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Ryan Blaney ready to prove doubters wrong

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Ryan Blaney has a bit of a chip on his shoulder this weekend.

The 23-year-old driver for the Wood Brothers seeks to hold off three former champions today at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) for a spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs.

Even though former champions Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth trail Blaney in the points, some say Blaney won’t hold them off and advance to the Round of 8.

“I’ve heard that all week that we don’t really deserve to be here, so that kind of ticked me off a little bit,’’ Blaney said Friday after qualifying.

“They just say we’ve been kind of overachieving or they didn’t expect us to be here. Those little things kind of make you a little bit irritated because our guys do just as good a job as anybody. They deserve to be here. They work their tails off like anybody else. Hopefully, we can prove that Sunday.’’

MORE: Wood Brothers lifeline started with a phone call

Blaney’s job, though, will be more difficult. He will start last in the 40-car field because his car failed inspection after qualifying. Kenseth (third), Busch (seventh) and Johnson (13th) all start in the top 15 and should be able to work their way into the top 10 to score stage points by Lap 80 when the first stage ends. Blaney will be challenged to do so and could see his advantage on each shrink. 

There’s hope for Blaney because he posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s final Cup practice. But he ranked ninth in average over 10 consecutive laps — behind Busch and Kenseth.

“There’s definitely things we can improve on,’’ Blaney said after placing third in Saturday’s Xfinity race. “(In the Cup race) everyone is going to be kind of married to the wall pretty early in a run. It might be hard to pass. Hopefully, we can work the bottom. I think the Cup cars might wear the top out, might over-rubber it where we have to move down a little bit.’’

With starting in the rear of the field, changing weather conditions (the wind is not expected to be as prevalent today as Saturday) and facing an elimination race, it would be easy for the pressure build on a driver and team.

“I really don’t feel that it’s a different weekend,’’ he said, alluding to the battle for the final playoff spots. “More people are paying attention to it because it’s a big deal. There’s four cars pretty much going for two spots. We try to approach it as any other weekend. It will be more challenging coming from the back.’’

Along with starting at the rear for the penalty, Blaney’s team had to pick last for pit stalls for failing inspection after qualifying.

His team would have had the third pick and he would have had an opening either before or after his stall, making it easier to either enter or exit. Now, he’ll be sandwiched between Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Provided both stay on the lead lap, Blaney could face challenges squeezing into his stall throughout the race.

“It doesn’t help our situation for sure,’’ Blaney said. “Those are two good cars. We’ll kind of be pitched between them all day. Dale actually sent me a text. Teams work well with each other about that. That will be tough for us. That will be another challenge.’’

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Watch: Championship 4 drivers share thoughts on Miami outcome

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After 200 laps Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, William Byron claimed the Xfinity Series championship in his rookie year by finishing third in the Ford EcoBoost 300.

He finished ahead of his JR Motorsports teammates, Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier, and Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric.

Watch the above video for Byron’s first interview as a NASCAR champion.

Below are interviews with the remaining Championship 4 drivers.

Elliott Sadler

Sadler placed eighth in the race after contact with Ryan Preece with less than 10 laps to go cut a tire on his No. 1 Chevrolet. It Sadler’s fourth runner-up result in the points in his Xfinity career.

Justin Allgaier

Allgaier finished 12th in the race after struggling for most 300-mile event. He was competing without his primary crew chief, who had been suspended for the race. Chad Knaus, the seven-time champion crew chief in the Cup Series with Jimmie Johnson, helped out on the pit box for the No. 7 Chevrolet.

Daniel Hemric

Hemric finished last among the Championship 4 drivers in 34th after his No. 21 Chevrolet experienced battery problems early in Stage 2. Hemric spent 12 laps on pit road before returning to the race.

JR Motorsports sweeps top three in final Xfinity Series standings

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William Byron finished third in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 to give JR Motorsports its second Xfinity title.

The team, co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., swept the top-three spots in the final standings with Elliott Sadler placing second and Justin Allgaier in third.

Daniel Hemric placed fourth after finishing last among the Championship 4 drivers in the race.

Race-winner Cole Custer ends the season in fifth.

Click here for the points results.

Results, stats for Xfinity season finale at Miami

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Cole Custer led 182 laps to win the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It’s his first Xfinity win and the first series win for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Custer swept all three stages of the race and beat Sam Hornish Jr., William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Ryan Preece.

Byron clinched the Xfinity title with his third-place finish.

Click here for results.

Cole Custer wins first Xfinity race; William Byron claims series championship

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Cole Custer dominated to win Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, earning his first Xfinity Series victory, as William Byron finished third to clinch his first Xfinity championship.

Byron, 19, clinched the championship and the Rookie of the Year award by finishing ahead of teammates Elliott Sadler (eighth) and Justin Allgaier (12th).

Byron passed Sadler for good with six laps to go after the drivers battled closely for the top spot among the Championship 4 contenders for much of the last 50 laps.

“I don’t think I breathed for the last 20 laps, that was incredible,” Byron told NBCSN. “(Sadler) raced me clean. We raced hard for it. I can’t believe this. I just got to thank God for giving me this platform to perform. I can’t believe this. I’m tired.”

Sadler’s chances of getting back by his teammate were ruined when he made contact with the left rear of Ryan Preece soon after he had been passed by Byron. The contact got Preece sideways and caused Sadler to get into the wall.

Damage from the impact cut a tire on Sadler’s No. 1 Chevrolet. After the race, Sadler got into a confrontation with the Joe Gibbs Racing driver on pit road. Sadler finished runner-up in the championship standings for the fourth time in his career.

Byron’s title is the first championship for JR Motorsports since Chase Elliott‘s in 2014.

Daniel Hemric‘s chances at a title disappeared on Lap 61 when he visited pit road for a battery problem. The Richard Childress Racing driver returned to the track 12 laps later. Until he was passed by Byron on Lap 54, he was the highest running championship driver. Hemric finished 34th.

Custer’s victory comes in his 38th series start. The win is also the first Xfinity victory for Stewart-Haas Racing.

The 19-year-old driver led 182 of the 200 laps, a series-high at the track.

“I haven’t done that in a while,” Custer told NBCSN in Victory Lane. “We definitely had something to prove this weekend. We were so close to making (the Championship 4) last weekend. … Our Haas Automation Ford was unreal. We really wanted to have a good showing on Ford Championship weekend, even though we weren’t in it.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Cole Custer

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

MORE: Race results

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Sam Hornish Jr. finished second for his third top five in six starts this season … Pole-sitter Tyler Reddick finished fourth in his last start with Chip Ganassi Racing … Ryan Preece finished fifth in his fourth start of the year. He placed in the top five in all four races … Ty Majeski finished 10th in his third start of the year for Roush Fenway Racing. It’s his first top 10.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: A day after winning the Truck Series title, Christopher Bell finished 36th after losing his engine on Lap 78 … Ryan Reed finished 20th after being issued a penalty on the initial start of the race.

NOTABLE: Sam Hornish Jr.’s runner-up finish helped Team Penske clinch the owner’s championship … William Byron finished his rookie season tied with Erik Jones (2016) for the second most wins by a rookie with four.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “To be honest with you, if there’s a person you don’t want to cost a championship to it’s Elliott Sadler.” – Ryan Preece