Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – The NASCAR Xfinity Series regular season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was high action and great drama with a first time winner in Ross Chastain and the 12 championship eligible drivers entering the race maintaining their contention for the opening round of the Playoffs, which begin next week at Richmond, Va.
Chastain’s Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet held off five-time season winner Justin Allgaier and fellow Playoff bound driver Cole Custer for his first career victory in 132 NASCAR Xfinity Series starts. Allgaier wrapped up the regular season title following the second stage of Saturday’s race and will take a seven-point advantage over Christopher Bell and the rest of the 12-driver field heading into the Playoff opener next week.
Custer enters the Playoffs ranked third sharing the same points total with veteran Elliott Sadler, who led the championship for 15 weeks and announced earlier this season he would be retiring following the season finale.
Daniel Hemric, Tyler Reddick and Vegas winner Chastain all move into the Playoffs a point behind Custer and Sadler. Brandon Jones, Ryan Truex, Matt Tifft, Austin Cindric and Ryan Reed round out the 12-driver field vying for the championship.
“I feel like today was a lot of fun, comers and goers, guys good on the short run, guys good on the long run,’’ Allgaier said. “Everybody at one point in the race that we’ll be battling [in the Playoffs] had a run or two where they were really, really good.
“I think that shows the strength of the series. We’re going to have to execute and do our job.’’
Allgaier has certainly executed this season – his win total (five) more than doubles his career win total in nine previous Xfinity seasons. The 32-year old Illinois native’s runner-up finish gave him a series best 21 top-10s in 2018. He has five runner-up finishes in addition to his victory total in the JR Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet.
Eight of the top-10 finishers Saturday advanced to the Playoffs – something that bodes well for the competitive nature of the series. The rookie Bell, who finished fourth on Saturday, takes four wins into the Playoffs. Reddick, who won the season-opener at Daytona Beach, and Chastain are the other race winners.
Although Chastain led 180 of the 200 laps, he was definitely pressured throughout the race. And the pack of cars on his bumper were driven by equally motivated Playoff competitors eager to glean some good mojo for next week’s Playoff opener. He, Allgaier and Custer traded the point often and Hemric led as well.
“Just didn’t have everything go our way, but I’m glad we’re in it and we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with,’’ Custer promised on pit road.
“I feel like we compete for wins each weekend, it’s just about having it all fall in place. We have to just keep trying to do what we do.”
For a couple of the Playoff contenders, Saturday afternoon marked a rough end for the regular season. Tifft and Reed were involved in a crash only 63 laps into the race. Reddick and Hemric were collected in an accident with only 12 laps remaining. Both of them had been front-running cars for much of the race.
“It’s better to have this day today rather than in the Playoffs,’’ Tifft said, managing a smile. “We had the speed today again, just a freak deal [the accident]. I’m real excited about the Playoffs, a lot of tracks really suit me and our team’s strengths. I’m looking forward to get going.’’
“You saw it today, it’s going to be a lot of hard, close racing. We saw it all year, we’ve been putting on some incredible races. Glad to be a part of it and hope to come out on top.’’