HOMESTEAD, Fla. — This weekend, three champions will be crowned in NASCAR’s top three National series.
The road to each respective Championship 4 was not an easy path, but four drivers in each series stood out above the rest.
For a handful of other drivers, even a career best season didn’t guarantee a ticket to the championship race.
Chase Elliott, Justin Allgaier, and Grant Enfinger all had what could be considered “career-best” efforts in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series, and Camping World Truck Series, respectively.
Unfortunately, all three drivers failed to advance to their respective Championship Four, leaving all three wondering what could have been this weekend at Homestead.
Their seasons far from failure, I spoke to Elliott, Allgaier, and Enfinger on Friday to ask them about their successes in 2018, their outlook on 2019, and their overall thoughts before their final respective races of the 2018 NASCAR Season.
“I’m looking forward to the off-season first, and we’ll worry about next year when it rolls around.”
Elliott hasn’t gotten over his speeding penalty at ISM Raceway last week. That’s what sticks out to him most so far in the 2018 season. Maybe it’s just fresh in his memory, but that stood out more than his first three career victories in the Cup Series.
Elliott finally broke through into Victory Lane in the 2018 season, having gone winless in his first two full-time efforts in 2016 and 2017.
At Watkins Glen, the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Camaro held off the efforts of the 2017 MENCS champion, Martin Truex, Jr. for his first career victory. Elliott also collected two more victories in the Round of Twelve, at Dover and Kansas.
However, when it came to the Round of 8, nothing was guaranteed for Elliott, as he entered the round below the cutoff line. Finishes of seventh and sixth at Martinsville and Texas, plus a penalty toward Kevin Harvick at Texas, put Elliott in position to possibly advance via points at ISM Raceway.
With a second-place start last Sunday, plus a Stage 1 victory, Elliott looked to be in position to advance with luck. Unfortunately, his luck ran out, as he was collected in an incident with Denny Hamlin and fellow championship contender Kurt Busch on lap 270 of 312.
Elliott wound up finishing 23rd at ISM Raceway, missing the cut line by 28 points.
“Just going to try and go and win (at Homestead).”
“You go to Daytona in January, and you try to put yourself in position to go for a championship when you get here to Homestead. We failed on that a little bit.
“These Playoffs have been a little rough for us, or a lot rough for us, but I look back on our season, and I’m not disappointed in anything. I wouldn’t change anything we did. There wasn’t a single race where I look back and I’m like ‘oh man, I would have done something different’.
“That’s probably been the hardest part, right? When you look and see things that you’ve, for sure, say that those are problems and we should change those, it’s easy to fix. When you look back and say that there is nothing we did wrong, those are the hard ones to fix. That’s kind of where we’re at.”
With five wins in the 2018 season, plus a Regular Season Championship following the end of the regular season at Las Vegas, it looked like this year’s title fight was going to be Allgaier vs. Christopher Bell with special appearances by two other NXS drivers.
Unfortunately for Allgaier, his championship hopes ended without brakes after earlier contact with John Hunter Nemechek.
Coming into ISM Raceway, Allgaier was on the outside looking in. After a first lap incident at Kansas, which collected fellow title hopefuls Bell, Cole Custer, and Austin Cindric, Allgaier’s playoff point advantage was depleted, entering Texas five points below the cutoff.
After Custer won in dramatic fashion at Texas, that moved Allgaier down even more, entering ISM Raceway twelve points down.
This didn’t phase the driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Camaro, as he went out and won the first two stages of the race at ISM Raceway. At one point, even if he didn’t win, Allgaier was looking hopeful to make it in on points.
In the middle of the final stage, Allgaier was involved in an incident with the No. 42 of John Hunter Nemechek, which badly damaged his right front fender area. After repairs, Allgaier was still able to run, and ran just outside the top five.
Meanwhile, Bell had taken over the lead, and even with all the points, Allgaier still needed a few more points to get in himself should Bell win. Coming to the end of the race, Allgaier’s brakes went away, ultimately ending his chances at a title run. Allgaier finished one lap down in 24th, and missed the cut by 24 points.
“The speed that we’ve had this year has been way more consistent. To be able to run up front week in and week out, and be a threat win the race everywhere we go, doesn’t matter if it’s a short track, a mile-and-a-half, a road course, or a speedway, it doesn’t matter. We’ve felt like we’ve done pretty good, and our team is just firing on all eight cylinders.
“That’s probably been the coolest part. We have a great comradery at our team, and everybody gets along. Everybody is working on that goal of winning races, and ultimately winning a championship. Obviously, that didn’t work out the way we wanted it to, but all in all, we have got a great group of guys, and it’s been fun.”
“We were really close this year, and it definitely wasn’t from any lack of effort. We only have one win this year, but we’ve probably had five, six, seven races that we could have won.
“We had the speed to get it done, and that’s something I’m proud of, but that’s still not good enough. We want to be a contender each and every week. At that point, everything takes care of itself.
“I’m really happy with the progress but we still have a ways to go.”
In his second full season, Enfinger was able to qualify for the Round of 8 with enough points throughout the 2018 NCWTS Season. Enfinger broke through at Las Vegas, taking the checkers for the second time in his career, advancing the No. 98 Thorsport Racing F150 to the next round.
Enfinger, who has driven part time in NASCAR since 2010, collected a victory previously at Talladega in 2016, which ultimately vaulted him to a full time ride with Thorsport Racing in 2017.
With finishes of 14th and 12th at Martinsville and Texas respectively, Enfinger was 18 points away from possibly advancing. On the final restart of the day at ISM Raceway, it looked like Enfinger was going to advance by winning, as he led the field to the green.
It would not be his day, as he slipped back to fourth, and relinquished the lead to eventual race winner Brett Moffitt. By 27 points, Enfinger was unable to advance to the Championship Four.
“This is our goal, each and every week, to win poles, win practice, win the race, everything we can do.
“Honestly, we’re sitting here and we only have got one win in our bank this year, but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys, and this is the same core group of guys that we had last year, and we missed the playoffs all together.
“We’ve all dug in together and really elevated this team. We still have a ways to go, and I think everybody understands that.”
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
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