Tyler Reddick started and ended the year with a victory. The rest of the season?
Good enough to leave him the 2018 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion.
Reddick used an extraordinary line, running mere inches from the outside wall to gain ground in the Ford EcoBoost 300. After the final round of green-flag pit stops, he blew by Christopher Bell on lap 164 and then cruised to a 6.9-second win over Cole Custer. It was a surprising title for the JR Motorsports driver who suffered through inconsistency after winning the season opener out in Daytona.
“I just knew we had to execute,” he said. “I knew if we just made it to Homestead, it’s a great track for me. It rewards my aggression. Tonight, we hit the wall a lot, but we kept it in one piece enough to get to the end. We made it count when it mattered most.”
That rim-riding of the outside wall threw Custer off his game after the No. 00 dominated the race’s first half. Custer also became the victim of poor pit strategy when crew chief Jeff Meendering waited too long to bring him in for his final stop. Custer stayed out for several more laps while Reddick, Bell and others came in for fresh rubber. That caused a 9.1-second swing between Custer and Reddick by the time all drivers were back on track after their final stops.
Custer immediately started knocking down the deficit, getting to within a second of Reddick. But that’s when the JR Motorsports driver found his groove again, his line next to the outside wall powering him every lap.
“If I could have run the top better, we could have won,” Custer said. “He started to run the top and I just couldn’t keep up with him. I need to practice, I guess.
“It sucks to be second.”
The final margin was nearly a quarter of a lap as Reddick was never seriously challenged down the stretch. Custer’s team, Stewart-Haas Racing, did win the 2018 owner’s championship as the No. 9 car did not make the Championship 4 in that category.
“Cole did an awesome job all year, but that’s the hard part with these one-race deals,” owner Tony Stewart said. “We just fell a little short.”
John Hunter Nemechek was a distant third, nearly 13 seconds back, followed by Championship 4 driver Daniel Hemric. Austin Cindric rounded out the top five while Ryan Preece and Justin Allgaier, sixth and seventh, were the only other drivers to finish on the lead lap.
“He earned this championship,” said co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose JR Motorsports team won its third title in five years. Each of them were rookies; Reddick joins Chase Elliott and William Byron in that group while becoming the first XFINITY Series champion from California since Kevin Harvick (2001, 2006).
A clean race limited the ability for drivers to adjust on their cars. For the second time in two days, there were just two cautions in a NASCAR championship event, only for stage breaks. That led to some disappointing days for retiring drivers like Elliott Sadler (14th, unscheduled green-flag stop) and Spencer Gallagher (17th) who never made the adjustments to work their way into contention.
Bell, the heavy favorite heading in after a series-leading six wins, struggled all throughout the race. The team became the first of the contenders to pit for the final time, briefly giving him the lead but Bell wasn’t able to hold track position. He lost the lead, second to Custer, then a late unscheduled stop for a flat right-rear tire left him 11th.
“It worked for a minute, but we just weren’t good enough,” Bell said of the strategy. “We missed something. That’s for sure. Once the tires started wearing away, those guys went right back by me.”
That allowed Reddick to sail away. In the end, he won the title for a team he’s opted to leave in 2019 for Richard Childress Racing. Teammate Allgaier was supposed to be the JR Motorsports driver fighting for a championship but a poor postseason performance left an opening; the five-time winner fell back and Reddick secured a final spot in the Championship 4.
He clearly made the most of it.