By David Morgan, Associate Editor
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – One championship down, two to go.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series is next up on the docket during Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway as the final four in NASCAR’s second tier series – Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell, Cole Custer, and Tyler Reddick – will line up for a Saturday afternoon showdown to see which of them will come away with the championship hardware.
Bell, Custer, and Reddick are all moving to the Cup Series in 2020, so this will be the last chance for those three to win a championship in the Xfinity Series.
Justin Allgaier – No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet
If you believe in momentum, Allgaier could be your guy on Saturday, as the 33-year old won last weekend at ISM Raceway in Phoenix to claim his spot in the championship finale.
It hasn’t been a year of rousing success as far as wins for Allgaier and the bunch at JRM, with his win at Phoenix being his first of the season. Despite a victory lane drought that was finally broken in the Arizona desert, Allgaier has been extremely consistent in 2019, scoring 16-top-five finishes and 24 top-10 finishes in 32 starts.
To illustrate his consistency even further, Allgaier hasn’t finished outside the top-10 since Daytona in July, a streak of 16 races.
“It really hit me when we got here, you see the board outside, the wins column, the sticker,” Allgaier said. “At least there’s a sticker up there, right? I feel like it would be really difficult to come in here and say, we got a shot at going for a championship when we didn’t execute well enough in the regular season to get a win.
“There were plenty of chances we feel like we should have won. Circumstances obviously didn’t play out that way. We’ve had speed this year, had a great run these last two or three months. I think that win last week couldn’t have come at a better time. Gives you that extra momentum.
“You cannot buy momentum. No matter what you try, do, that’s the one thing that’s crazy about this sport. For us, we’ve got a lot of it on our side right now. I’m pumped about that.”
It’s not lost on Allgaier that all season, the talk has been of the “Big Three” – Bell, Custer, and Reddick – so he is relishing in the fact that he could be the guy that comes in and spoils the party, much like Reddick did last season while driving for JRM.
“You look at Joey (Logano) last year, Tyler last year, they weren’t the guaranteed favorite to win,” Allgaier said. “I don’t even think Joey, anybody looked at him and said, I think Joey is going to win the championship. He did that and then some. He absolutely obliterated the rest of the field.
“Whether that happens or not, I mean, I think it’s been fun. I’ll be honest with you, I think it’s fun to be that guy that could spoil the party. You want to be the guy that can shake things up. We’re not the favorite to win. I’m okay with that. I’m going to go out there and like I said earlier, be at 100%. You can’t do any more.”
Christopher Bell – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Many predicted that Bell was going to be the guy to walk away with the title last season, but the JGR young gun faltered in the finale and wasn’t able to claim the title for himself.
Once again, Bell has been racking up wins in 2019, visiting Victory Lane eight times this season, in addition to 19 top-five finishes, and 20 top-10 finishes.
Despite all the accolades Bell has received this season, the Norman, Oklahoma native noted during Championship Media Day in Miami Beach on Thursday that he has had one thing on his mind since last year’s season finale – Homestead.
“It’s going to be a fun race,” Bell said. “Homestead is a beautiful racetrack. I love it. It’s so slick. I don’t know, it almost has like a Richmond feel. Richmond is really slick. This place is really slick, and a mile-and-a-half on top of that.
“You have speed, slipping and sliding all over the place. One of the most fun races we get to go to. This is a race that obviously everyone has circled for multiple reasons, not just because it’s a championship race, but because it’s a fun racetrack.”
Bell expanded further on his excitement for Saturday’s race, unable to keep a smile from his face as he talked about how his team has been laser-focused on correcting last year’s mistakes this go around and has been working on their Homestead setup since this time a year ago.
“We hit it really hard right after Homestead last year because we struggled so bad. I remember the week after Homestead, me and Jason sat down for a period of time, thinking about where did we mess up, how did we go wrong, why weren’t we fast.
“Last year I feel like we went into the race as one of the favorites, obviously we won a lot of races, felt like we should have had a great shot at it. Whenever the green flag dropped, we weren’t very fast.
“Like I said, we’ve been hitting it hard, focusing on this since Homestead last year. Definitely got a great idea of the direction we’re headed.
“We have a phenomenal car for this weekend. I’m excited to see what the speed is. Ultimately, we saw the 00 two years ago dominate the race. I think we have that capability this year.”
Cole Custer – No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Worn-out race tracks, like Homestead, have been Custer’s domain in 2019, with wins at Auto Club Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, and Darlington Raceway, among others.
In total, Custer has visited Victory Lane seven times this season, along with 16 top-five finishes, 23 top-10 finishes, and six poles – without a doubt the best season of his career. As Custer gets ready to depart the Xfinity Series for the Cup Series next season, he is hoping to go out on top with a championship trophy in hand.
Given the stout run he has had at Homestead the past two years, leading a combined 277 laps, including a win and runner-up finish, Custer could certainly be considered the favorite.
“I love coming here,” Custer said of racing at Homestead. “You get a little bit of everything. I think it’s been one of the best championship tracks for the last 15 years or however long we have been here. So, it’s hard to beat, honestly. But I think that it’s a fun track where you get to run the bottom, the middle, the top, tires fall off, it’s a really great racetrack.
“It’s hard for a driver really to say that you’re the favorite or anything like that. We been really good on mile-and-a-halfs, especially low-grip racetracks, so I think we should be good, but at the same time all four of us are going to have fast cars, so it’s who can put the best race together and it all comes down to that last run like we saw last year. So, I think whoever puts the best race together overall is going to win it.”
Tyler Reddick – No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Last season, Reddick was able to use strategy to his advantage at Homestead to get to the front of the field late in the race and staying there to capture the championship for JR Motorsports as the underdog.
This time around, Reddick is anything but an underdog driving for Richard Childress Racing, winning five races in 2019, along with 23 top-five finishes, 26 top-10 finishes, and four poles throughout this year’s campaign.
Even though he comes in as the defending champion, with many more wins on his resume this year, Reddick noted that he is carrying the same mindset into Saturday’s race that he did a year ago.
“I wouldn’t say the mindset is really different,” Reddick said. “Me and Randall get along really well. Derek does a great job up on the roof, our pit crew that does pit stops for us on Sundays. They do a great job. We have a really good, complete team.
“I wouldn’t say the mindset is different, but I have more confidence.”
Reddick added that his confidence in part comes from how well Daniel Hemric ran in this race last year for the No. 21 team.
“Daniel was able to make a lot of the bottom at Homestead relatively quick compared to other guys like myself. Already bouncing off the fence. That tells me they got a lot of good speed. I’m curious to see how that translates and what we have to do with the new tire going into this weekend.”
Should Reddick win the title on Saturday, he will make NASCAR history by winning back-to-back championships with two different teams.
“It would mean a lot,” Reddick said of winning a second championship. “The second one, I kind of said it a few times today, for me it’s more about winning it for RCR in the 50th year. Granted Cup racing next year, but I want to do everything I can to win what I can for them, that’s an Xfinity Series championship.
“All the guys at the chassis shop, on that compound that have put a lot of effort into these cars all year long. We have the five wins, got the most top fives, regular-season championship. Those are all good things. We want to add one more thing to that, and be a champion on Saturday after the race is over.”