Richard Childress Racing has three drivers who qualified for the new XFINITY Series Chase, and after the first race of the postseason, all three drivers find themselves in a different position.
Brendan Gaughan got out of Kentucky the best, finishing sixth and leaving the Bluegrass State with a nine-point cushion over the Chase cut line. A nine-point gap means that one bad race could still derail Gaughan’s championship hopes, but right now, he is good enough to be third place in the overall points standings.
Meanwhile, Ty Dillon and Brandon Jones are in much tougher positions. Jones was the first Chaser to encounter major trouble last weekend after getting tangled up with Justin Marks. Though Dillon ran a strong race, leading 47 of 200 laps, a late-race crash with fellow Chaser Erik Jones sent Dillon to the garage. The result is that Dillon and Brandon Jones are currently last in the Chase standings, 15 points behind Blake Koch, who holds the last transfer spot.
Dillon and Jones drive for the same team and are the same number of points below the Chase cutoff. Does that mean that they will have the same strategy over the next two weeks? Not necessarily. Although Dillon has not won in 2016, he has shown top-5 speed from time to time. He has seven such finishes this year, and Kentucky could have easily been an eighth. Dillon might be in the hole now, but fans have some evidence to suggest that he has the capability to run well enough to reach a transfer spot.
With Jones, however, the evidence regarding whether or not he can make up enough points to get above the Chase cut line tells a different story. Jones has been able to accumulate decent finishes throughout 2016. Coming into the Chase, he had 11 top-10 finishes, yet none of those top 5s. If Jones is going to advance out of the Round of 12, he will need a win or at the very least finishes good enough to gain points on his competitors. The problem is that the No. 33 team does not appear to be capable of performing at that level. Jones might have to use a go for broke-type strategy to advance, which would be very different than Dillon’s approach.
So what is RCR to do? For the next two weeks, the team is going to have a split agenda. Gaughan will be trying to protect his points position, Dillon will try to claw his way back into a transfer spot, and Jones might wind up racing with a win or bust mentality. Multi-car teams tend to function best when everybody goes into a race weekend with the same mindset. But after Kentucky, that will not be possible for RCR.
Moreover, there is probably going to be a good deal of intra-team competition within RCR. Dillon’s plans for next season remain unclear, but he seems to be getting closer to a full-time Sprint Cup Series ride. The 2016 season could be his last chance to win an XFINITY championship, and the pressure will be on Dillon to avoid an early exit from the Chase. Should he advance at the expense of one of his teammates, it would be difficult for RCR as a whole. Most fans probably expected the organization to put two or all three drivers in the Round of 8. Dillon, however, has to look out for himself first, even if his future is with RCR.
Gaughan, meanwhile, will apparently return to the team in 2017, despite reports from earlier in the year that he was considering retirement after this season. If the Chase standings stay the same as they are now through the end of the Round of 12, losing Dillon and Jones would be a huge blow to RCR’s championship hopes. That said, the elimination of both of his teammates could be a great thing for Gaughan. If the Las Vegas native winds up as the last Childress driver standing at the end of the first round, the No. 62 team will be able to play with house money. All of RCR’s energy will get funneled into winning a championship with Gaughan, who has not had a great opportunity to win a title since his Truck Series days.
Either way, RCR will be interesting to watch during the next few races. Will one of its drivers wind up being the beneficiary of the others’ misfortune? Or can the team maintain a united front and get all of its drivers to the Round of 8?
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