MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. can still end his final NASCAR season with a championship.
He just won't be the one driving for the title.
Earnhardt's farewell in the Cup series was filled with gratitude, frequent nods to the past and a look ahead to his future as an NBC broadcaster. But the present, well, there wasn't much to celebrate — Earnhardt is winless and on pace for his worst full-season finish in eight years.
Earnhardt the team owner has fared much better: JR Motorsports, the Xfinity Series organization he runs with his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, has placed three cars in the four-driver championship field. Earnhardt may well end up hoisting a NASCAR trophy in victory lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"Somebody asked me if I'm excited and I'm like, well, we haven't won yet," Earnhardt said.
Elliott Sadler, William Byron and Justin Allgaier represent Junior in the Xfinity finale with Daniel Hemric the lone outlier in Saturday's field. The top finish among the four is the champion.
So who takes the checkered flag?
"Oh gosh, I can't root for or against anyone," Earnhardt Miller said, laughing. "I have reasons for all of them to win."
The 42-year-old Sadler is a bit of a sentimental favorite. He's a veteran of 438 career Cup starts and has toiled in the second-tier series on and off since 1995. He's been series runner-up four times, including last season, when Joe Gibbs Racing prospect Daniel Suarez won the title.
"Homestead is the only race that matters to me and my race team," Sadler said.
Allgaier has bounced around in all NASCAR series the last 10 years and landed a spot among the championship four last season. The 31-year Allgaier has two of his five career Xfinity wins this season but will race without his crew chief. Jason Burdett was suspended because the car failed inspection last weekend.
All eyes are on the 19-year-old Byron. He has four victories in his lone Xfinity season (along with seven in the Truck Series) and earned the biggest win of his career when he was picked to replace Kasey Kahne next season at Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 5 Chevrolet.
"They all have different reasons in my heart that I'll be OK with whoever wins," Earnhardt Miller said. "Just as long as it's not the 21 car. But I like Daniel Hemric, too."
So maybe Sadler, Allgaier and Byron all team up to take out Hemric when the Richard Childress Racing driver least expects it?
"I think everybody's going to work on their own direction," Miller said. "I don't think we'll be ganging up on anybody."
As much as each driver wants to call himself a champion, the desire to win one for Earnhardt and put a bow on his final race weekend runs strong for the trio.
"As a car owner and a boss, he's somebody you want to be around," Allgaier said. "It would be awesome. I want to give him a championship because I want to give him a championship. But how cool would it be to do it in his retirement season?"
JR Motorsports can't shake Junior yet. He's driving at least one race for the team next season. The schedule has not been determined.
"When we have Dale out in a race, that's 10 more races that Justin Allgaier can run, or whatever it may be," Earnhardt Miller said. "I think we have our program solid enough that we have the Xfinity regulars in there and that's what the series is built for."
JR Motorsports, which won the championship in 2014 with Chase Elliott, expanded to a four-car operation this season and signed Tyler Reddick to replace Byron next year. Michael Annett was the lone JR Motorsports driver that failed to qualify for the championship.
NASCAR likes to promote Xfinity as the home of the next star Cup driver.
Byron has all the tools necessary to become the next big thing. He enters Saturday as the top seed and would love to follow in Elliott's path as series champ to serious contender to win Cup races. Byron is coming off of his fourth win of the season last weekend in Phoenix.
Byron won with a makeshift pit crew because flight issues stranded all the teams in Arkansas. JR Motorsports scrambled to find crews for all four drivers, an added dose of stress in a critical weekend.
Allgaier races for the championship with veteran car chief Billy Wilburn calling the shots. Allgaier has two wins and 17 top-10 finishes in 32 starts this season.
"If we do the things we've done every race, from Daytona until Phoenix, we win a championship pretty easily in my mind," Allgaier said.
He's not the only one with high hopes at Homestead.
"I'd be very disappointed if we can't pull it off," Earnhardt Miller said. "Four guys have the opportunity, but our odds are pretty good."
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