It’s doubtful that anybody would have predicted this two races go: Erik Jones and Ty Dillon both sitting outside the cut line in the first round of the inaugural NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase. Down the stretch? Perhaps. But as strong as those teams have run, to see them in trouble just two races in is surprising.
The two crashed together late in the first race at Kentucky, and here they are. They’re both chasing rookie Brennan Poole, who is currently sitting eighth in points. While Poole hasn’t been spectacular this season, he does have 15 top 10 finishes and a solid 12.5 average finish during the Chase, the kind of consistency that might not advance one in Cup but could very well advance one in the lower series.
Dillon sits three points behind Poole, and Jones four. Either could win this weekend at Charlotte to guarantee advancement, but with five Cup drivers in the field it’s unlikely that will happen even despite Jones’ mile and a half victory at Chicagoland earlier this season.
Obviously, two drivers in front of Dillon and Jones could have issues and both could point their way in. History at the Cup level, however, suggests otherwise: at least one of these two drivers will miss the second round. Which driver is in more trouble?
The only two drivers that know they’ll be continuing on in the title hunt are Daniel Suarez and Elliott Sadler. Third through 12th are separated by 32 points, or about a single race’s worth once you factor in start and parking teams. This should be good news for Jones, right? After all, he’s won four times this season and is driving for the best team in the series in Joe Gibbs Racing.
Jones could very well join the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — all of whom made early exits in their Chases at some point during the past two seasons. Because equipment does matter – but only to a point. Good finishes also come down to driver talent (which Jones has) and luck (which he has … sometimes).
You see, as good as Jones is, he has four finishes in the last seven races of 16th or worse, and those aren’t the kind of numbers that an advancement make. Jones needed solid top 10s to not worry going into Charlotte, and he has a 16th and a 28th. Now he’ll need a top 5 to have a realistic shot at moving forward, especially considering Dillon has the better average finish at 1.5-mile tracks this season.
Add in the fact that Jones finished 31st earlier this season in Concord, and he should be concerned about this weekend. It doesn’t help that there are five Cup drivers in the field – although it should be noted JGR teammates and NXS interlopers Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth are all sitting the race out. With names like Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon in the race, though, that’s three top-5 spots right there. Jones has the car and the talent to fill one of the other two, but if Dillon shows up anywhere near Jones in the finishing order, it might be too little to keep his title hopes alive.
Ty Dillon had a great outing at Dover, riding a second-place run back into the playoff hunt. But let’s not fool ourselves, his situation is still dire.
Dillon entered the inaugural Chase for the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship after a winless regular season, riding consistency in the form of seven top 5s and 14 top 10s.
For most of the Chase grid, those kind of results would be enough to make the Round of 8 with ease. However, Dillon finds himself in a hole after a crash at Kentucky Speedway.
The North Carolina native enters the cutoff race for the Round of 12 sitting ninth, three points behind rookie Brennan Poole and four points behind underdog Blake Koch for the final transfer position to the next round.
A quick glance at those standings would indicate that Dillon might be in a good position, but there are a few issues working against him.
The biggest hurdle for Dillon comes in the form of the rookie he crashed with in the Bluegrass State. Four-time 2016 winner Erik Jones sits just one point behind the Richard Childress Racing driver entering Charlotte, meaning whichever of the two drivers finishes better this weekend will likely lead the other in the standings.
Unfortunately for Dillon, the year-long trend favors Jones. While Dillon’s 12.2 average finish at the 1.5-mile oval trumps Jones’ 16.0, Joe Gibbs Racing’s consistent speed means the Michigan native is sure to be a contender this weekend. Dillon isn’t such a sure thing.
If Jones outruns Dillon, then Dillon will need to beat out both Koch and Poole to advance.
Possible? Certainly. Likely? Debatable.
Dillon’s 10.6 average finish is more than enough to power the 24-year-old past Koch’s underdog Kaulig Racing team. However, Poole’s consistent 12.1 average result indicates that Dillon will have some work to do.
Throw in a handful of Sprint Cup Series veterans fighting for the front of the field, and the younger brother of Austin Dillon may need some of the luck the elder brother found in the first round of the Cup Chase to keep his championship hopes alive.
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