Daniel Suarez became the first Drive for Diversity graduate (and first Latin American racer) to win a NASCAR Championship when he won the NASCAR Xfinity series Ford EcoBoost 300 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday, breaking through the long-standing international barrier.
The 24-year old from Monterrey, Mexico, drove to a convincing victory, powering his way to the front for most the race and leading for 133 circuits. It was his third Xfinity win after taking last year series’ Sunoco Rookie-of-the-year honors. It was Joe Gibbs Racing’s second Xfinity driver championship – he won in 2009 with Kyle Busch – and fifth overall as a car owner. Suarez became the first Mexican-born driver to win a NASCAR national series race, in June at Michigan, and to lead the points standings in a NASCAR national series.
“It’s very hard to put into words,” said a proud and smiling Suarez. “To win here in Homestead and to have a lot of fans and people from Latin America – Mexicans, all over Latin America – it’s something great for me I’m just very proud of my team, very proud of everyone that has been helping me to be in this position, and it’s still hard to believe this. But we worked hard, and this team really deserves these results.
“In the first half of the year, we were good, and in the second half of the year, we were great. That’s something really good. I’m really looking forward for our future, but for now, I think I’m just very proud of the performance that Scott (Graves, crew chief) and the guys and Joe Gibbs Racing brought to this race. They brought my favorite car, and that’s the car that I won Michigan with today. That’s just my baby, we’ve got it here, and we won a championship. We’re just very proud of everyone in the shop; all the hard work definitely paid off tonight.”
It came down to a three-lap shootout after a late race caution, with all four of the Chase competitors hitting pit road for four tires and fuel, with the exception of Elliott Sadler, who took two tires in 6.6 seconds, getting him back on track first and gaining 10 positions.
Driver Cole Whitt surprisingly stayed out, causing a major problem on the restart for Erik Jones and Justin Allagier who were right behind him in the outside lane. When the green came out, Whitt spun his tires, blocking those two from any advancement. Jones pushed hard but to no avail, frustrating the 20-year old even more. That was just the opening Suarez needed to jump from third to first for the short sprint, muscling around Sadler on the outside to pull away to a 0.988 of a second win.
After the race, Jones was none too happy with the actions of Whitt who he thought stole away his and Allgiaer’s hopes with a slow restart; he finished ninth. He will head off to begin a Sprint Cup career in 2017, named to drive the No. 77 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing.
“It was pretty disrespectful, really, and I strongly hope that somebody is able to talk to him about that,” Jones said about Whitt’s actions. “I’d really hate to see something like that happen again.”
Whitt said he chose the outside line to give the contenders room to get by him if he didn’t get restarted quickly. That’s exactly what happened; he blocked the cars in the top lane behind him. Jones and Allgaier never had a chance to race for the championship in those final laps, as Sadler and eventual winner and Xfinity champion Daniel Suarez pulled away in the bottom lane.
“We didn’t expect everybody to come in like that, and next thing I knew I was like this is going to be a handful,” Whitt said after finishing 18th. “I thought if I was on the outside, I would have the most room for them to go underneath me if anything happened and I couldn’t get going.
“With (Jones) hitting me, I couldn’t get going. It was just making me spin the tires worse. If you could redo it, you would change the way you did it. It was not like we were out there to screw anybody over. I hate that it worked out that way. I was just following what I was told to do and that was just stay out because we were out of tires.”
Runner-up Sadler tried mightily to hold off Suarez on the restart, but just couldn’t muster the speed when he needed to against him, costing him his first championship.
“I should have made a better block on Daniel,” Sadler said regretfully. “We didn’t know that 14 (Whitt) would stay out and jumble up that restart like that. I wish I’d done a better job on that restart. I guess I’ll be ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ for a while. I knew Daniel had a better car on four tires, but I wish I could have put up a better fight.”
The top 10 in the EcoBoost 300, NASCAR Xfinity finale for this season were Suarez, Ty Dillon, Sadler, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Allgaier, Kyle Larson, Brendan Gaughan, Jones, and Aric Almirola.
The 2017 NASCAR Xfinity season begins on Saturday, February 25, at the Daytona International Speedway for the running of the PowerShares QQQ 300 on FOX Sports 1.