Daniel Suarez won the Ford EcoBoost 300 race and the XFINITY Series championship in one bold stroke Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, becoming the first Latin-American driver to earn a NASCAR national touring series title.
Suarez won when the No. 14 car of Cole Whitt, on old tires, could not get going on the final restart with three laps to go — bottling up fellow Chase contenders Erik Jones and Justin Allgaier on the outside lane. Suarez, who was on four fresh tires, quickly passed the other Championship 4 driver, Elliott Sadler, who was on just two fresh Goodyears.
Suarez, driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, won in just his second season in the series, capping a wild night when it seemed at different times as if any one of the Championship 4 drivers might come out on top.
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It was a stunning, historic victory for the native of Monterrey, Mexico, who signed with JGR just two years ago and began his racing career in go-karts at age 11 — only 13 years ago.
“For us in two years, to get to where we are tonight, it's incredible. … This is going to be a big deal, I think, for our sport. It's huge,” team owner Joe Gibbs said.
Suarez led a race-high 133 laps, but it was far from what could be described as a dominant performance and the outcome was in doubt until the final restart.
Earlier in the race, Jones poked a hole in the nose of his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota when he caught a piece of the rear-left quarter-panel of Ryan Reed’s car.
With 72 laps to go, Jones’ JGR crew chief Chris Gabehart called his driver to pit road and took the extra time needed to make the repairs.
When Reed spun on Lap 137 in his No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, the No. 46 of Jordan Anderson plowed into the No. 51 of Jeremy Clements so hard that it lifted Clements’ car off the ground and left Anderson’s crippled car in flames.
It also brought out first a caution and then a brief red flag for track cleanup, setting the stage for the Championship 4 to put on a show.
Shortly after the ensuing restart, the four Chasers ended up running first through fourth – Suarez leading, followed by Allgaier, Sadler and Jones — with 56 laps to go.
Jones kept coming.
Although Allgaier eventually caught and passed Suarez, Jones swept to second at the same time and soon started stalking Allgaier. He passed him with 44 to go, but then another caution came out just two laps later.
This time, Suarez regained the lead by beating the rest of the field off pit road, with Allgaier second and Jones third.
And when Suarez got a terrific launch on the ensuing restart, he soon reestablished a healthy lead.
Sadler fell all the way to 16th following a terrible pit stop in which all the lug nuts fell off one of his tires and had to be put back on by hand. It seemingly ended any chance he had of winning either the race or the championship.
Meanwhile, Jones kept coming. He caught and finally passed Allgaier for second with 21 to go after the two dueled for several laps – and then Jones went after Suarez, his JGR teammate.
Jones almost passed Suarez with 16 to go, but overdrove into a corner and brushed the wall, falling back. Gabehart implored Jones to stay calm, assuring him that there was plenty of time left.
A few laps later, Jones closed in again and the same scenario repeated itself. He brushed the wall and fell back again.
Then, with 10 laps remaining, Ray Black Jr. spun and brought out yet another caution – setting up money pit stops and the pivotal restart with three to go.
Then, suddenly, Sadler jumped back into the picture with a two-tire stop that lasted a mere 6.6 seconds and enabled him to jump from 11th to the inside of the front row for the restart. Lined up next to him, technically in the lead car, was the non-Chase No. 14 car of Whitt – who stayed on the track on old tires in a move that was baffling to many observers.
When Whitt could not get going on the restart, Jones and half the rest of the field got stacked up behind him. Sadler took off and held the lead only briefly on his two fresh tires before Suarez, who restarted third, caught and passed him for the lead once again, this time for good.
Ty Dillon surged at the end to finish second, with Sadler, Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon rounding out the top five. Allgaier finished sixth and Jones, who was none too pleased with Whitt afterward, ended up ninth.
“I guess he just wanted to stack up the top line,” Jones said of Whitt. “I don't know, maybe he's never started first before. I don't know. 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. I'd really hate to see something like that happen again.
“It's a pretty unfortunate thing to happen. You know, you've got four guys running for the championship and they're all up front racing for it, and then you've got one guy that's been running 18th all day that just stacks everybody up. It's just kind of unfortunate.”
It was the third series win of the year for Suarez. The 24-year-old reminded post-race interviewers that he learned English by watching cartoons on television, trying to prepare for the day when he might be a champion driver who needed to tell his story to the media worldwide. He's there now.
“Honestly, right now I wouldn't mind doing all the interviews in the world. I'm just so happy for my team, my family, Joe Gibbs Racing, everyone involved,” Suarez said. “I'm just very proud of everyone, very proud of my family. My parents did everything for me that they could to help me get here.”