Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – HOMESTEAD, FL – Tyler Reddick book-ended his rookie NASCAR Xfinity season run – with wins in the season-opener in Daytona Beach and again Saturday evening in the Homestead-Miami season finale.
But a stellar championship field kept him honest – truly settling the season trophy among themselves. Last year’s Homestead winner Cole Custer finished second- a full 6.9-seconds behind Bell in the race and therefore second also in the title chase. But his effort was still good enough Saturday to give Stewart-Haas Racing its first Xfinity Series owner’s championship.
Richard Childress Racing driver Daniel Hemric was fourth in the race and seven-time season winner Christopher Bell drove his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota home to an 11th-place finish after a late race green flag pit stop to change a tire. They finished third and fourth in the title chase.
Reddick led 44 of the race’s 200 laps – including the final 37. Custer was out front for 95 laps and Bell led nine too. All four championship-eligible drivers spent the majority of the day among the top–five.
Custer who set a race record, leading 182 of the 200 laps in his 2017 victory, won the pole position Saturday morning and paced the field for the opening 93 circuits Saturday afternoon. Pit strategy later in the evening, however, shuffled the leaders. Reddick was able to take the lead, pitting three laps before Custer and forcing the Stewart-Haas driver to play catch up. While Reddick was able to hug the wall and excel in the track top-line and pull away, that line didn’t work so well for Custer.
“Congrats to Tyler,” Custer said immediately, sitting on pit wall after the race. “He could run the wall better than I could and I was so far back from my pit stop and strategy. Once I got there [back to the front group] my tires kind of equaled out and he could run the top and I couldn’t keep up with him.
“I couldn’t’ do it. I don’t know if I just need to practice I guess.”
His team owner Tony Stewart – a three-time Cup championship driver, who also fields a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship-eligible car for Kevin Harvick in Sunday’s race – was happy for the owner’s title. But he felt badly Custer’s stellar season-long effort fell a little short.
“We’re proud as an organization to win an owner’s championship, but we wanted to do it with our driver winning the driver championship,” Stewart said. “Cole did an awesome job all year. The whole team did an awesome job all year. That’s the hard part about the last race is it’s down to a one race deal, and we just fell a little short.
“We might have made a mistake on the strategy, on pitting too late. But like Cole said, he got to his bumper there, and I thought we were going to be in good shape there, and then just the balance shifted on him.
“You know, you take the lump, and at the same time, like I said, we’re excited about the championship on the owner’s side. But the goal was to win Cole a driver championship. We would get ours that way, as well.
“We’ll just come back next year and try again and try to get him one, but excited that we were able to get Ford their first one for the weekend here and hopefully get another one for them tomorrow for sure.”
Bell, who won a series best seven races this year, was equally as disappointed. But like Custer, he’ll be back again in 2019 to try again to claim the season championship.
“Ultimately just wasn’t fast enough tonight,” Bell said. “It’s disappointing to end our season like that, but really proud of everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing and everyone on this team 20 group. They work really hard to bring really fast race cars to the track every single week, and winning seven races is something that I’m super proud of and super thankful for and wouldn’t trade the world for.
“Excited to get back and do it again in February.”
Hemric, who finished fourth in the No. 21 RCR Chevrolet, is the only one among the four championship-eligible drivers who did not lead a lap Saturday. He maintained a top-five running position for the vast majority of the race, but couldn’t legitimately challenge for the lead.
“About 20 laps into the run I thought our car would really, really come on,” said Hemric, who moves up to the Cup Series in 2019, driving RCR’s No. 31 Chevrolet.
“I thought it was really going to pay off for us, but whenever we went to that next to last green flag run, and I saw the 9 car [Reddick] was the first one to pit, it was borderline like if you don’t pit within a lap of that, then you’re committed to run a long time.
“You know, I applaud [crew chief] Danny Stockman for at least making a gutsy call to try to stretch it as long as we could, hoping a caution would come out. It never did, and we got to a point where we had to pit, and by that point we had lost, I don’t know the numbers exactly, but probably at least nine to 12 seconds to the leaders as early as they pitted.
“Just not ideal. Just cautions and stuff didn’t fall the way we needed them to give ourselves a shot, but I thought we did a good job of making our race car the best we could throughout the night, and just didn’t have enough.”