Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: How Could Mid-Ohio Impact Chase Picture?

How Could Mid-Ohio Impact XFINITY Chase Picture?

Entering this, the road course swing of the XFINITY Series season, the Chase grid still hasn’t settled down. Through 20 races, that precious cutoff zone stands at a massive two points between 12th-place Blake Koch and 13th-place Ross Chastain. With numbers like that, it could be an either/or on which one could top the other before the regular season finale at Richmond International Raceway next month.

What I’m looking at expands both ends beyond the cutoff line. As the series approaches road course number two this Saturday, which guys are safe and which need to earn points or win?

Starting with the positives, guys like Ty Dillon, Justin Allgaier, Brendan Gaughan, Brennan Poole, Brandon Jones and Darrell Wallace, Jr. are sure fits to make this Chase on points. With the latter sitting 77 points above 13th spot, they should all be good to go, giving there isn’t a rash of new and surprising winners in these final five races.

2016 Atlanta NXS Blake Koch Nigel Kinrade NKP
Blake Koch has the big target on his back, occupying the 12th and final Chase spot. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade NKP)

Meanwhile, behind 13th-place Chastain is Dakoda Armstrong, the JGL Racing driver who gained ground with a fifth-place finish at Iowa Speedway with Joe Gibbs Racing. He sits only nine points behind 12th spot, one underdog feat for the Gregg Mixon-owned team, which has only four top 10s in its 269-race lifetime.

Jeremy Clements and JJ Yeley drive for two more smaller teams that can still make the Chase on points, as they sit 14 and 38 points behind 12th, respectively. For Yeley, he could make the Chase despite racing for two teams (albeit part of the same organization) in 2016. The No. 44 driver hits me as a road course guy who can potentially grab a strong run toward this Chase battle. However, he would need a waiver to make it in at all; he did not attempt the first race of the season.

Behind the No. 44, however, it’s all about wins. Garrett Smithley is 17th and sits 93 points back (but, like Yeley, would need a waiver after not attempting the season opener), while JD Motorsports teammate Ryan Preece is 110 markers back.

Is Sam Hornish, Jr. in the No. 2 a Perfect Storm?

As a part of Richard Childress Racing’s expansion effort in the XFINTY Series, this week will see Sam Hornish, Jr. back in the No. 2 Chevrolet for Saturday’s standalone event at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Though AJ Allmendinger was originally picked to take the No. 2 spot, Hornish will, instead, make his return to his home track in Ohio, his first road course XFINITY start since 2014.

Hornish can easily be the guy to beat, as he has already proven to be in top shape, leading 183 laps and winning this season at Iowa Speedway.

Plus, going back two years to his last road race, he won the pole at Mid-Ohio. The year prior, he finished third. At the sister road courses of Road America and Watkins Glen, the 37-year-old racked up two poles and four top-5 finishes in only six starts.

In a car that is rarely seen outside the top 5 on a weekly basis, Hornish may have found his best opportunity to win again.

Will Richard Petty Motorsports Turn Things Around?

While it may be too late to turn things around in time for a couple Chase bids this season, Richard Petty Motorsports is simply out to make something of the 2016 Sprint Cup Series year while it’s still in session.

From the get-go, with drivers Aric Almirola and Brian Scott lined up for 2016, many jumped on the story of having two past rivals under the same roof, saying they would never get along and that there’d be tough feelings by the end of the first race.

2016 Dover I CUP Joey Logano Aric Almirola big crash Russell LaBounty NKP
Despite a career-high three top 5s in 2015, this season has been a different story for Aric Almriola. (Russell LaBounty NKP)

It turns out, however, the hard feelings stood between the cars and the front of the field, as both drivers have failed to reach the top 10 through 22 events.

Additionally, Almirola, who is in his fifth year with RPM, sits a career-low 27th in points, as he has led only one lap and grabbed a best finish of 12th in February’s Daytona 500.

The rookie Scott has struggled during his first full-time effort, having only one top-20 finish while sitting 33rd in points. To put it in perspective, Tony Stewart, who missed the opening eight rounds, is 122 points above Scott while Michael McDowell, who has missed four races, is only 11 points behind driver No. 44 in points.

Results like this just don’t seem to feel right in NASCAR nation. A Richard Petty-owned car struggling to crack the top 20, let alone two? It just doesn’t seem right.

Not knowing the cause of the lack of speed, RPM recently pulled its XFINITY program and continues to try and crack down on its Sunday performance. With 14 races remaining before the season is done, RPM is the top team that must turn things around.

Will Owen Kelly Jump on His Mid-Ohio Opportunity?

Here’s another positive story that comes out of a standalone weekend: Owen Kelly, a driver best known for his past in Australian V8 Supercars, will return to the XFINITY Series, as he’ll race the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Mid-Ohio.

Ending a three-year drought, it was an interesting name to see pop back up on the entry list. He’ll be one of the older drivers in the field, having turned 39 this past March, and hasn’t been in many conversations about having a full-time seat any time soon.

And there’s not much mystery to that idea. He’s a road course ringer, without a doubt.

Saturday will be only his fourth XFINITY effort, however, he already has two top-5 finishes and eight laps led to his name. His final two starts came in JGR’s No. 54 Toyota at Road America, where he grabbed a career-best fourth, and Mid-Ohio.

Matt Tifft’s brain tumor surgery a few months back has given massive opportunities to a number of drivers in both the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series. With Kelly being the latest of new faces, he could be the next face in Victory Lane if he didn’t lose much right- and left-handed flavor in his three-year drought.

About the author

Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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