By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
The highlights of every sport always seem to shine after the season is over. The 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series season was no different. So, with the year drawing to a close, we’ll count down the 10 best moments of the 2017 Xfinity Series season.
Restrictions on Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Drivers
The restrictions on veteran Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers prior to the 2017 season was a step in the right direction. However, only 10 of the 33 races were won by Xfinity Series regulars. Veterans with five or more years of experience were limited to 10 starts, and barred from competing during the Playoffs or in the Xfinity Dash 4 Cash events. This allowed Premier Series drivers Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, and Kyle Larson to compete more often, and as some would say, ‘steal’ victories from Xfinity Series regulars. 2018’s restrictions expand on those from 2017. Veterans are now limited to a total of seven starts, and no Premier Series driver will be permitted to compete in the Dash 4 Cash events or the Playoffs.
Road Course Racing Produces Excitement
In recent years, road course racing has become a fan favorite. Although Watkins Glen was dominated by Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers, the discipline produced excitement. At Watkins Glen International, Kyle Busch spun early and had to charge back through the field to take the victory. It took Busch 33 laps to reclaim the lead. The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course saw the return of fan-favorite Sam Hornish, Jr. to victory lane. Hornish dominated the race at his hometrack, leading 61 of 75 laps en-route to victory. Finally, Jeremy Clements not only had the best strategy, but overcame contact with Matt Tifft to cruise to victory lane for his family team.
The Future of the Sport Shines
Like they did in the Truck Series, the future stars of NASCAR shined in 2017. Four of the 12 Playoff contenders were rookies, and for the second time in Series history, a rookie won the Championship. Drivers, such as Austin Cindric, Tyler Reddick, and Ty Majeski, that will be a part of the line-up in 2018 in a bigger fashion made their debut in 2017. Quin Houff and Kyle Benjamin made waves in their debuts, Houff driving for the under-funded Precision Performance Motorsports, and Benjamin for Joe Gibbs Racing. These are just some of the drivers that seem to have a bright future, and in turn, give NASCAR a lot to look forward to in the coming years.
Stewart-Haas Racing Impresses in First Xfinity Season
2017 marked the first season of competition for Stewart-Haas Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. With rookie Cole Custer, and a manufacturer change prior to the season, many were unsure of what to expect from the team. Custer, along with 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Kevin Harvick made waves in many of the teams’ 39 starts. Custer earned both his, and his teams’ first career Xfinity Series win. SHR also amassed 12 top-fives and 25 top-10s. Harvick never finished outside the top-10 in his six races.
JR Motorsports’ Dominance
JR Motorsports was arguably the most dominant team in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Drivers’ Championship. They accounted for six wins between two of their four drivers, Justin Allgaier and William Byron. All four of the organization’s drivers made the Playoffs, accounting for 1/3 of those fighting for the Championship. Allgaier, Byron, and Elliott Sadler made it all the way to the Championship Four. Ultimately Byron, Sadler, and Allgaier finished 1-2-3 in the final standings.
Some battles that helped determine the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion came down to the last lap. At Phoenix Raceway, an intense battle between Cole Custer and Daniel Hemric decided the final driver in the Championship Four. Hemric prevailed, but had electrical issues at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Meanwhile, Custer won the race.
A battle between William Byron, Ryan Preece, and Elliott Sadler helped Byron earn redemption after falling short in the Truck Series in 2016. Contact between Preece, who was driving a car battling for the Owner’s Championship, and Sadler, who ultimately ended up the runner-up in the Driver’s Championship was one of the most dramatic finishes to the Xfinity Series Championship in recent memory.
Close Competition Throughout the Year
It wasn’t a common theme in every race, but in many races, the competition was close. However, sometimes it was amongst just Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars, sometimes just Xfinity Series regulars, or it was a mix of both. The close racing produced a photo-finish at Michigan International Speedway with Denny Hamlin taking the victory over Byron. Close racing also produced close finishes at Phoenix Raceway in the Spring, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Kansas Speedway.
A Successful Experiment at Indianapolis
To be 100% honest, I did not think that a new aero-package and restrictor plates would improve the racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the NASCAR Xfinity Series. I pointed to the safety experiment at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000 as my reasoning to be concerned about the race at The Brickyard. That being said, I am glad to be proven wrong.
The experiment at Indianapolis Motor Speedway led to passing throughout the field. No longer could the leader simply drive away from the rest of the field. Paul Menard and William Byron battled hard in the final laps of the Lilly Diabetes 250. Not only will the package be back in 2018 for Indianapolis, but will also be implemented at Michigan and Pocono Raceway.
In 2017 seven drivers found victory lane for the first time in their Xfinity Series career. William Byron bounced back from a disappointing second-place in Michigan to earn his first two victories back-to-back. Later in the season, Ryan Preece proved that his gamble of two races with Joe Gibbs Racing, compared to a full season with an underfunded team worked. Four races later, Jeremy Clements shocked the NASCAR world by having the best strategy at Road America. In the first five Playoff races, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell, and Tyler Reddick, each scored their first career victory in the Xfinity Series. Finally, Cole Custer stole the show in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dominating the Ford EcoBoost 300.
The Most Dominant Driver Wins the Championship
William Byron lived up to the hype, plain and simple. Byron was never far from the NASCAR Xfinity Series points lead. He scored a series-high four victories (for Xfinity Series regulars), 12 top-fives, 22 top-10s, and two pole positions in 33 races. He was third in laps led (262), second in average start (8.5) and average finish (10.4), and first in Playoff Points (23). Byron, like NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Champion Bell, showed that NASCAR’s new Playoff System and Stage Racing works. The driver who dominates the season is likely the one to win the Championship.