Walk-off win; Suarez soars to XFINITY title with Homestead victory

By Kyle Magda
November 20, 2016

HOMESTEAD, Fla.Daniel Suarez drove away from title contender Elliott Sadler in the final laps of the Ford EcoBoost 400 to take home the win and the 2016 XFINITY Series championship Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Suarez got a run on Sadler after the race’s final restart to make the winning pass in Turn 1 on lap 198 of 200 and never looked back to become the champion of NASCAR’s second-tier series.

“It’s very hard to put into words, I’m speechless right now,” Suarez said. “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.”

Suarez started his championship-winning performance by winning the pole Saturday morning for the Ford EcoBoost 300 and led a race-high 133 laps en route to a night of accolades for Joe Gibbs Racing by also taking home their first owner’s championship since 2012.

“We had a meeting two years ago with ARRIS and we sat down and talked about this young guy,” owner Joe Gibbs said about Suarez. “And for us to be in two years where we are tonight, it’s a thrill for all of us.”

Suarez becomes the second-straight champion to win the title in his second year of XFINITY Series competition and also for crew chief Scott Graves who joined the No. 19 team after winning the championship with Chris Buescher last year.

JGR teammate Erik Jones pressured Suarez in the closing stages running in the tire tracks of the Mexican-born driver. The caution flew with eight laps to go for a Ray Black Jr. spin and set up a three-lap shootout to end the 2016 season.

Cole Whitt assumed the lead after staying out and once the green flag flew, both Sadler and Suarez to stormed by the No. 14 TriStar Motorsports Toyota to settle the title amongst themselves.

Sadler’s team got the 41-year-old driver out front with a two-tire pit call but it wasn’t enough to hold off the 24-year-old Suarez for the title.

“It was not exactly what we wanted,” Sadler said. “We had to fight back there at the end. We had to make a pit strategy call and put two tires on, and was looking forward to just trying to get some clean air and then try to dictate the restart and see if I could hold these guys off with four tires there at the end, and you justthe 14 didn't go, so I hesitated a little bit, and Daniel did a good job and got a good run on me.  

“I just kind of made a little bit of mistake there on the restart.”

The bottleneck up front also slowed down defending Camping World Truck Series champ Erik Jones who saw his XFINITY title hopes vanish when the outside line went to a complete standstill.

“I'd love to hear an explanation from him, from the crew chief,” Jones said about the move. “It just didn't make any sense.  He was staying out there on old tires with four guys, literally almost the top four was the four championship guys racing for it.

“I'd definitely love to hear exactly what their thoughts were or what happened, why he didn't go in the restart box. There's a lot of questions that I have that I would love to have answered.”

The racing groove widened around the 1.5-mile track as the evening went on with Jones rim-riding the high side towards the front.

“The GameStop Camry wasn’t very good to start and we worked hard to get it good,” Jones added. “By the end, once the sun went down and the track cooled down, we started to get better and better and the top really started to come in at that point at both ends and I felt like we were able to rim-ride better than everyone else.

“Running that 19 down there before that last yellow, just didn’t have enough time to really get around him. After that caution, I knew we weren’t in a great spot. We didn’t have any sticker tires left, we had to put on some scuffs. It just didn’t work out. It’s one of those deals and didn’t play into our hand.”

Jones slid back to ninth in the final running order as Justin Allgaier ran second to Suarez most of the night and brought home the No. 7 BRANDT Chevrolet sixth Allgaier slapped the wall several times throughout the 200-lap race but soldiered on to finish third in the points standings.

“We had some awesome battles throughout the course of the race, and I know before we all put tires on, Erik and I had a great battle,” Allgaier said.

“I think the fun part was between the four of us there was a lot of respect and a lot of hard racing.  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.

“I watched Erik get in the fence in front of me and I got into it, and I don't think any of us didn't have damage on the right side of the car.”

Sadler finished runner-up in series points for the third time in the last six seasons but announced he’ll be back behind the wheel of the No. 1 OneMain Financial Chevrolet in 2017.

The only driver of the championship four moving onto the Sprint Cup Series next season is Erik Jones, who will be a teammate to Martin Truex Jr. at Furniture Row Racing.

The other three return to the XFINITY Series to fight for the title along with new and returning faces to NASCAR’s second-tier division.

Suarez and owner Joe Gibbs will celebrate their 2016 championship at the awards banquet Monday night at the Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, Florida.

Will Elliott Sadler make the Round of 4 again next season?