Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Mailbox: Can Anyone Beat Chase Elliott for the Regular Season Championship?

[Chase] Elliott, [Ryan] Blaney or [Ross] Chastain, who wins the regular season championship? Shirley S., Hartford, Conn.

There’s a bit of a three-car breakaway at the top of the points standings. After Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Quaker State 400, Chase Elliott leads his old friend Ryan Blaney by 47 points, with 2022’s breakout star and Food Lion pugilist Ross Chastain just three points further back. Those three are the only drivers within one race’s worth of the lead (60 points, including stages) with seven races remaining in the regular season. 

It’s the boring choice for sure, but my money is on Elliott to maintain his current points lead and take the regular season title back home to Dawsonville, Ga. 

Over the last several weeks, Elliott has gone from the guy quietly leading the points to the guy leading the points very loudly and obviously, culminating in the win at his home track in Atlanta that made him the only three-time race winner so far in 2022. The narrative was “how has nobody noticed Chase Elliott running so consistently,” but after two wins and a runner-up finish in the last three races, plus a streak of four consecutive stage wins, the story has suddenly become: “Can anybody stop Chase Elliott?” And I just don’t think so.

Blaney might have the best chance. After all, he really heated up at this time last year and is the defending winner of the upcoming races at Michigan and Daytona. Blaney is the only driver to match Elliott’s total of five stage wins, but has not won a points-paying race yet in 2020. In fact, Blaney is feeling additional pressure. If he fails to take the regular season title from Elliott, and there are three new winners, (say, Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell and Kevin Harvick), the No. 12 team could miss the playoffs. 

But the biggest demerit in Blaney’s column is the little horse on the front of his race car. Of the top nine lap leaders in 2022, Blaney in fourth is the only Ford driver. While his Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Austin Cindric both have wins, as does Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe, the Next Gen Mustang has not shown the same speed, particularly on aero-heavy intermediate tracks and road courses, as the Chevys and Toyotas. Michigan International Speedway, Pocono Raceway, Watkins Glen International and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course will likely all pose a challenge to the Blue Oval brigade, and for that reason I can’t see Blaney walking off with the hardware.

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Then what about Chastain? He’s shown a pretty remarkable ability to always be up front in the so-called wild card races, winning at Circuit of the Americas and Talladega Superspeedway earlier this year, With two road courses and a superspeedway between now and the playoffs, and Chastain behind the wheel of a slick Chevy Camaro, you’d think the points title is wide open. 

Yes, Chastain has been good on road courses and superspeedways this year, and he’s even got momentum on those track types: he rides a streak of two top fives in a row at Road America and Atlanta. The problem is Elliott beat him convincingly in both races. Chastain’s canny ability to finish on the outskirts of the top five every week in his first season for Trackhouse Racing Team has been the biggest surprise of 2022, and when the other teams struggled to get a handle on the Next Gen cars, that would have been enough. Right now, the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 is the class of the field, and even when they don’t have the best car (see Nashville Superspeedway), the team and driver can execute their way to victory. For the first time all season, Chastain isn’t the hottest driver in the garage. 

This may not bother Chastain and the Trackhouse team. Trackhouse owner Justin Marks has said many times that he isn’t concerned with championships just yet, rather focusing on individual race performance. To his credit, despite a series of on-track run-ins, Chastain’s results haven’t dipped at all, Elliott’s have just improved. 

Elliott, Blaney and Chastain have been consistently running towards the front all season, but since Nashville the No. 9 team has been consistently running at the front, and that will make all the difference. 

Is Zane Smith a good option for the [No.] 8 car in 2024? Harry D., Plano, Texas.

Well, the season has definitely gotten silly. With the surprise announcement Tuesday (July 12) that Tyler Reddick will be joining Toyota and 23XI Racing for 2024, the social media speculation machine whipped itself into a frenzy trying to decide who should take over Reddick’s current Richard Childress Racing seat in 18 months (if not sooner). Aside from the usual collection of NASCAR Xfinity Series frontrunners and respected Cup Series journeymen, one name has stuck out: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series points leader Zane Smith

After dipping his toe in the water with a single Truck start in 2018 behind the wheel of a DGR-Crosley Toyota, Smith took a part-time deal to drive JR Motorsports’ No. 8 in the Xfinity Series in 2019. The Huntington Beach, Calif. native made 10 starts that year, scoring just two top fives before dropping back down to the Truck Series for 2020. Over the next two years, Smith would win three times for GMS Racing, twice making the Championship 4 and finishing runner-up on both occasions. 

Surprisingly, Smith jumped ship from Chevrolet to Ford before the start of 2022, joining up with Front Row Motorsports to wheel the No. 38. The move paid off with a career year so far: three wins and the regular season title all but locked up, as well as a 17th-place run in his Cup Series debut as he covered for COVID-19-stricken Chris Buescher

The fact that RFK Racing called him up when it needed a reserve driver would indicate that Ford Racing thinks highly of Smith as a future talent, and beating Cup champion teammate and part-owner Brad Keselowski on his first time out certainly helped his case for the Cup Series. 

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The problem is, after thoroughly dominating the Truck Series, where does Smith go next? RFK Racing and Team Penske have shut down their Xfinity Series programs in recent years, and Stewart-Haas Racing has dropped down to a single car, the No. 98 of Riley Herbst, who brings sponsorship and has shown real signs of improvement in 2022. RSS Racing, owned by the Sieg family, and SS-Green Light Racing, winners at Auto Club Speedway this season with Cole Custer, are the only other Ford-backed operations in the Xfinity Series, and while both teams have run toward the front this season, neither has the budget to really make a run at the title. 

Should Smith leave Ford Racing? With Austin Cindric jumping into the Cup Series this season, he is its most promising lower series driver, so it’s unlikely Ford will want to let him go. He could pull a Reddick and try to set himself up for the open RCR seat by joining RCR’s Xfinity program, and there may also be open seats in the Chevrolet family at JRM or Kaulig Racing depending on where the Cup dominos fall. 

Still, by far the most likely outcome is that one of Ford’s Cup teams brings back their Xfinity program or SHR expands to a second car. When it comes to the Ford Motor Company, money isn’t really an issue, and with Keselowski likely thinking about retirement in the next few years, Smith could find himself the clear frontrunner for the famous No. 6 sooner rather than later. 

Smith will likely need at least a year in Xfinity before a contending Cup team (RCR or anyone else) takes a chance on him, but I have no doubt that Ford is willing to help him make that move. I predict we’ll be hearing a lot more about Smith in the years to come.  

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