As 2016 comes to a close in just a few days, we’ll take this opportunity to look back at some of the best moments of the NASCAR season. This week, the NASCAR Xfinity Series is on the docket, so without further ado, here are the top five moments that stole the headlines in 2016.
Daniel Suarez Captures Xfinity Series Championship at Homestead
In the first year of the Chase in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, the Championship Four came down to a battle between Joe Gibbs Racing and JR Motorsports, with Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Elliott Sadler, and Justin Allgaier all vying for their first series championship.
From the drop of the green flag, Suarez established himself as the driver to beat throughout the 300 mile event, leading 130 of the first 190 laps of the race. As Suarez held the advantage over his teammate Jones with 10 laps to go, the caution flag flew, bringing all four championship contenders within striking distance of the lead and the title.
Under caution at lap 193, the leaders all came down pit road for service, with Sadler taking the advantage off of pit road with a two tire stop while the others elected for four tires. As a result, Sadler lined up on the front row, with Cole Whitt, who stayed out on old tires lining up alongside. Suarez fell in behind Sadler on the inside line, while Jones and Allgaier were stuck behind Whitt on the outside.
When the green flag flew for the final restart at lap 197, Whitt spun his tires, dropping like an anchor and holding up Jones and Allgaier enough to take them out of the running to be able to take over the lead. Meanwhile, Suarez used his four fresh tires to rocket around Sadler into Turn 1 and never looked back, leading the final three laps to score his third win of the season and clinching his first series championship.
The championship was the first in any NASCAR division to be won by a foreign born driver.
“It’s very hard to put into words. I’m speechless right now. I’m just very proud of everyone and thankful to have the family that I have – my mom, my dad. They gave me all the tools to be here right now. They put me in a car even when we didn’t have the support or the racing background. They supported me and right now we are just living a dream,” said Suarez.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Wins First Race in JR Motorsports Equipment
Making just his second appearance in the NASCAR Xfinity Series during the 2016 season, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. climbed behind the wheel of the No. 88 car for his own JR Motorsports team looking to claim his first win in the series since 2010 and his first in his own equipment.
After leading 112 of the first 129 laps, things were looking up for Earnhardt to finally be able to check that accomplishment off the list. However, the first caution of the day for a crash on lap 127 brought the leaders to pit road, where Earnhardt would get passed by his JR Motorsports teammate, Justin Allgaier. Brennan Poole elected to stay out on track on old tires, setting up a chaotic restart on lap 134.
On the restart, Earnhardt, Allgaier, and Poole found themselves three-wide when contact from Earnhardt sent Pool washing up the track into Allgaier and set off a multi-car crash, which collected nine cars by the time all was said and done. Earnhardt was able to pull away with the lead, but Poole and Allgaier weren’t so lucky.
Once the crash was cleaned up, the race was pushed into overtime and would be settled on a two lap dash to the finish. Lining up alongside Earnhardt would be Ty Dillon, who was also looking for his first win of the season.
In the end, Dillon was no match for Earnhardt, who was able to hold off the hard charging driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet to win by a .266 second margin of victory.
In addition to Earnhardt winning in the Xfinity Series for the first time in six years, he was also able to capitalize on his tweet about a banana and mayonnaise sandwich that went viral the week prior as he was able to raise a significant amount of money for charity as a result.
“It really was a big win. I only run these Xfinity Series races a couple times a year, so the opportunities to win are few and far between. This is a unique situation because of Hellmann’s being on the car, the way the tweet went viral, and then taking that opportunity to raise money for one of the partners we work with – Blessings in a Backpack. That all worked out very well. We ended up raising over $150,000 and today was when we wrapped up donations to DaleJrSandwich.com. Also, in the last 48 hours, we learned that Unilever, which is the parent company for Hellmann’s, has signed on for two more years with our program,” said Earnhardt.
“That’s such a critical thing for our race team to have partners that want to continue their relationship with us and that want to continue working with us and be able to get these cars on the race track. It’s so important to have won today with all of that happening. To be able to come here and win the race in that car is incredible. I knew we had great cars at Richmond and that is why I picked to run here because of how well they have ran the last few years.”
Elliott Sadler Scores Emotional Win at Darlington
Starting the day in third place, Elliott Sadler showed his strength as he battled for his second win of the season and his first win at Darlington. Leading 39 of the first 111 laps of the race, Sadler was able to take over the lead for the final time with 36 laps to go after passing Cup Series regular Denny Hamlin on the final restart.
However, a win at the track “Too Tough to Tame” was not a simple as leading those final 36 laps. As the laps wound down, Sadler held a nearly one second lead over Hamlin, but with two laps to go, he got into the outside wall in Turn 2, allowing Hamlin to close the gap and pull alongside.
After a thrilling door to door duel between the two drivers down the backstretch and through Turns 3 and 4 on the second to last lap, Sadler was able to use the momentum of the outside lane to take the advantage back to the white flag. Hamlin tried once more to take over the lead through Turn 1 and 2, but his effort fell short as Sadler was able to pull away for the win.
Not only was the win the first for Sadler at Darlington, it also came a day after his team owner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had announced that he would be missing the remainder of the season to recover from a concussion.
“This win today is for my man, Dale Earnhardt Jr. I know he’s going through a tough time. He’s not being able to race his race car for the rest of the year. He was riding there with me today, and he’s given me such a great opportunity to be a part of his race team,” said Sadler.
“A month ago, I was almost retired. I wanted to keep racing, but you are never guaranteed anything in this sport. To go from almost being out of the car, to winning at a track that I came to as a kid to watch races, is very emotional. To win here at Darlington, because I have thrown some away here, is very special to me. Anytime you’re coming off a win, you have great momentum. To be running this good, at this particular time, says a lot for our Chase chances.”
Justin Marks Wins Rain Soaked Race at Mid-Ohio
NASCAR road course races have become some of the most entertaining races on the schedule over the last several years, but when you throw in rain, things tend to get a little bit chaotic. On an August Saturday afternoon at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, that is exactly what happened for the drivers in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
The 75 lap event started off under overcast skies, but it didn’t take long for the rain that had been forecasted for the weekend to surround the facility and drench the track. Drivers came down pit road to put on the wet weather tires provided by Goodyear, but even the tires designed to race in the rain with couldn’t stop cars from slipping, sliding, and spinning off of nearly every portion of the 2.4 mile, 15 turn course.
Through the first 35 laps of the race, nearly all of the front runners found themselves off track at one point or another, with polesitter Sam Hornish and second place starter Owen Kelly being some of the first cars to have venture off track. Daniel Suarez ran off track in Turn 4 on lap 29 to bring out the caution, followed by a multi-car crash on lap 33 involving Erik Jones, Brennan Poole, Brendan Gaughan, Andy Lally, and Nelson Piquet, Jr.
While cars were slipping and sliding all over the place in the first 35 laps, the track drying out brought about another element as the drivers and crews had to decide when to put on the racing slicks instead of the wet weather tires. The lap 33 caution allowed Lally to be the first driver to put on slicks, while others stayed out on the rain tires. When the race went back to green at lap 36, Lally was mired deep in traffic, but the speed advantage that the slicks provided allowed Lally to slice and dice his way through the field and forced the hand of the other drivers to make them come down pit road to make the switch themselves, handing Lally the race lead.
Of course, as soon as the field had swapped to slicks, the rain came back, and drivers had to make the swap back.
Over the course of the remaining laps of the race, Darrell Wallace, Jr., Ty Dillon, and Justin Marks were the class of the field. Wallace looked like he was well on his way to his first win in the Xfinity Series before taking multiple off track excursions to hand the lead to Dillon, who also ran off track himself to allow the lead to go back to Marks, who went on to win his first Xfinity Series race in the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing.
In addition to Marks first win in the Xfinity Series, the rain also allowed road course ace Andy Lally, who normally races in sports cars, to bring home a seventh place finish, even without the use of a windshield wiper in the later stages of the race.
Michael McDowell Wins First NASCAR Race at Road America
Since being added to the NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule in 2010, Road America has been one of the tracks on the circuit that tends to provide drivers with their first NASCAR wins and the tradition continued this season.
In the first six events at the track, three of those went to drivers who scored their first NASCAR wins, with Nelson Piquet, Jr. becoming the first in the 2012 event, followed by AJ Allmendinger in 2013, and Brendan Gaughan in 2014.
As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was racing Michigan that particular weekend, the field was full of Xfinity Series regulars and Gaughan as the lone driver who had scored a Road America win in the field. Only one Sprint Cup Series regular made the trek to Wisconsin from Michigan for Saturday’s race, with Michael McDowell making his first Xfinity Series start since 2014 driving the No. 2 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.
McDowell started the day on the outside of the front row alongside another driver looking for his first win, Alex Tagliani, and was a force to be reckoned with throughout the day, picking up the lead 24 laps into the race and never looking back. McDowell would lead 24 of the 48 total laps, holding off his RCR teammate Gaughan for the win in a thrilling duel in overtime.
“This is just huge. I’m so thankful and so very blessed. Thank God, first and foremost. RCR, Rheem, this Chevrolet was super fast. I’ve got to thank all of my guys back in Michigan too, Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing, for letting me be here. They know how bad I wanted this victory at Road America. So thankful, Justin Alexander and all of the guys called the right shots, I had track position there at the end when we needed it, and this ECR Chevrolet was on rails, it was awesome,” said McDowell.
With the win, McDowell became the fourth different first time winner at Road America and also gave RCR three straight wins at the track. McDowell also broke a winless streak of 296 races across all three national NASCAR series dating back to 2007.
Before his Road America win, McDowell may have been best known for his harrowing qualifying crash at Texas Motor Speedway in 2008, but now he can call himself a winner in NASCAR.