The Round of 12 in the XFINITY Series Chase concludes this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The first two Chase races have produced a tight battle for the remaining six transfer spots. Most eyes will no doubt be on Erik Jones and Ty Dillon, who are currently below the Chase cutoff and seeking either a win or enough points to avoid elimination.
Blake Koch is also right in the thick of the points battle. His position, however, is the opposite of that of Jones and Dillon, in more ways than one. Finishes of 11th at Kentucky and 14th at Dover have placed him seventh in points, four markers above the cut line. If Koch wants to stay in the championship hunt, he will need a good finish at Charlotte. Or, at least, he must not finish too far behind Jones, Dillon, or eighth place Brennan Poole as to lose his points advantage and drop out of a transfer spot. While seeing Koch advance in through the Chase at the expense of Jones or Dillon would be a surprise, it would not be the first time that Koch has surprised XFINITY fans in 2016.
Koch has been a regular presence in the XFINITY Series for six years, but the majority of his races have been with part-time or start and park teams. Last year was the first time Koch truly got to race a full season, driving for Tri-Star Motorsports. After a season of middling finishes, Koch joined Matthew Kaulig’s new team for 2016. Although the team has a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, the pairing of an unproven driver with an unproven team obviously did not guarantee success.
Thus far, things have gone well for Koch and Kaulig Racing. Koch’s average finish is 17.7 (compared to 24.5 last year) and he has scored the first top 10s of his XFINITY career this season. Koch and Ryan Sieg were the only two drivers from single-car operations with smaller budgets to make the Chase. With Sieg currently 11th in points, 10 markers below the cutoff and facing a probable elimination this weekend, Koch has a chance to be the biggest underdog story of the Chase, if he can avoid elimination himself.
Dover could have been a great race for Koch. The No. 11 team used an alternate pit strategy to get off-sequence with the front runners. When other drivers began pitting under green, Koch inherited the race lead, and he held it for 15 laps until a caution came out when Justin Marks crashed. The strategy play would have allowed Koch to pit under caution and lose very little track position. However, the yellow flag came out too close to when Koch had to pit. He ran out of gas and had to visit pit road before it opened, incurring a penalty from NASCAR. Worse yet, Koch could not get the car re-fired after the fueling was complete and lost a lap in the pits. Any chance he had of contending for the win was gone.
Will the points that Koch potentially lost at Dover come back to haunt him if he drops out of the Chase? While elimination would certainly be disappointing for the No. 11 team, the organization has much less to worry about than Jones and Dillon. Both of those drivers may have the speed that they need to knock Koch out, but reaching the Round of 8 was expected from Dillon and especially Jones all along. Recall how, after Sunday’s race at Dover, Jones said it was embarrassing for him and his team to be outside the Chase cutoff at this point. Considering how good Jones has performed this year when everything has gone right, getting bumped from the Chase at the end of the first round would be a huge letdown.
Koch, like Jones, would lose a chance to compete for the championship if he gets eliminated. Yet Koch does not really have an equal chance of winning the championship in the first place. Nor does he have the weight of expectations that Jones surely feels. Just being a part of the Chase means that Koch and Kaulig Racing have had a successful first season together. Playing the role of underdog into the Chase’s second round would only be icing on the cake.
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