There are only a few months left in the NASCAR XFINITY Series season. As time flies by amidst the roar of 40 race cars, the championship battle is heating up as the pressure to perform each week increases exponentially.
The top three in the championship standings – Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon and Chase Elliott – are separated by a mere 24 points. A mistake throughout the next three months could cost one of this trio the title hardware they surely covet. However, each of these young men can look forward to something many XFINITY drivers can’t: secure futures. Elliott is set for a full-time Cup ride next season, replacing Jeff Gordon while both Buescher and Dillon appear likely to join him.
Unfortunately, that is not the case for many other XFINITY Series regulars. A poor finish to an underachieving season could keep some drivers out of top-tier rides, cost them sponsorship or leave them facing a pink slip. Let’s take a look at five drivers that must step up their game for the remaining races to put a smiley face on what has otherwise been a sour first six months of the 2015 season….
Elliott Sadler: The veteran of the XFINITY Series is reportedly heading to JR Motorsports next season. In some ways, for Sadler the change can’t come soon enough after getting stuck within the chaos of a dysfunctional Roush Fenway Racing operation. While his teammates Ryan Reed, Buescher and Darrell Wallace, Jr. slug it out, both on the track and off Sadler’s 2015 campaign has performed below expectations. At the moment, he has just 20 laps led, with 19 of them coming at Talladega this spring. While Buescher has recorded multiple victories this year, Sadler is running just behind him most of the time, the No. 1 car not showing enough speed to run up front.
At the moment, Sadler sits fifth in the standings but has just four top 5s and 11 top 10s as he searches for consistency in the latter half of the season. Age can work in his favor, though and the 40-year-old can balance out all the young energy within RFR if put in position to be a leader. The hope for Sadler is to end this year on a high note; while a title longshot, momentum earned now can carry over to his new JRM operation come 2016.
Regan Smith: Smith wants to get back to the Cup Series — that much is clear. But to do so, he’ll likely need a points title or two and driver of the No. 7 for JR Motorsports appears further away from that than ever before. A stretch from Michigan to Kentucky hurt his championship hopes, four finishes of 10th or worse but it was the Watkins Glen contact Saturday that really set him back. Multiple wrecks left him at odds with rival Dillon over at Richard Childress Racing, had him limping home 20th and pushed him more than a full race’s worth of points behind Buescher. Smith, who’s led just 41 laps all season hasn’t won a race since Feb. 2014 and the Victory Lane drought is beginning to wear on the veteran.
However, for Smith hope is not lost. JRM paired him with crew chief Jason Burdett this season and the two are starting to click rather well. Sitting fourth in points, Smith will need to overcome adversity if he wants to win the championship; the anger he possesses this week needs to be turned into aggression quickly. There is still plenty of time left in the season, but the 57-point margin behind Buescher is sizable. Smith no longer has any margin for error.
Brendan Gaughan: Unlike 2014, Gaughan is without a win at this point in the season. He sits eighth in points, one position worse than last year. However, he has more top 5s (three) and top 10s (10) through 20 events than he did throughout all of 2014. His average finish of 13.6 this year is quite impressive but he has three DNFs, ruining his chance of finishing inside of the top 5 in XFINITY points.
Moving forward, snagging victories would be the best possible outcome left for the No. 62 team. He came extremely close to winning at Auto Club Speedway earlier this year, then followed that up with solid runs at Chicago and Iowa. Iowa was perhaps his best shot, giving Ryan Blaney all he could handle on a series of late restarts before fading back. If Gaughan can have more performances similar to those, he’ll earn that victory and solidify his position at Richard Childress Racing for the long-term.
Ryan Reed: It was expected after a victory in the season opener at Daytona that Reed would be stronger this year. However, he sits 10th in the championship standings with an average finish of 16th – an improvement of just over one position from last season. Shockingly enough, the Daytona victory marks his only top-10 result of a 2015 campaign that’s never gotten off the ground. His ability to keep equipment in one piece has been impressive this year, but after a Watkins Glen crash, Roush Fenway Racing had enough. They made a swap this week to make Chad Norris his crew chief and try and jumpstart performance within the No. 16 team. There are plenty of drivers in line to get a ride with RFR in the years to come; despite solid sponsorship, Reed needs to start clicking away top 10s if he wants to stay with the organization and with Ford. When everyone from veteran Kenny Wallace to youngster Ross Chastain is causing controversy with you as of late….
Brian Scott: “The one that got away” is basically the story of Scott’s career. He’s come close through 195 starts but has never completely sealed the deal on Victory Lane. That should change by the end of the year at the rate he has been driving, though. Scott has shown speed on a weekly basis; however, the No. 2 car has slipped near the conclusion of races too frequently.
Awful luck, in the form of mechanical failures has destroyed Scott’s chances of winning a championship this year. He sits ninth in the standings and has failed to finish four times in 20 starts. However, Scott has proved that he deserves a Cup ride, one that should come next year with an RCR satellite program if all the pieces fall into place. He has an average finish of 14th, a number that is not truly indicative of his performance and has led a respectable 133 laps. If Scott can win a race by the end of the season, he would have a solid shot at working his way near the top 5 in points, perhaps enough for RCR or someone else to move him up to the Cup Series.