Heading into Saturday’s (Nov. 17) XFINITY Series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Tyler Reddick was looked at as the underdog. But once he got the high groove working, the No. 9 Chevrolet was unstoppable, ending the night hoisting the championship trophy.
Reddick ran the entire stage in the top five, placing third. But in the second stage, the No. 9 car struggled, fading to eighth, smacking the wall. There was a lot of chatter on the team’s radio about running the bottom. Reddick continued chugging around the wall, where the pace picked up in the final stage.
Roughly midway through the final stage, Reddick began rim-riding, mere centimeters off the wall. The higher the No. 9 car got, the faster it went, chasing down Championship 4 competitor Daniel Hemric. Then Christopher Bell. Finally, Cole Custer, though he grabbed the lead during a cycle of green flag pit stops.
In that cycle of pit stops, Reddick gained nearly 10 seconds on Custer, jumping out to an eight-second margin over the No. 00 car, which had dominated the race. Custer got within one second of the lead, until the No. 9 put the car into overdrive, crossing the finish line with nearly a seven-second advantage over Custer.
“We had to overcome a lot,” Reddick said after winning the race. “This year was all about learning. It was an up and down year and with everything we had to do, we had to do it in the playoffs and it rewarded us with a championship. We can hang our hat on that. I know people will say we weren’t consistent, but we got it done when it counted most.”
— Tyler Reddick (@TylerReddick) November 18, 2018
Custer finished runner-up in both the race and the championship. John Hunter Nemechek placed third, with Hemric in fourth and Austin Cindric rounding out the top five. After running in the top five for the majority of the race, Bell had to pit late after smacking the outside wall. The No. 20 car finished 11th.
Reddick becomes the 29th champion in XFINITY Series history, and the third for JR Motorsports in the past five years.
Reddick is a wheelman. He’s an old gunslinger that loves to run right next to the wall, not caring about the criticism he receives when being too aggressive in his equipment.
He wasn’t the best XFINITY driver for the duration of the schedule, but the No. 9 was fast when it counted. Reddick had an outstanding postseason, posting six top-10 finishes in seven races, finishing 14th at the ROVAL.
But put Reddick on a worn-out track with very little grip, the odds are he will drive the car to a respectable finish. Take a look at Auto Club Speedway in mid-March, where the No. 9 car was fast, though finished seventh. He dominated the opening stage at Chicagoland Speedway in June, crashing out in the second stage after a pit road penalty put him in the back. At Darlington Raceway, he ran among the top five the entire race where he finished third — his first top five in four months. Then there’s Homestead, and he kicked ass in the final stage.
It’s been a trend of Reddick’s career — always running well on old surfaces. Sure, his first-career XFINITY victory came in 2017 at a newly paved Kentucky Speedway, but dating back his to Truck days, the no-grip tracks have been his strong suit.
Ultimately, performing well on those tracks granted Reddick his first NASCAR championship. Yes, a pit strategy by crew chief David Elenz might have been the signature moment of the race, but running against the wall takes balls, getting as much speed out of the No. 9 as he could.
— NASCAR Xfinity (@NASCAR_Xfinity) November 17, 2018
He doesn’t care how he won the title.
“This isn’t going to be the year the best car all year won,” Reddick said. “We had to fight really, really hard. I made a lot of mistakes, a lot of growing pains, but my guys just never gave up on me, this whole No. 9 group. We dug down deep when it mattered most and when the playoffs came around, we dug down and got it done. We had to run well and we were consistent and got to Homestead. I knew if we got here, we had a good shot at getting this championship done.”
Reddick ends his rookie campaign with a pair of victories, seven top fives and 20 top-10 finishes. Team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. called it a “veteran drive by a very young racecar driver.”
Sidenote: Elliott Sadler wrapped up a 24-year NASCAR career on Saturday night bringing the No. 1 car home 14th. Sadler ran much of the race inside the top 10 (ninth in the first two stages) but hit the wall late in the going and had to make an unscheduled pit stop.
What a special day for me and my family… could not begin to Thank the people of this sport and the Fans enough for their support through all the ups and downs … you mean the world to my family…
— Elliott Sadler (@Elliott_Sadler) November 18, 2018
It wasn’t the finish he wanted to his career, but Sadler shared an ice cold beer with his pit crew, similar to how team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. did after his final full-time race last season. The No. 1 team finishes the season fifth in the championship standings with an average finish of 8.8 and 24 top-10 finishes.
Everyone knew going into the season finale that Custer was going to have one of the best cars, as he led 180 of 200 laps in the race last season. He kicked off the race leading the first 93 laps, sweeping the first two stages. At one point, he led 231 consecutive laps at Homestead — dating back to last year’s event.
In the final stage, Nemechek got out to the lead, with Custer remaining in second where he was still leading the Championship 4 battle. The No. 00 remained there until lap 146 when Custer brought the Ford down pit road. However, that was a handful of laps after Reddick had pitted.
Heading into the round of stops, Custer had a 1.9-second advantage on Reddick. After the cycle, Custer was eight seconds behind though having the freshest tires.
Within eight laps — and a hard battle between Reddick and Bell, Custer closed in on the lead. The No. 00 almost immediately got by Bell, but couldn’t track down Reddick for the race win, seeing the championship slip away.
When the checkered flag flew, Reddick won by 6.9 seconds and Custer was disappointed.
“We were so far back from our pit stop with their strategy that once I got to him it seemed like our tires kind of equaled out and then he started running the top and I couldn’t keep up with him,” Custer said. “It is what it is. It was a solid day. We had a fast car, we just didn’t have it play out right at the end.
“I don’t know if looking back on it that was the right thing to do, but I think if I could have run the top better we would have won also. We got so far behind and then once I caught him our tires kind of equaled out and started running the top and I couldn’t keep up with him.”
Ultimately, Custer saw a win, but more importantly a championship slip away. But he believes running the high line — right against the wall — is something he needs to work on moving forward to keep his dominance intact at Homestead.
“Within my means, I did as good as I could do as a driver at this point in my career,” he said. “Maybe down the road if I could drive the top better we would have probably been better, but I couldn’t run the top. … We’ve come a long way and everybody has worked really hard. It means a lot, but it’s still bittersweet when you finish second”
Came up just a little short…Congrats to @TylerReddick. My guys gave me a great car just couldn’t rip the top like Tyler at the end. Still unbelievable we won an owners championship in our second year!
— Cole Custer (@ColeCuster) November 18, 2018
Heading into 2019, Custer will be one of the championship favorites yet again as he will return to the No. 00 car for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Bell arguably had the best rookie season in XFINITY Series history with seven wins, joining the likes of Kyle Busch, Sam Ard, Jack Ingram, Tommy Ellis Dale Earnhardr Jr. and Carl Edwards for most wins in a single season. Ever. But the playoffs did not go as planned.
Sure, Bell won two of the first three in the Round of 12 at Richmond Raceway and Dover International Speedway, but the Round of 8 was awful for the No. 20 team. He crashed out of the first two races — having spins on the first lap in both of them (Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway). As a result, he had to win at Phoenix in order to race for the championship.
Bell was clutch at ISM Raceway, coming from the back to the front to win the race in walk-off fashion, clinching a spot into the championship race. But whereas the No. 20 car has been so damn good at mile-and-a-halves this year, Homestead was a different story.
Yes, Bell qualified second to Custer, but from the drop of the green flag, the race was a struggle as he spun his tires on the initial start. The No. 20 ran around fifth the entire opening stage, lowest of the Championship 4. In stage two, crew chief Jason Ratcliff worked on the Toyota where he placed third.
In the second half of the race, Bell remained around the top five, grabbing the lead from Reddick during a cycle of pit stops. The No. 20 car paced the field for nine circuits before bouncing off the wall, having to pit for a flat right rear tire.
— Christopher Bell (@CBellRacing) November 18, 2018
“We got out front but we weren’t good enough,” Bell said after an 11th-place finish. “Bottom line I wasn’t fast enough. Once the tires wore away, they drove right past me. Maybe if we got out front and the yellow could have come out, we could have put more tires on. We might have held them off. I wasn’t good enough.”
In all intents and purposes, Bell should have been the champion. But with the current — and probably best — playoff format, it all comes down to Homestead.
“We just weren’t good enough. That’s the bottom line. I’m proud of everyone on this team. We won a lot this year, so that’s really special. If we want to win a championship, we need to get a little bit better here next year.”
Bell will return to Joe Gibbs Racing XFINITY program in 2019 where he will be the favorite for the championship.
Underdog Performance of the Race
Finishing 18th isn’t exactly what you want as a race team, but for a team that hasn’t competed on an oval in nearly four months, it isn’t too shabby.
Prior to the season beginning, Kaz Grala was slated to run the full 33-race schedule for JGL Racing. That deal only lasted 10 races, so Grala, his father (Darius) and Tony Eury Jr. started FURY Race Cars.
Together, they ran the next six races, before missing Kentucky in mid-July, ending Grala’s shot at a playoff berth. But Homestead was all about getting back into a rhythm on ovals, as the teams last four races were at the road courses.
Gonna have to knock the rust off this weekend 👔 pic.twitter.com/xse7Tl5wjT
— Kaz Grala (@KazGrala) November 15, 2018
Grala qualified the No. 61 car in 18th, running toward the back half of the top 20 throughout the race. Grala ended stage one in 19th. During the 45-lap second stage, he hovered in 19th, ahead of other smaller race teams such as Jeremy Clements, Alex Labbe and Joey Gase.
For the second half of the stage, Grala remained in the lower teens, crossing the finish line in 18th, two laps down.
Double Duty Interlopers
“We won a lot this year, so that’s really special. If we want to win a championship, we need to get a little bit better here next year.” – Christopher Bell
“I think we were able to build off of it tonight and I think next year is gonna be a really great year.” – Austin Cindric
“I’m not sure what my future holds next, but hopefully I can stay in the Ford family and go contend for wins and championships with whatever I do next.” – Ryan Reed
Overall, Reddick and crew chief David Elenz called the perfect race. By calling the No. 9 car to pit road before Custer made his pit stop, Reddick gained nearly 10 seconds during the cycle, which was just enough to keep the lead, though he pulled away by seven seconds for the win.
Amazing day today as @JRMotorsports wins another championship. Thrilled for my sister @EarnhardtKelley and ALL those employees. @TylerReddick drove a great race. CC Dave Elenz used awesome strategy. Unreal what this team has done the last two years. Doesn’t seem real.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) November 18, 2018
It’s JR Motorsports second consecutive driver’s championship, as William Byron led the No. 9 team to the championship last year. Dating back to 2014, JRM has won three of the last five driver titles, all in the No. 9 machine.
Reddick will be moving on next season to Richard Childress Racing as the defending series champion. Though many thought Reddick had no shot at the championship, the California native was confident heading into the weekend, and that proved to be right, as the ole darkhorse finished on top, book-ending the season.
The series will have 13 weeks off (91 days) before returning to the track to kick-off the 2019 season at Daytona International Speedway. Ironically enough, Tyler Reddick won the race this year by .0004 seconds over JR Motorsports teammate Sadler.