All the eyes are on the championship battle, and with nine races left in the Xfinity Series season, no mistakes can be made.
Entering Richmond International Raceway this weekend, all signs point to Chris Buescher as the championship favorite. Holding a 29-point lead after Darlington Raceway last week, the Roush Fenway Racing driver is deemed by many as the team’s next Carl Edwards. His No. 60 Ford has visited Victory Lane twice this season and has a series-high 11 top fives.
Until Darlington, it appeared reigning champion Chase Elliott was on the rebound. In the early summer months, he was third in points but was fighting strong, finishing in the top 10 in 12 of the last 14 races. However, the Lady in Black conquered the No. 9 team, Elliott ending the race three laps down in 24th after experiencing engine issues.
Prior to the engine woes, Elliott’s deficit was only 16 markers behind Buescher. Suddenly, that gap has increased dramatically. He dropped to third in the championship standings, once again behind Ty Dillon, and is 35 points behind Buescher for the title lead. His division-leading 19 top 10s in 24 races have kept him alive to this point, but without any victories on his stat sheet, Elliott has a large margin to overcome if he wants to hoist the championship trophy after the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
The JR Motorsports driver has been everything the team expected this year, if not more so than last. Entering Richmond last year, he had 11 top fives and 18 top 10s.
So what is different this season?
If Elliott’s team can point to anywhere on the schedule where it has lost points, it’s clearly at Daytona and Talladega. Finishing 28th and 37th, respectively, due to wrecks at the first two of the three plate tracks this year was a giant hit for the organization. It appeared he could rebound from the two mulligans to become a champion once again, yet Darlington might have been one too many for the No. 9 team.
At this point last year, Elliott had 874 points, which is the same total that Buescher has entering Richmond. He held a 15-point gap ahead of teammate Regan Smith at the time, but extended it to 42 markers when the season concluded. Even if he can make up 26 points like he did in the final nine events last season, it would not be enough to win the title.
Buescher would essentially need to choke – think the New York Mets in 2007 – and finish outside of the top 10 multiple times to lose the title. Given that each position is one point, the No. 60 car’s average result of 8.2 would be plenty to hold off Dillon and Elliott for the championship.
As the hopes for winning a championship diminish, the outlook on 2016 is likely surreal for the 19-year-old. Replacing four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, Elliott will obviously have high expectations for his team, sponsors and himself, on and off the track.
His passion for racing has led him to becoming a top driver. As he looks to somehow grab the title from Buescher, his tenacity will take over. Being frustrated multiple times this season with top-five finishes is what a team wants and needs to see out of a young driver. As someone of Elliott’s age, I can attest to the fact that he is certainly under more pressure than people can imagine.
But with the season coming to a close, it is first important for Elliott to continue to focus on the title hunt. His Cup ride is secure and waiting. What he needs to do is fight for his pride, backing up those who believe he indeed may be the best driver of his generation.
As it stands, 35 points is not insurmountable, but won’t be easy to cut. But if he can do it, Elliott will certainly have a full head of steam entering his rookie season in Cup next year.
Spanning Richmond to Phoenix at the end of 2014, Elliott finished inside of the top 10 in each race. In the coming weeks, he will have an opportunity to win races, and if he can do that, then he might just win the title.
All of which is to say, don’t count out the guy just yet. And if he ends up on top, perhaps we can expect greater things from Elliott in his rookie Cup season than his predecessor, who you might remember had 11 DNFs in 1993. Yep, 11.