For the duration of the 2016 season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, two organizations, Joe Gibbs Racing and JR Motorsports, have stood out above the rest and with Saturday night’s penultimate race of the season at Phoenix complete, both of those teams will go head to head in next weekend’s championship finale at Homestead.
The two organizations have combined for 22 wins in the first 32 races of the season, with Joe Gibbs Racing taking 17 of those wins and JR Motorsports taking the other five. Excluding wins by Cup Series drivers, JGR’s two Xfinity Series drivers, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez, have four wins and two wins on the season, respectively. On the JR Motorsports side, Elliott Sadler has three of the team’s five wins, while Justin Allgaier ran consistently enough to earn enough points to get himself in position to be able to advance.
Ahead of Saturday night’s race, Suarez, Sadler, and Jones were all in the top-four in points and just needed a solid finish to be able to make it to the championship race, while Allgaier was one point behind and needed a strong run to finish ahead of Blake Koch, who held onto the fourth place points position.
With Allgaier needing a stout finish to be able to secure his place in the top-four, that is exactly what he did on Phoenix’s desert mile. Starting ninth, Allgaier moved into the top-five by lap 30 and was able to stay there for the duration of the race, even leading two laps in the race that was dominated by Kyle Busch. Even though fuel was a concern for his No. 7 team as the laps wound down, he had enough to make it to the finish in fourth place to advance on to Homestead. Allgaier’s finish was the best among the drivers that would advance to the championship finale.
“Jason Burdett and all of our crew did an awesome job all night. When he said save, I kind of got a little bit disappointed, like ‘man, I am saving’ and he said ‘no, you don’t understand…save a lot.’ So we were a little shorter on fuel than we’d like to be and ultimately had to give up second and third, but still a solid night. I can’t thank everybody back at JR Motorsports for giving us great race cars. To be able to have the opportunity to go for a championship next week, to do what we needed to tonight, it was pretty special,” said Allgaier.
The next driver down the finishing order that would advance was Suarez, who started the day in sixth place and was a common sight just behind Kyle Busch for the majority of the race. Though he fell back to fifth place by the time the race was over, his finish was more than enough to send him onto Homestead. The first year driver for JGR could be the first driver from Mexico to win a championship in the Xfinity Series if the cards fall right.
“I think we can win for sure. We’re strong everywhere we go. We just need to be a little bit stronger. That’s it. This weekend we were good, but I feel like we were maybe one step behind in the last couple rounds. In the first part of the race, we were a little better. We go home, we learn from today and tonight and move to the next one,” said Suarez.
“Well, one day I had a dream about it, but I didn’t know how fast it was going to come. The only thing I know is that I was working super hard to try to make it happen as soon as possible and right now we’re in the position to do it, so very grateful to be in this position and very thankful as well with everyone that has been making this possible – ARRIS, Toyota, Interstate Batteries, Juniper – everyone that helped this program to be here right now – Coca-Cola. I think it’s been a really good journey. Now we have to make it happen in the most important race of the year in Homestead.”
Suarez’s JGR teammate, Jones, started on the outside of the front row and looked to be a contender to possibly unseat Kyle Busch for the race win early on, but a pit road miscue around the halfway point in the race ended his chances of that and left Jones scrambling to be able to make his way back through the field. Jones would make it back to the top-10 to finish 10th at one of his better tracks on the circuit, but it was enough to get him through to the next round. Jones has stumbled at times throughout the Chase and Saturday night was another example of that, so he will have to keep the mistakes to a minimum if he is going to win the championship before moving onto the Cup Series next season.
“Yeah, it was a tough night – tougher than we wanted it to be obviously, but we made it. That’s what we needed to do. We did what we needed to do to advance. Wish we could have had a little bit more solid of a night, but a lot of it was honestly my fault, so brought that on myself – need to get better for Homestead, so the Hisense Camry was fast, you know? You pop us down in second there on that restart – I think we run second. That’s just really tough here – traffic when you get back. Overall we just need to execute or I need to execute a little bit better at Homestead and hopefully have a flawless day and finish as well as we can,” said Jones.
“It will be tough, you know? Daniel’s (Suarez) been fast and he’s been getting faster all year. I think he’ll be fast at Homestead, but the JR Motorsports cars have been getting better all year too, so everybody is going to bring their best stuff. We’ve got a good car to bring, they’ll have good cars to bring, Daniel will have a good car to bring, so everybody is going to be on top of their game and you just have to do what you can to have a fast car and be up there running with them and then put yourself in a position to a least have a chance at it.”
As for Sadler, whom many have as their pick to win the 2016 Xfinity Series title, he just needed to finish 15th or better to be able to move onto Homestead, but after his 13th place finish, things really picked up for the No. 1 team. Two lug nuts were found to be loose on Sadler’s car and after deliberation by NASCAR, he wasn’t given a points penalty, but will lose his crew chief for the season finale after he was fined and suspended for the lug nut violation.
“The emotions of the last 30 minutes have been tough. We knew one was loose, and one was in question. Kevin’s pretty much become my best friend, and Kevin’s made me a race car driver again this year,” said Sadler.
“We’ve saved our Darlington car – our best car – for Homestead. We’ve put all our eggs in that car. We’ve done everything right as a race team to go to Homestead with a legitimate shot of walking away a champion… Now that we know he’s going to be suspended, it’s going to be tough.”
Though all four teams have had their ups and downs throughout the season, everything is all square heading into the finale and it’s anyone’s title to claim.
So will it be the Hendrick Motorsports backed JR Motorsports Chevrolets of Allgaier and Sadler, or will the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Suarez and Jones be the ones hoisting the hardware in South Florida? 300 miles around Homestead-Miami Speedway next Saturday afternoon will tell the tale.