By Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service
HOMESTEAD, Fla.—Kyle Larson took out a season of frustration on the NASCAR XFINITY Series field Saturday in the season finale, tracking down Austin Dillon in the closing laps to win the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway by slightly less than a second.
Despite Larson’s dominance in leading 118 of 200 laps, Chris Buescher ran a clean race, finishing 11th to clinch his first XFINITY Series title. Buescher came into the race needing to finish 13th or better to guarantee himself the championship.
After winning a pair of XFINITY Series races last season, Larson, 23, had visions of qualifying for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this year. Those hopes failed to materialize. He sits 20th in Sprint Cup points heading into Sunday’s season finale (3 p.m. ET on NBC). And prior to Saturday, although managing three top-five finishes, the NASCAR Drive for Diversity alum had gone winless in 13 XFINITY starts.
But Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet out of the Harry Scott Jr. shop was so strong on Saturday that by Lap 97, only three other cars were chasing him on the lead lap. Larson had opened a 6.7-second lead over early-race leader Kyle Busch (who led 62 of the first 79 laps from the Coors Light Pole) when the race’s third caution flag waved on Lap 117.
Busch’s threat fizzled when he was penalized for having a loose tire in the pits, then crashed after contact with NASCAR Drive for Diversity alum Darrell Wallace Jr. on Lap 182. On the final restart, however, Larson slipped to fourth and had to recover with a late race charge to catch Dillon. Both Larson and Dillon, seeking the speed of the outside line at Homestead-Miami Speedway, brushed the wall in the final laps.
“To win is really special, especially when you haven’t won in over a year in a NASCAR national series,” said Larson, admitting he wasn’t sure he could catch Dillon, who led laps 180-195. “There’s no other track that suits me like this track. I’m just really comfortable running up against the wall. I seem to always have good race cars when I come here.
“We’ve been frustrated a number of times this year. Some races, we haven’t had the speed we had last year. Also, we’ve had a lot of races where we were pretty fast, then had something happen to us in the last run of the races. It’s just been a really inconsistent year.”
When it came time to celebrate, however, Larson drove directly to Victory Lane, respectfully leaving the burnout to the XFINITY Series champ.
“This is championship week, so congratulations to Chris Buescher,” Larson said. “I wanted Chris to have his moment there.”
Buescher, who won races at Iowa and Dover this season, came into the race with a string of nine consecutive top-10 finishes, but played it safe throughout the day at HMS. Crew chief Scott Graves did make a pivotal call, electing to pit while other title contenders remained on the track for the final 21 laps. That put Buescher in position to claim the free pass, which he did moments later when Busch hit the wall. “We thought having fresh tires on it was going to put us in a better position,” Graves said. “We knew if we could be in the ‘Lucky Dog’ situation … we were basically going to be on even ground (with our competitors). With the number of laps that was left, we felt that was going to be our best option.”
“Our Fastenal Mustang had good speed in it, but we just had to be careful out there,” Buescher said. “It’s unbelievable for us to be able to pull it off. I’m not a ‘points’ racer. I don’t like it. But it was important (to finish) what we’ve been fighting for since February and Daytona.”
Chase Elliott, the defending series champion who is poised to take over the No. 24 Sprint Cup car for Hendrick Motorsports in 2016, finished eighth in the race and 15 points behind Buescher. Ty Dillon, seventh on Saturday, finished 18 points behind Buescher, and Regan Smith, ninth on Saturday, settled for fourth in points, 22 points back.
“We had an up-and-down season,” said Elliott, who won three XFINITY Series races in 2014 but lamented his ability to win just once this year (at Richmond). “They just outran us, fair and square. No reason to be upset about that. We just need to do a better job.”
Dillon recorded his 25th top-10 finish of the season but failed to win a race. He did finish in the top 10 in eight of his last nine races. Smith, runner-up to Elliott last season, ended the season with 13 consecutive top-10 finishes.
While Buescher gave Roush Fenway Racing Owner Jack Roush his fifth XFINITY Series title, the owner’s championship went to Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford for a third consecutive season. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Alex Tagliani and Ryan Blaney—who finished fifth behind Erik Jones (Toyota) and Brian Scott (Chevrolet) in the Ford EcoBoost 300—all made starts in the No. 22 this season.
NASCAR XFINITY Series Race – Ford EcoBoost 300
1. (9) Kyle Larson(i), Chevrolet, 200, $85343.
2. (3) Austin Dillon(i), Chevrolet, 200, $62858.
3. (7) Erik Jones(i), Toyota, 200, $57863.
4. (4) Brian Scott, Chevrolet, 200, $48941.
5. (5) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 200, $42390.
6. (2) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 200, $37076.
7. (10) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 200, $32254.
8. (13) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 200, $32524.
9. (14) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 200, $30930.
10. (21) Darrell Wallace Jr. #, Ford, 200, $33365.
11. (11) Chris Buescher, Ford, 200, $29785.
12. (6) Aric Almirola(i), Ford, 199, $23580.
13. (8) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 199, $29229.
14. (16) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 199, $28918.
15. (19) Dakoda Armstrong, Ford, 199, $29156.
16. (20) Landon Cassill, Chevrolet, 199, $28846.
17. (17) Ryan Reed, Ford, 199, $28459.
18. (25) Blake Koch, Toyota, 199, $28323.
19. (24) Ross Chastain #, Chevrolet, 199, $28161.
20. (18) Ben Rhodes, Chevrolet, 198, $28550.
21. (15) JJ Yeley, Toyota, 198, $27940.
22. (22) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 198, $27825.
23. (12) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 198, $27687.
24. (28) Harrison Rhodes #, Chevrolet, 197, $27576.
25. (33) David Starr, Toyota, 197, $27565.
26. (26) Mason Mingus(i), Chevrolet, 195, $27304.
27. (30) Anthony Kumpen, Chevrolet, 193, $21193.
28. (34) Garrett Smithley(i), Chevrolet, 192, $21072.
29. (36) Eric McClure, Toyota, 190, $26921.
30. (1) Kyle Busch(i), Toyota, Accident, 185, $28110.
31. (37) Josh Reaume #, Chevrolet, 185, $20679.
32. (29) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, Ignition, 180, $26568.
33. (40) Tim Viens(i), Dodge, 156, $26528.
34. (31) Mario Gosselin, Chevrolet, Suspension, 88, $26466.
35. (39) Derek White, Dodge, Engine, 81, $26416.
36. (38) Carlos Contreras, Chevrolet, Engine, 59, $24246.
37. (23) Mike Bliss, Toyota, Vibration, 44, $23246.
38. (32) BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, Vibration, 36, $16246.
39. (35) TJ Bell(i), Toyota, Vibration, 23, $15246.
40. (27) Jeff Green, Toyota, Transmission, 3, $14246.
Image: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images