The XFINITY Series is meant to help prepare young drivers for NASCAR’s premier division, the Sprint Cup Series. However, with the dominance of Sprint Cup teams and drivers in the series, it has been difficult for young drivers to make a name for themselves in the division. But that’s when Stewart-Haas Racing will come in.
The powerhouse Sprint Cup team is moving to the XFINITY Series in 2017, with an unknown driver and sponsor(s). Joining the likes of Roush Fenway Racing and Team Penske, the move gives Ford yet another team in the sport’s second-tier series as it looks to catch up to Toyota.
As the powerhouse organizations that compete in the series continue to have success in that division, they are continuing to look for ways to win in the Cup Series.
Speaking of those Cup Series powerhouses, it’s almost time for the Chase. With just six races left before the cutoff, pressure is on for winless drivers to get into Victory Lane. For those who have never won a Sprint Cup race and sit just outside of the top 16, now is the perfect time to capitalize on momentum and earn a triumph.
Q: SHR announced it’s going to start an XFINITY Series team. Why are they doing it now? – Jamie R., Charlotte
A: Now is a great time for this team to start a development program. Frankly, why not do it now? If SHR is going to be a household name in NASCAR for years to come, it certainly needs to have a future with younger drivers.
While Cole Custer, the son of SHR executive vice president Joe Custer, has raced for JR Motorsports in the XFINITY Series three times this year, it is uncertain if he will return to the team next year. However, one has to think that Custer does have the upper hand with this move given he’s been backed only by Haas Automation and as of recently, OneMain Financial, which is leaving the sport at season’s end.
But starting an XFINITY Series program within SHR’s shop is a wise move. As the team swaps over to Ford after working with Chevrolet, it will be a nice way to welcome in the new manufacturer. Having the XFINITY Series program will essentially help create a partnership with the other two major Ford teams, and even smaller ones such as Richard Petty Motorsports, which works with Biagi-DenBeste Racing in the series.
The move does come at an interesting time, though, mainly because team co-owner Tony Stewart had just been speaking about the lack of a development driver within the team. Obviously, Custer is considered to be under the SHR banner, but he is no where near ready for Sprint Cup competition given he’s 18 years old and had a mere 30 Truck Series starts under his belt.
However, the opportunity to expand SHR is one that is doable because of the swap to Ford. Without the switch to the blue oval, let’s face it, the team might have never moved to the XFINITY Series. But now, it can do so in an efficient way, especially with the announcement coming in July, giving the team plenty of time to prepare for 2017 and sign a driver/sponsor combination to lead its effort.
Maybe, just maybe, we’ll even see Stewart races in the XFINITY Series at some point in the future for SHR.
Q: The Chase is rapidly approaching. Who can make it into the Chase that isn’t in the top 16 already? – James K., Boston
A: It is going to be really close come the checkered flag at Richmond in a few weeks. Frankly, things are bound to shake up with how everything is falling into place as of late.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. missing multiple races is obviously the biggest plot twist we could have expected, but another is the emergence of the young drivers. Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson are each inside of the Chase Grid after Indianapolis. Think about that for a minute: three of NASCAR’s rising stars have a shot to win the title in 2016.
As debated numerous times in the past on this site, who is the future figurehead of NASCAR now that both Jeff Gordon and Stewart are hanging up their helmets? Could it all start by making the Chase for one of these drivers?
Currently, Elliott is in a very stable position, sitting well inside of the Chase will 11 top 10s, even while being in a slump since Sonoma. Dillon is having a stellar year, setting career-highs in top 5s (three) and top 10s (nine) through only 20 races. As for Larson, he is on the edge right now, with four top 5s and six top 10s, hanging onto a Chase position by the fringes.
While Elliott and Dillon should feel comfortable with their Chase chances, Larson on the other hand should be feeling rather uneasy. If it weren’t for Earnhardt being out, he would be on the outside looking in. The No. 42 team has been quite inconsistent in 2016, going from running in the top 5 one week to barely in the top 20 the next.
Remember, if Earnhardt comes back before the Chase, he will likely be granted a Chase waiver, especially since everyone who is hurt has been granted one in the past. If he can win a race before the Chase begins, he will likely be in the playoffs, kicking one driver out of the Chase grid. But of course, that is only if he can win one.
Let’s not forget, Watkins Glen is coming up too. AJ Allmendinger certainly has that event circled on his calendar. The 2014 winner of the Upstate New York road course contest is looking to make the Chase once again, and must have a win in order to do so with an average finish of 19.6 this year. But he cannot have any issues like last season, forcing him to finish a disappointing 24th after winning the pole and leading 21 laps.
Rookie Ryan Blaney could also work his way into the Chase. He is only 22 points behind Larson and was in the Chase grid until his wreck at Indianapolis. The rookie has six top 10s this year and has been consistently competing for top-15 finishes on a weekly basis.
There are a few drivers who have potential to sneak into the Chase grid, including the three Roush drivers. However, it will certainly take a triumph to bring one of these drivers into NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, possibly solidifying the future with their race team.
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