Halfway through the 2016 XFINITY Series season, there are two drivers who stand out as the biggest championship contenders. Those drivers are the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez. Both are among the lucky few regulars who have won a race this year. Jones has won twice, at Bristol and Dover. Suarez, meanwhile, earned his first victory at Michigan. In addition to winning, both drivers have displayed excellent speed during races and especially in qualifying.
However, that is where the similarities end. Through the first 17 races of the year, Jones has finished well a number of times, earned some bad ones and had very few in between. Suarez, though, has lots of good finishes and only one bad race. A series of year-long patterns have produced these finishes for Jones and Suarez. If those patterns continue, will one of them have an advantage over the other in the Chase?
In the case of Jones, he and the No. 20 team have more raw speed than anyone else, even Suarez. Jones is the only regular who has led over 200 laps this year. In fact, nobody else has broken the 100 lap barrier. Jones also has a series-leading 10 top 5 finishes. For someone running their first full-time season in the XFINITY Series, having a top 5 finish in over half the races is pretty impressive.
So why is it that Jones is fourth in points, only 11 markers ahead of Brendan Gaughan, who has a mere two top 5s? Simple. When Jones has not run well, his finishes have been way off. Crashes, pit road mistakes and mechanical failures have bitten Jones from time to time this year. As a result, six of his seven non top 5s are finishes of 15th or worse, and three of those were outside the top 30. The only race this year in which Jones earned a top 10 but not a top 5 is the night race at Daytona earlier this month, where he finished 10th.
Meanwhile, Suarez is the season-long points leader, as he has been for most of the year. He has one less win and two less top 5s than Jones. However, what Suarez lacks in excellent finishes, he makes up for with consistency. An impressive 14 top-10 finishes, tied with Elliott Sadler for the most this season, is the real indicator of Suarez’s strength. The three races in which he did not post a top 10 are the three races in which he either crashed or spun out. In two of those events, he still rebounded to finish in the top 16. Just like Jones, Suarez’s only outlier race is Daytona earlier this month, where he crashed out and finished 32nd.
If these trends continue for the rest of the regular season, expect Jones to emerge as the biggest title favorite. He is officially locked into the Chase after this past weekend, so consistency will not matter for the No. 20 team. It should not be a surprise to see Jones as the first to clinch a Chase spot anyway. He was a popular pick to win the championship, and he has certainly met the high expectations of fans this year.
However, consistency will be important in the Chase. If Jones wants to keep his title-favorite status, then the No. 20 team will have to become more like the No. 19 team.
Suppose that Jones loses an engine in the first race of the Chase at Kentucky Speedway and finishes 35th. Also suppose that Suarez finishes fifth in that same event. Jones has the capability to finish well the next two weeks, but what if he needed to win to avoid elimination? Victories have been hard to come by for every XFINITY regular. It would be far from certain that Jones would still be able to advance.
In contrast, Suarez and the No. 19 team can almost guarantee a top-10 finish every week. Things can always go wrong for them too, but Suarez has shown that he can avoid bad finishes and rebound from mistakes very well. As much as NASCAR tries to promote the “winning is everything” philosophy in the Chase, the most important thing is really being able to score more points than four other drivers, especially if Sprint Cup regulars keep visiting in Victory Lane. Suarez has shown the greatest ability to produce points, and that makes him the toughest competitor once the Chase begins.
Of course, all of that is assuming that Jones and Suarez keep performing as they have thus far. The Chase could be an entirely different story. Yet barring some big change, Jones will still be fast and could pick up another victory or two before the Chase begins. Suarez, however, will not be far behind, and Jones could wind up trailing his teammate in the Chase if his boom or bust season continues.
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