Daniel Suarez passed Elliott Sadler on the restart with three of 200 laps remaining in Saturday’s Ford 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to claim the race victory and the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
Suarez becomes the first foreign-born champion of one of NASCAR’s three national series – Sprint Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.
The race win and title didn’t come without controversy, however.
Ray Black Jr. spun on Lap 191 to set up one final restart and Cole Whitt, who had no new tires, remained on the track and took over the lead. Sadler lined up second on two new tires and Suarez lined up third with four new tires.
Whitt spun his tires on the restart, bottling up traffic, and Sadler moved briefly into the lead before Suarez – who dominated the race – passed him for the lead exiting Turn 2.
Suarez, who won rookie of the year honors in the series last season, finished the season with three wins, three poles, 19 top-five and 27 top-10 finishes in 33 starts.
“I’m just so proud of this team and everyone who has helped me get to this point,” Suarez said in Victory Lane, surrounded by his team and family members who made the trip from Mexico. “I just can’t believe this.”
Asked about the last restart, Suarez said he was “a little worried.”
“I didn’t know what (Cole Whitt) was going to do there but I’m happy it worked out,” he said.
The remainder of the championship contenders – Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Erik Jones – finished third, sixth and ninth, respectively.
Championship drivers not happy
The other title contenders were not happy with Whitt’s decision at the end of the race.
“Taking two tires was the only shot we had,” Sadler said. “We didn’t know (Whitt) was going to stay out and do what he did. I should have made a better block on Daniel. We got close.”
Suarez’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Jones, struggled early in the race but he was back in contention for the win as the race wound down.
“Right there at the end, the track began to cool down and the car came around a little bit and we were able to run (Suarez down). If the caution hadn’t come out, I think we would have had a pretty good shot,” Jones said.
“We didn’t have any sticker tires there at the end and (Whitt) didn’t even attempt to go (on the restart) and stacked up the whole top line. I don’t know what was going on there.
“It was pretty disrespectful.”
Suarez won the pole earlier in the day and dominated the first half of the race.
On Lap 136, Ryan Reed spun after hitting the wall and cutting a tire. While trying to avoid the incident, Jordan Anderson plowed into the back of Jeremy Clements, who was slowing for the incident.
Anderson’s car immediately caught fire and he pulled off the track on the backstretch while safety crews put out the fire. The race was stopped for just over four minutes while the track was cleared of debris.
On the restart on Lap 144, Aric Almirola took over the lead after electing not to pit. He was followed by Suarez, Ty Dillon, Allgaier and Brendan Gaughan. Sadler and Jones, the other two title contenders, lined up sixth and 10th, respectively.
Suarez quickly moved back into the lead on the restart.
With 49 laps remaining, Allgaier got around Suarez for the lead just as Sadler brushed the wall. Five laps later, Jones passed Allgaier to take the lead for the first time in the race.
Suarez reclaimed the lead on a restart with 37 to go and held firm until the final caution.
“It’s very hard to put into words. I’m speechless right now," Suarez said after claiming the title. "I’m just very proud of everyone and thankful to have the family that I have – my mom, my dad. They gave me all the tools to be here right now. They put me in a car even when we didn’t have the support or the racing background. They supported me and right now we are just living a dream.”