On Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the worst case scenario for NASCAR’s current system of deciding champions came to pass, as Matt Crafton managed to capture the Camping World Truck Series crown despite also finishing off a winless season in the process, his runner-up finish Austin Hill proving to be enough. But if that outcome left a bad taste in the mouth, what Tyler Reddick did to secure his second consecutive NASCAR Xfinity Series title on Saturday was one hell of a palate cleanser.
Really, the only way the NASCAR playoffs can do justice to a season like the 2019 Xfinity Series campaign is to have the three drivers who took so many combined trips to victory lane battling it out tooth and nail for a race win, with anything less than the checkered flag insufficient to claim the championship. That’s exactly what happened in the Ford EcoBoost 300, with Reddick, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell all taking turns leading and looking like they might be the best cars on the track.
There was plenty of drama along the way. Custer rebounded from a loose wheel that forced him to make an unscheduled green flag pit stop, then came roaring back to unlap himself right before a yellow flag ended the second stage. Bell missed the entrance to pit road with just over 41 laps to go, an almost unthinkable mental error given the stakes, yet he and his Joe Gibbs Racing crew members still got him back in the mix when they eventually made their final stop.
It was shortly before that, though, that saw Reddick prevail during a sequence that served as something of a microcosm of the entire season. With 51 laps left, Bell, Reddick and Custer were running 1-2-3 when Reddick, who made his best time running his trademark “so close to the wall it’s scary” line, went low to grab the lead from Bell, who couldn’t cross back over to make another challenge. So many times over the past two seasons, Bell has been untouchable when in clean air, but Saturday at Miami wasn’t one of those days.
Even after that, Reddick still had to deal with Custer, and with a mere 19 laps to go, he got by the No. 00 Ford, then held on as the lead swapped back and forth two more times. The No. 2 Chevrolet never looked back after that, despite Custer literally using every inch of the track up to the outside wall to try to run down his rival.
So if Crafton’s truck championship and Reddick’s 2018 title, which came courtesy of just two season-book-ending victories, are symbolic of how the NASCAR playoffs can crown champs who feel perhaps a little less than deserving, this one was the exact opposite. Reddick won six times this year, including the final race. He faced down his two main competitors and outdueled them both on the track.
On a night when the Big 3 lived up to their billing, Reddick was simply the biggest. It’s hard to imagine anyone heading to the Cup Series with more confidence than he and crew chief Randall Burnett just earned.
It’s also hard to remember when a trio drivers with this much promise left for the senior circuit at the same time, on the heels of the first ever Xfinity Series season where three drivers each had six or more wins. Yet Saturday night also proved the cupboard is not bare, as long as the most improved wheelmen of 2019 all find their way back to full-time rides.
Austin Cindric (40 laps) and Chase Briscoe (14 laps) each spent time at the front, writing strong final chapters to seasons that saw them both become race winners. Noah Gragson hasn’t captured his first Xfinity checkered flag yet, but he, too, looked stout enough to run with the leaders, and certainly seemed to mature as the year went on.
With Brandon Jones returning and Harrison Burton joining, Joe Gibbs Racing may not have the kind of ace they had in Bell, but they should be factors as well. This is all a roundabout way of saying that the final race of 2019 also served as a reminder that there will be plenty of young talent in the series in 2020, with multiple drivers who could step up and help fill the void left behind by the Big 3.
The race broadcast on NBCSN mentioned that one of Bell’s goals was to become the first driver to win championships in all three of NASCAR’s top series. Unless the rules change or he drops back down someday decades from now, that’s not going to happen.
It’s kind of incredible to think that it won’t. By winning 15 times in his only two full-time Xfinity Series seasons, Bell turned in arguably the best stretch any non-Cup driver has ever had. He’s also won plenty in the playoffs (five times between 2018 and 2019), but he’s never been able to come up big at Homestead, which is unfortunately what the current system requires.
(In fact, he’s been third-best to Reddick and Custer at Miami, which definitely wasn’t going to get it done.)
As has been pointed out many times in this space, there’s no one in NASCAR right now who wears his dejection over what would be a good finish for many others quite as openly as Bell. You could tell it’s going to haunt him that the Xfinity Series championship eluded him again, at least until he starts winning at the next level.
Justin Allgaier earned his way into championship contention with a clutch victory at Phoenix, but he simply wasn’t a factor for the win at Homestead.
Any chance he had at even being in position to pounce if calamity struck the leaders evaporated in the final 25 laps, when he made contact with the wall and suffered a flat right-rear tire, forcing him to make a heroic save of his No. 7 Chevrolet before escaping down put road.
Heavy contact for @J_Allgaier!
He's forced to make an unscheduled stop on pit road! pic.twitter.com/Bid6rVsJhd
— NASCAR Xfinity (@NASCAR_Xfinity) November 16, 2019
In truth, Allgaier was a half-step behind the Big 3 in terms of raw speed the whole night, and that was never going to cut it. Had the No. 7 team managed to find their ‘A’ game, what was a tremendous three-way battle at times could have been even better with a fourth combatant, but it simply wasn’t to be. The silver lining is that Allgaier should be right back in the mix again next season, having persevered through a lot of frustration thus year.
Underdog Performance of the Race
The Ford EcoBoost 300 was not a night for the cream to rise to the top, not for the downtrodden to steal the spotlight, as no underfunded teams finished in the top 10.
Perhaps fittingly, the best underdog run belonged to Ryan Sieg, who came home 12th. Sieg’s 2019 season was a wild success by any measure, as his RSS Racing team racked up 12 top 10s with a strong start and finish to the year. If they can iron out the wrinkles from an uneven middle portion of the calendar, they could raise their goals from just making the playoffs to potentially contending for a victory or two.
“That was amazing, man. To have Cole and Tyler and even Christopher, before he had his little bit of trouble there … that’s what this championship weekend’s about, and I’m just glad we came out on top.” – Randall Burnett
“It was all about this race team, man. I was just honored to pilot this Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. This Tame the Beast Chevrolet was just so, so fast … Hats off to all the guys at Team Chevy for working on this new Chevrolet and all the guys at ECR for giving us great power. I’m losing my breath, I’m that excited.” – Tyler Reddick
“I studied his in-car all the way coming here trying to figure out how to run the top better, and I got close. I tried to find a way to close the gap when I was behind him, and I probably tried a little bit too hard and got into the fence. I mean, what can you say? Tyler can just rip the top here.” – Cole Custer
“[Missing pit road] didn’t help, but we got beat by 17 seconds there, so ultimately it didn’t matter. For some reason, we just can’t hit on what I need to get around this place for a 30-40-lap run.” – Christopher Bell
Hard to ask for a good race to end the season, with the best elements of the playoffs coming into focus. In fact it’s possible to say that the championship format helped elevate a good race to an even more exciting one. Given that the racing was pretty tame in comparison last week at ISM Raceway, one hopes that the change in venues for next year’s championship weekend won’t be a downgrade.
It’s time for the offseason, The drivers and teams certainly need it, those of us who write about it could use a break too, and even the fans probably welcome a little time to recharge. Thank you for reading along all season, and see you in a few months when Daytona beckons!
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