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Eyes on XFINITY: 5 Things to Watch for in 2017

Coming off a season that saw the inaugural Chase for the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship, year two of the format has a lot of hype behind it.

Over the off-season, NASCAR announced enhancements that would be implemented throughout the top three touring divisions, not just the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The enhancements will reward teams throughout the course of every race, splitting up each individual event into three segments. Of course, that starts this weekend: the season’s opening race at Daytona International Speedway.

Many faces have remained the same in the XFINITY Series, with the exception of 2016 champion Daniel Suarez, as well as Erik Jones and Ty Dillon, all moving up to the Cup Series.

But why think of the past, when the XFINITY Series is the place “where names are made”?

How the enhancement changes will effect the XFINITY Series

Much like the other top touring divisions, the same drivers constantly run toward the front of the field. Last season, only three XFINITY Series regulars won races: Suarez, Jones and Elliott Sadler. Combined, the three drivers triumphed in 10 of the 33 races, each having at least 20 top-10 finishes. Adding Justin Allgaier, the fourth of the Championship 4 drivers from Homestead-Miami Speedway, those four drivers were the only teams to have at least 20 top 10s.

Though points are now rewarded throughout the race, it likely will not make much of a difference. Though the XFINITY Series has some new competition with William Byron, Daniel Hemric and Tyler Reddick moving up from the Camping World Truck Series, they still have to prove they can get it done in the next tier of motorsports.

Not all NASCAR fans may understand the new rules just yet, but give it a couple months and see how it changes the intensity in each of the three series. The XFINITY Series will benefit from NASCAR’s changes.

Veteran Cup Series drivers limited to 10 races

This is an overdue change to the XFINITY Series, as it has often been labeled as the Kyle Busch Show. Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, he has won 75 of the 220 events in which he has competed. And in each season, he’s competed in at least 15 races.

However, though this seemed like a good plan when NASCAR announced it, the bigger organizations will still be able to sway the results. When Busch doesn’t compete in the No. 18 Toyota, other Cup Series drivers will fill in. Other teams such as Richard Childress Racing and Team Penske will also have Cup Series stars in the XFINITY Series on a weekly basis.

At the end of the day, limiting Cup Series drivers to competing in only 10 XFINITY Series races may take away wins for some drivers but allow other Cup Series drivers to pull into Victory Lane. Just because a few drivers might get their schedules cut doesn’t necessarily mean XFINITY regulars are suddenly going to start showing up in the winner’s circle more often.

It’s part of the system, but the bigger teams may benefit from the change regardless.

JR Motorsports the team to beat

2016 Atlanta NXS Elliott Sadler car Russell LaBounty NKP
Elliot Sadler will be one of the favorites for the XFINITY title, driving for JR Motorsports (Photo: Russell LaBounty NKP)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has steadily built quite the XFINITY Series organization, this year fielding four full-time teams. Coming up just short in the championship battle at Homestead, Sadler and Allgaier are returning for their second season at JRM. Added to the lineup this season is Michael Annett, who spent the last three seasons full-time in the Cup Series. Byron is coming off a season in which he set a Truck Series rookie record of seven victories, shattering Kurt Busch’s 2000 record.

2016 rejuvenated Sadler. Since returning to the XFINITY Series full-time in 2012, Sadler had his most consistent season last year, recording 29 top-10 finishes, one shy of the series record. Following the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the 41-year-old was devastated, feeling as though he let Earnhardt down.

“When you have to look your friend in the eye and feel like you disappointed them or let them down because you weren’t able to deliver the trophy to them like you really wanted to, it makes it tough,” Sadler told Frontstretch over the off-season. “It hurts not being a NASCAR champion to this point. I felt like honestly this season was the best I’ve been prepared physically and mentally that I’ve ever been for a race.”

Though Allgaier didn’t post a victory in 2016, it was his most consistent season. For the first time in his career he had double digit top-five finishes (13) and a career-high 27 top top-10 finishes.

Previously, Annett spent five full seasons in the XFINITY Series, spanning from 2009-2013, missing eight races in 2013 due to a concussion. His best points effort came in 2012 with Richard Petty Motorsports, finishing fifth in the championship standings. He has seven top-five finishes in 163 career races.

The No. 88 car will be fielded part-time with a rotating panel of Cup Series drivers, including Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne.

Rookies 

Though Jones had technically competed in 26 XFINITY Series races before being labeled as a rookie, he won an XFINITY Series-high four races in 2016, the most victories for any rookie since Carl Edwards in 2005 (five).

It’s possible that a rookie can be as competitive as Jones was in his regular season. Matt Tifft is the lone XFINITY Series regular for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017, replacing the reigning champion, Suarez.

Byron and Hemric have moved up full-time to the XFINITY Series, bringing along Spencer Gallagher, who has brought GMS Racing to the next division of NASCAR. Cole Custer has also been named new to the series with Stewart-Haas Racing’s first XFINITY Series ride.

In part-time roles this season, Reddick will be piloting the No. 42 Chevrolet, sharing the ride with Kyle Larson. Ben Kennedy is expected to drive in nine races for Richard Childress Racing, while Brandon Brown has 10 confirmed races.

These drivers are taking the next step in their careers in advancing to the XFINITY Series. It is quite possible that all the rookie drivers running full-time will compete for the championship, as they have joined some of the top teams in the sport.

Never Too Early to Think Championship

Before the final caution flew in last year’s XFINITY Series championship race, the Championship 4 were running in positions one through four. And who’s to think it won’t be like that this season?

Cup Series drivers with more than five years of full-time experience in the Cup Series are prohibited from running during the XFINITY Series Chase. This will allow for the championship-eligible drivers to battle it out for the championship with no interference.

It puts the one-race, 300-mile event back into the teams’ hands, but getting to that race is key. The playoff format is the same as last year, though regular season bonus points for winning a race will transfer from round-to-round until Homestead.

However, teams must race to get to Homestead, not get by on points.

There will be favorites for the championship: Sadler, Allgaier and Byron. But what about the returning drivers who made the Chase last season but are a bit overlooked coming into 2017? Blake Koch,  Brandon Jones, Brendan GaughanBrennan Poole, Ryan Reed and Darrell Wallace Jr. are all drivers who are returning with their respective teams, looking to end up in title contention at Homestead.

Between Daytona and Homestead, 38 weeks, 33 races and 266 days will pass, but the goal remains the same for every team: win the XFINITY Series title.

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