather boring middle of the race.

Up Next 

The XFINITY Series is off next weekend and then heads to Kansas for the opening race in their second round of playoffs. Eight drivers will look to lay the foundation for a run at an XFINITY title.

The green flag will be in the air shortly after 3 p.m. ET next Saturday. Kyle Busch won last year’s edition of the race, pounding the competition into submission by leading 150 of 200 laps. Elliott Sadler was the runner-up, just ahead of Daniel Suarez.

About Mike Neff

Mike Neff
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike works as track announcer and does Sales and Marketing for Myrtle Beach Speedway. He announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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