In Homestead, the center of South Florida’s Mexican population, Monterrey native Daniel Suarez made NASCAR history by running Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 as if he had a home-track advantage.
Suarez led 133 of 200 laps from the pole to win both the race and the Xfinity Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Suarez became the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR series title and the first graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program to win a series title.
“To win here at Homestead, to have a lot of fans and people from Latin America, Mexicans, is something great for me,” Suarez said. “Besides that, I have my Mom, my Dad, my family from Houston, my friends from Mexico, my friend I used to race karts with when I was 13 years old, a lot of friends were here. More than 30 people were here to just have fun with me and enjoy this weekend. And what a way to finish. … I’m just very proud of my team and everyone who has helped me to be in this position.”
Through a stunned chuckle, Suarez said, “It’s still hard to believe this. It’s still hard to believe this.”
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Despite leading the most laps and having the strongest car early in each run between pit stops, Suarez’s relevant advantages came in four new tires and the good fortune to be in the right line on the final restart.
Applying the Sprint Cup’s Chase format to the Xfinity Series for the first time injected “You watching this?” drama into the series finale. As will be the case in Sunday’s Sprint Cup Ford EcoBoost 400, the top finisher of the Xfinity Chase’s final four — Suarez, Jason Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Erik Jones — would get the season championship.
“The fun part was between the four of us, there was a lot of respect and a lot of hard racing,” Allgaier said. “I don’t think anybody else let anybody have anything on each other, but there was just a lot of really good hard racing and from the driver’s seat, it was fun to watch.”
Allgaier spent the day in the top five, dicing with Suarez, Kyle Larson, Ty Dillon and Jones when he wasn’t playing tag with the wall. After sitting 10th to 15th most of the day, Sadler made a run to the lead pack that got aborted by a rather hard wall smack. Jones’ race featured complaining verging on whining about his car’s power in the first 50 laps, then, later, a charge to the front with a dialed-in Toyota.
“Didn’t have the car we needed to at the beginning of the day and really through the mid part of the race,” Jones said. “Didn’t get where we needed to be until about Lap 150 or so, and the sun started to go down, track cooled down and our stuff kind of came around to us.”
With 54 laps to go, the four contenders held the top four spots. Sadler’s hard wall kiss dropped him back to 17th and was still working his way back forward when Ray Black Jr. spun in the fourth turn on the 192nd lap.
That gave Suarez a chance to duck into the pits for four new tires, a stop his team almost didn’t make. Had fewer cars come in, Suarez might have found himself with a robust car on fresh tires but too many cars to pass. Sadler’s crew, knowing their only shot at the title was in gaining track in the pits, took on only two left-side tires. Allgaier and Jones were left on bad tires.
Sadler got out first among the Chase contenders, ahead of Jones, Suarez and Allgaier. But the large pit parade didn’t include Cole Whitt. Staying out put Whitt into the lead with Sadler second.
A Sadler crew member ran down to Whitt’s pit to beg for Whitt, who had the choice of high line or low line, to take the lower line and give Sadler the advantageous high line.
Whitt took the high line. At the restart with three laps left, his car failed to accelerate so completely it appeared to be going in reverse.
“When the 14 [Whitt] didn’t go on the restart, I actually kind of stopped and hesitated,” Sadler said. “The green flag was waving, but he really wasn’t going, so I didn’t know really what to do. So, I kind of hesitated and I think that allowed Daniel go get a good run on me and cost me the championship.”
Said Jones said: “I don’t know, maybe he’s never started first before. It’s just kind of insane really. I’ve never seen anything like it. He didn’t even attempt to go. He didn’t spin his tires. He just sat there and stacked the top line up. It was pretty disrespectful, really, and I strongly hope that somebody is able to talk to him about that.”
Jones nearly ran up Whitt’s rear while Sadler moved into the lead. Suarez quickly zipped by and away to the title.