(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Eyes on XFINITY: Reviewing the Opening 10 Races of 2018

Through the opening 10 races of the 2018 NASCAR XFINITY Series season, the slogan “names are made here” would be accurate to describe NASCAR’s top preliminary division.

In case you haven’t paid any attention or have simply forgotten what has transpired in the series over the first three months of the season, there has been a lot of hard racing, with first-time winners, suspensions and surprises. It began right from the get-go with the five-overtime thriller at Daytona International Speedway.

Tyler Reddick picked up his second career XFINITY win and his first with JR Motorsports in his No. 9 car debut. He had just enough fuel to finish and narrowly edged out teammate Elliott Sadler in the closest finish in NASCAR history, having an actual photo decide the winner (winning margin: .0004 seconds).

The race was dominated by Cup Series regulars Kyle Larson and Joey Logano, combining to lead 89 of 143 laps, yes, 23 laps past the scheduled distance. However, both drivers were taken out in one of the big crashes during the five overtimes, allowing many of the XFINITY drivers to have a shot at the victory. Even Kaz Grala and Garrett Smithley had top-five results.

Once the series got away from the World Center of Racing, Cup stars took over the XFINITY Series for the next five races. Kevin Harvick led 141 of 163 laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and no one outside the top three in the finishing order led a lap throughout the race. Christopher Bell was the first series regular in third, while John Hunter Nemechek shined in his debut, finishing fourth.

Las Vegas was dominated by Larson, who ranks second in laps led this season behind Justin Allgaier, despite competing in only two races. The No. 42 car led 142 laps, winning the final two stages.

The rest of the West Coast Swing was dominated by Team Penske, as Brad Keselowski won a rain-delayed race at ISM Raceway in Phoenix. Allgaier had an impressive day, leading a race-high 76 laps before finishing runner-up to the No. 22 car. It was that same No. 22 squad with Team Penske that would take over.

Joey Logano was the lucky driver sitting behind the wheel of the Team Penske ride at Auto Club Speedway, and he had himself a race. Leading 139 of 150 laps, Logano had to come from mid-pack late in the race to pick up the victory. It took him five laps to jump from 17th to the lead during the final stage en route to his first victory of the season.

Two bye weeks then filled the schedule, followed by a trip to the Lone Star State and a visit to the reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway. Again, Penske was the team to beat, and this time Ryan Blaney was the driver able to showcase his talents, leading 132 of 200 circuits. Over a two-race stretch, the No. 22 car had led 271 of 350 laps ( or 77 percent).

Up until the final stage, Brandon Jones had what looked to be a career-best day going, winning his first ever stage. But a crash one lap short of halfway put the No. 19 car back to 33rd in the rundown.

Yes, the first two months of the season were dominated by Cup Series drivers, pacing the field for 817 of 1,056 total laps (or again, 77 percent), but the next four events were dedicated to the Dash 4 Cash, which prohibited Cup drivers from entering.

At Bristol Motor Speedway, Ryan Preece kicked off the Dash 4 Cash with a bang, as the master of the short tracks was victorious at a place he’s familiar with from the Whelen Modified Tour. For the second straight race, Jones shined, leading a race-high 106 of 250 laps, but he finished sixth. Spencer Gallagher picked up his first career top-five finish, qualifying for the Dash 4 Cash race at Richmond Raceway the following week.

Though winning the $100,000 bonus, Preece won’t be in the No. 18 car again until Daytona in early July.

Richmond Raceway was arguably one of the best races of the season, as pit strategy and tire falloff played a major outcome in the running order. The end of the race came down to a classic short-track duel between Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Noah Gragson and Bell, with the No. 20 coming out on top. Gragson finished runner-up in his first XFINITY Series start.

The following race at Talladega Superspeedway was bizarre, and that’s saying something for a restrictor-plate race. Much of the event was run single-file around the wall, and at one point Allgaier had a lead of over 25 seconds. A late caution bunched everyone up, and some drivers ran out of gas coming to the green and during the overtime finish.

Gallagher picked up his first career victory, making a last lap pass on Reddick for the win. Allgaier came from the back of the field to third in two laps, while Ryan Sieg Racing had a career day with all three of its teams finishing in the top 13.

In his Victory Lane interview, Gallagher told GMS Racing directly that they were going to “party like its 1999,” and that might be exactly what the first-time winner did, which may not have been a good move.

On Wednesday of the following week, NASCAR suspended Gallagher for violating the substance abuse policy. As a result, he entered the Road to Recovery program, which is mandatory in order to make a return to competition.

The series’ 10th and most recent race of the season came nearly three weeks ago at Dover International Speedway, and Allgaier proved that he was going to be a force for the rest of the season. The No. 7 car led 104 of 200 laps, holding off a hard-charging Sadler on the final lap to take the win. Yet afterward, the team received an L1 penalty, as the truck trailing arm spacers and pinion angle shims were not in complete contact with the corresponding mating surface.

The penalty means Allgaier is no longer guaranteed a playoff position and currently sits fifth in the championship standings.

Replacing Gallagher, Johnny Sauter finished sixth at Dover, a day after winning the Camping World Truck Series race at the track, in his first XFINITY start since 2014.

Through the first 10 races, the series looks to be similar to one year ago — JR Motorsports is the team to beat with three cars in the top five in points. Daniel Hemric and Bell have also started the season off hot. One of the biggest surprises of the season might be Cole Custer, who has just one top-five effort, coming at Texas in early April.

After having four off-weekends in the first three months of the season, the XFINITY Series has just one more off week until early October, running 19 of the next 20 weekends on the road. Through 10 races, there have been 10 different winners for the first time since 2004.

XFINITY Notes 

  • There are 43 teams on the preliminary entry list for this weekend’s Alsco 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. After going four races without a Cup driver in an XFINITY event, there are four scheduled for Charlotte.
  • Chase Elliott will be piloting the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet this weekend, replacing Spencer Gallagher. He will also be in the car at Pocono Raceway (June 2), Chicagoland Speedway (June 30), Daytona (July 6) and Bristol (Aug. 17).
  • Less than one week after being let go from JGL Racing, Kaz Grala has found a home with Fury Race Cars in the No. 61 Ford. Brandon Hightower will also be welcomed back to the series this weekend, racing for JP Motorsports and replacing Stephen Leicht, who parted ways with the team.
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About Dustin Albino

Dustin Albino
Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2020 marks his sixth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be a storyteller.

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