This weekend’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Chicagoland Speedway has the potential to be a very unique race. For the vast majority of drivers, points do not matter.
In fact, there has arguably never been a race in XFINITY Series history where points mattered less. Even in instances where the points leader locked up the championship with several races to spare (Kevin Harvick in 2006 and Carl Edwards in 2007 come to mind), other drivers were still competing for the best possible points position. Moreover, the XFINITY Series used a season-long championship format where points position strictly lined up with all points accumulated.
This season, everything has changed. With the Chase set to begin the following weekend at Kentucky Speedway, the points for the 12 championship contenders will be reset after the Chicagoland race. 10 of those contenders are already locked in to the postseason. As long as they fire up their engines on Saturday afternoon, there is no real difference between a second, 10th, 20th or 40th-place finish.
If an XFINITY regular were to win at Chicagoland, he would get three bonus points and a guaranteed Chase berth (if not already locked in). Surely somebody like Erik Jones or Elliott Sadler would love more bonus points as a little extra security for the Round of 12. Meanwhile, drivers like Justin Allgaier or Brendan Gaughan, who have not won at all this year, could get a leg up on the competition and some momentum by visiting victory lane. So why not go for broke? The top 10 drivers in points have practically nothing to lose.
For that matter, the drivers much farther down the standings do not have anything to gain from running 15th as far as the championship is concerned. Ross Chastain, Ryan Preece, Ray Black Jr., B.J. McLeod and Joey Gase are all still Chase eligible, but winning at Chicagoland is their only ticket to the postseason. It is very unlikely that any of those drivers, who have a combined one top-10 finish this year (a 10th, courtesy of Preece at Darlington), could win. Yet if there was ever a time to try, it is now.
There are only four drivers who must keep an eye on points during Saturday’s race. Blake Koch is 11th in the standings, 23 points above the Chase cutoff. Ryan Sieg has the 12th and final spot 20 points to the good of the cut line. Meanwhile, Dakoda Armstrong is the first driver out, 20 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements could also get in on points. He is 29 markers behind Sieg.
Those four drivers will have a battle of the underdogs for the last two Chase spots. Still, do not expect a lot of movement. In 2016, the most points Armstrong has ever gained on Sieg in one race is 19, which happened last month at Bristol. Armstrong has never gained 23 points on Koch in one race this season. Meanwhile, Clements needs nine points on Armstrong, and either 29 on Sieg or 32 on Koch. Unfortunately for Clements, he has only scored more than 32 points in three races this year. Essentially, Koch or Sieg would have to have a problem that results in a bad finish to give Armstrong and Clements a realistic shot.
The best way forward, then, for anyone outside the Chase is to win. While getting to Victory Lane on speed alone has been a difficult task for anyone not in a Joe Gibbs Racing car, this race will lend itself to more outlandish strategy plays than usual.
It is not all that unusual to see surprising winners and finishes at Chicagoland. Justin Labonte got the only NXS win of his career there in 2004. Casey Mears pulled off the same feat two years later. But Chicagoland’s most memorable surprise finish probably happened in June, 2011. Race leader Carl Edwards ran out of gas with half a lap to go and got passed by Justin Allgaier, who then ran out of gas himself a few seconds later. Allgaier coasted back to the finish line and picked up his second career XFINITY win.
Is there anyone in this year’s field who could earn an upset victory? With bonus points and potentially a Chase spot on the line, this is one race in which everyone should be swinging for the fences.
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