Whenever Kyle Larson has strapped up for an XFINITY Series race in 2018, he’s been the clear-cut favorite. Friday’s (July 6) Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway was no different.
Larson started the race from seventh position after qualifying got rained out, but it didn’t take long for him to surge the No. 42 car to the front en route to winning stage one.
Stage two was much of the same, though Ryan Blaney led the majority of the 30-lap segment, only for Larson to make a move with a few laps to go to grab another playoff point toward the owner’s championship.
For the majority of the final stage, Larson was among the top five, missing a few crashes in order to have a shot at the victory. On the final lap, Justin Haley had a huge run off Turn 4, crossing the finish line first ahead of the No. 42 and Elliott Sadler, though having two tires below the yellow line. Larson was deemed the race winner by .0005 seconds.
0.0004 and 0.005 seconds
— Xfinity Racing (@XfinityRacing) July 7, 2018
“I honestly didn’t think I had a shot at winning until I pulled over to the lug nut check and saw on the big screen that he kind of went below the yellow line,” Larson said after the win. “Little bit of a shock for me, but this is awesome. I’ve been close every time to winning an XFINITY race here at Daytona, so it’s nice to finally get it done.”
This was Larson’s fourth and final scheduled XFINITY race of the 2018 season. He and Blaney both led a race-high 39 laps, meaning Larson led the most laps in all four starts he competed in.
Typically, it’s never good to see Cup drivers dominate an XFINITY Series event, but what Larson has done in four starts this season is nothing short of remarkable.
He kicked the XFINITY season by leading a race-high 61 laps at Daytona, though getting involved in one of the four overtime crashes, finishing 29th. He didn’t race in the second race of the season at Atlanta, but at Las Vegas, he was one to watch.
Larson didn’t disappoint. The No. 42 led 142 of 200 laps, winning the race. Getting the theme here? The Chip Ganassi Racing car is the one to beat this season when Larson is behind the wheel.
The California native didn’t get another shot in the XFINITY Series until last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, where yet again, he dominated. He won the pole and led a race-high 80 laps, crossing the finish line with over an eight-second advantage over second place.
On Friday, Larson wanted redemption from the race that got away in the season-opening event at Daytona. He did that, by leading 39 laps, tied with Ryan Blaney for the most.
Whether or not NASCAR further restricts Cup Series regulars from competing in lower divisions is yet to be determined. But even if they do, they are the odds-on favorite to win each race they are in, especially if they continue to compete for Cup teams in the XFINITY Series. Kyle Larson took the competition to school when he was allowed to race this year.
There’s a new heartbreak kid in town, and his name is Justin Haley.
Haley, 19, who is two weeks removed from his first Truck Series victory with GMS Racing at Gateway, was in position to upset the racing world and take home the coveted trophy. That’s exactly what looked like happened as the No. 24 Chevrolet turned under Kyle Larson and Elliott Sadler to beat the two veterans back to the finish line.
There was just one mistake, Haley had his left side tires on the yellow line, meaning he was out of bounds. NASCAR posted the No. 24, meaning Haley finished 18th.
“I just wish NASCAR would tell us how much of the car we can have under the yellow line,” Haley said in frustration. “There was room for me to go up, so I don’t know why they are calling me like that. Not how we wanted it to end.”
It was Haley’s second-career series start, as he brought the No. 23 team car home 12th at Iowa Speedway three weeks ago.
Extremely blessed to even have a chance with @GMSRacingLLC in the Xfinity Series. We are strong, we win together and lose together. I love you all for the support. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ve put my heart into this sport, and i’m not planning on quitting ❤️
— Justin Haley (@Justin_Haley_) July 7, 2018
Oh yeah, that Sadler guy has had some heartbreaks as well.
Coming off Turn 4, Sadler believed he was racing just Larson for the victory, but as the two side-drafted each other, Haley got that alluded run, allowing him to make the pass. Even though NASCAR posted the No. 24 car, Sadler still finished runner-up in a photo finish for the second time this season, both coming at Daytona.
In February, the No. 1 team lost out on the closest finish in NASCAR history (.0004 second), and in the Firecracker 250, it was oh, so close, yet again for the veteran driver. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
“I just didn’t know the [No.] 24 was coming,’ a dejected Sadler said. “Just miscommunication between my spotter and myself. I feel like it was Daytona in February all over again. I hate it for my guys. They work way to hard for me to finish second here at Daytona. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
In 48 career starts at Daytona, Sadler now has four runner-up finishes.
Just no words to express how bad I feel …. to be so close and not pull it off for my @JRMotorsports team hurts… they deserved to be in victory lane.. such a fast car
— Elliott Sadler (@Elliott_Sadler) July 7, 2018
Whenever NASCAR uses restrictor plates, the opportunity for a “Big One” intensifies.
That’s exactly what happened on lap 82 when Matt Tifft got to the inside of Austin Cindric, sending the No. 60 car spinning in the middle of the pack, triggering an 18-car pileup and ending with Cindric upside down.
“The [No.] 60 went high, I was trying to go under and he came back down,” Tifft radioed into his pit crew.
The BIG ONE strikes. Welcome to Daytona.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) July 7, 2018
Cindric didn’t have much luck in his first two races at Daytona in the XFINITY Series, and dating back to his Truck Series debut at the track in 2017, he’s yet to crack the top 25.
Unlike his lap 10 incident in February, this one didn’t appear to be Cindric’s fault, instead one of them racing deals. Running two and three-wide at speeds of 190 mph, inches apart, chaos is likely to break out, and that’s what happened between two drivers battling for the XFINITY title.
“I obviously got tagged in the left-rear and that’s what started the whole thing, but I was just focusing on trying to push [Ryan] Blaney forward because I knew pushing him forward was gonna mean me advancing myself,” Cindric said. “I felt like if we could get the bottom lane going again it would have been easy to set sail.”
The 19-year-old ended the race in 33rd, and has yet to finish inside the top 10 while competing for Roush Fenway Racing.
Underdog Performance of the Race
Timmy Hill has made a career of running for teams at the back of the pack in the XFINITY and Cup Series’, but the No. 66 team came to race at Daytona.
Hill took the green flag in 36th, but methodically made his way through the field. At the end of the first stage, he was sitting in 24th. By the conclusion of stage two, the No. 66 car was 21st and staying out of trouble.
During the sprint to the finish, Hill had to twist and turn to miss the carnage in his Toyota. The No. 66 was indeed part of the big crash with 18 laps to go, but the damage was limited, and Hill trucked on.
When the second big crash of the night was triggered with three laps remaining, Hill was just ahead of the action in seventh. On the resuming restart — which turned out to be the final one of the night — the No. 66 remained in seventh, though sniffing the lead, finishing a half-second off the pace, and just ahead of championship favorites Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier.
— Xfinity Racing (@XfinityRacing) July 7, 2018
The seventh-place effort was Hill’s first top 10 in the XFINITY Series since 2012, when he finished inside the top 10 in both events at Daytona for Rick Ware Racing. Those are his only other top 10s in the series.
More impressively, it was MBM Motorsports’ first top-10 result in 152 career XFINITY Series races. The teams previous best finish for the organization were a pair of 13ths with Alon Day and Brandon Hightower.
Double Duty Interlopers
No surprise here, Cup Series regular dominated as Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney combined to lead 78 of 105 laps on Friday night. Both finished in the top five, and with Larson’s victory, Cup drivers have won 10 of 16 races this season.
Chase Elliott was a constant contender for the win, finishing runner-up in the first two stages. However, on lap 90 the oil tank broke on the No. 23 car, resulting in a 29th-place finish. The last double duty driver in the field was Joey Gase, and after a promising first two stages, the No. 35 car got caught up in the “Big One,” finishing 32nd.
“I knew I wasn’t gonna lift, so I just stayed in line and basically went as far as I could get forward and we got up to fifth.” – Kaz Grala
“Once you get into the top 10 it’s hard to move around, but we could fly up to the top 10 every time, so that was never a worry of mine. It’s disappointing.” – Ryan Reed
“Motor sounded funny that last lap. Changed pitch and I didn’t want to throw a grenade in front of the field and wreck everyone. I felt like we were just starting to get the side draft and really work the bottom. But, we’ll never know. Daytona has never been really good for me.” – Ryan Preece
Overall, the first two stages were relatively tame, filled with single-file action, but the intensity picked up as the checkered flag drew near, which is similar to recent races at Daytona.
This race only went into one overtime, compared to February’s six overtime extravaganza at the World Center of Racing, but it had a very similar finish, Elliott Sadler coming up on the short end of the stick. Should of, could of, would of.
If a team can just make it to the finish at Daytona, they will likely get a good finish. Shane Lee (sixth), Timmy Hill (seventh), Michael Annett (11th), Chad Finchum (14th) and Spencer Boyd (17th) all got season-best finishes.
— Xfinity Racing (@XfinityRacing) July 7, 2018
The series heads to Kentucky Speedway next weekend for its lone trip to the Bluegrass State this season. It will be the first time since 2011 that there will be just one XFINITY event at the venue. Kyle Busch is the defending winner, while Tyler Reddick picked up his first career series win last September at the track.
About the author
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.