NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Eyes on XFINITY: Get Your Chase Spot While You Still Can

The drivers and teams of NASCAR’s XFINITY Series have reached the halfway point of the regular season, with 13 races down and 13 to go.  For the next few months, there will be an increasing amount of focus on who is in and who is out of the postseason as the inaugural XFINITY Chase approaches.  So where do each of the championship contenders stand right now, and how might the weeks leading up to the Chase play out as the field gets set?

At this point, three drivers have effectively locked themselves in to the Chase by winning a race, and they all took the checkered flag in pretty spectacular fashion.  Erik Jones was the first to strike by outfoxing Sprint Cup regulars Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch on a late restart at Bristol.  Jones claimed victory in Thunder Valley and picked up a second win several weeks later at Dover.  At Talladega, Elliott Sadler dove below Joey Logano to take the top spot on the final lap.  He held the lead just long enough until NASCAR threw a race-ending caution flag for a multi-car incident.  Finally, Daniel Suarez made an impressive late-race charge last weekend at Michigan, passing Kyle Busch on the final lap to take his first XFINITY win.  As long as those three drivers show up to race every weekend and stay in the top 30 in points, all they have to focus on is getting more wins before the Chase starts.

There are also a handful of drivers who are in a good position to qualify for the Chase on points.  That group includes Sadler’s teammate Justin Allgaier, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Brennan Poole, Roush Fenway Racing’s Darrell Wallace Jr, and all three of Richard Childress Racing’s full-time NXS drivers: Ty Dillon, Brandon Jones and Brendan Gaughan.

2016 Atlanta NXS DAkoda Armstrong car Matthew T Thacker NKP
Dakoda Armstrong…you in or out? (credit: Matthew T. Thacker – NKP)

The real battle is going to be for the final three Chase spots, which are currently occupied by Ryan Reed, Blake Koch, and Ryan Sieg.  Those three drivers will have to keep a close eye on competitors like Ross Chastain, Jeremy Clements, and Dakoda Armstrong, who are all outside the Chase right now but within striking distance of the top 12.

Essentially, the XFINITY Chase is not going to take shape in the same way that the Sprint Cup Chase will, despite the fact that both divisions use similar requirements for eligibility.  The Sprint Cup Chase conversation will continue to revolve around winners.  The last four Cup races have seen four different drivers win for the first time in 2016.  That brings the yearly total to ten different drivers with eleven races to go before the Sprint Cup Chase.  Chances are that there will be a few more new winners in that time, but probably not the 16 needed to fill out the Chase field solely on winners.  Therefore, winning a race becomes both the easiest way to guarantee a Chase berth that should prove to be relatively safe.

The XFINITY Series, however, presents a different challenge to its competitors.  With only three winners occupying 12 Chase spots, it might seem like the NXS Chase is more wide open than its Sprint Cup counterpart.  However, the opposite is actually true for two reasons.  The first is that there is not a guarantee that any new NXS regulars will win one of the next 13 races.  The second half of the regular season does have more standalone events for the series than the first, but there have not been many XFINITY regulars who look like they have the speed to consistently challenge for wins.  Moreover, NXS “regulars” like Alex Bowman and Sam Hornish Jr. are part-time drivers who are not Chase eligible but could pick up wins on days when the Cup drivers do not.  Wins will remain hard to come by, especially for anyone who does not drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

The second reason is that the group of drivers who have established large points cushions over 13th place are unlikely to lose that advantage.  The RCR drivers are a good example.  Gaughan is currently seventh in points, the lowest of the three, but maintains a 110 point gap over Chastain in 13th.  That is almost three races worth of points, an amount that Gaughan is unlikely to lose over a 13-race stretch.  While it is possible that any of the top ten points drivers without a win could have a run of bad luck and see a gap like that close, it is not very probable.  Turning back to RCR again, Gaughan has finished outside the top 15 only twice, and 18th is his worst finish overall.  Dillon has also swept the top 20 this year, while Brandon Jones has just one finish worse than 18th.  For the Childress drivers, as well as Allgaier, Poole, and Wallace, having a big points cushion is not as safe as having a win, but it works the same way for practical purposes.

Moreover, the drivers who stand a good chance at making the Chase points-wise all drive for reasonably well-funded teams.  An organization like RCR, Roush-Fenway, or Ganassi has the resources to better avoid bad finishes than all of the XFINITY-only teams.  Underdogs like Sieg, Chastain, and Clements have done well to stay in Chase contention this year, but asking those drivers and their teams to make up two or three race’s worth of points in 13 weeks is a practically impossible task.

In the coming weeks, the real battle to be in the NXS Chase will not be focused on who has won.  Instead, expect the XFINITY Chase to play out more like NASCAR’s second version of the Chase, which the Cup Series used from 2007-2010.  That was the version that took the top 12 in points after 26 races, so the critical action always took place around the drivers who were 12th and 13th in points.  Likewise, the last three spots in the 2016 XFINITY Chase are the only ones left that are really up for grabs.  With most of the big names having secured wins or big points cushions, the underdogs hoping to just get in the postseason will be the stars of the show.

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