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Eyes on XFINITY: Childress’ Championship Hopes Hinge on Consistency

Before the 2014 season began, NASCAR instituted a new elimination-style Chase for the first time in the Sprint Cup Series.  While none of the competitors were quite sure about how to approach the new championship format, it seemed that the teams who had the most raw speed (and therefore stood the best chance at winning races) would be the favorites to advance through the different rounds. Ryan Newman and Richard Childress Racing, however, took an alternate path through the playoffs.

Newman was in the midst of his first season with RCR.  Without a win in the first 26 races, it took him all the way to Richmond to fully secure a place in the Chase.  Yet once in the postseason, Newman was able to avoid elimination.  The No. 31 team’s consistent run brought them just one point shy of winning the Sprint Cup, without a single victory.  Not having raw speed did not hurt Newman as long as he could pick up more points than four other drivers each round.

This year, if RCR hopes to win the championship in the XFINITY Series, using the same strategy could give them their best shot.  The NXS divsion of the organization is in a similar situation as it was in Sprint Cup two years ago.  None of the NXS teams have competed in an elimination-style Chase before now.  More significantly, RCR continues to deal with a lingering shortage of speed.

(Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)
Brendan Gaughan, Ty Dillon and Brandon Jones are all looking at consistency as the way to win the inaugural NXS Chase. (Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)

The struggle to build cars that have the speed to regularly lead laps and contend for wins has dogged Richard Childress’ teams for several years.  Since the beginning of the 2012 season, RCR has won five races, but none since 2013.  Kevin Harvick, who now drives for Stewart-Haas Racing, was responsible for all of them.  The XFINITY team has fared better, winning 20 races in the same time frame.  The only win this year, however, came at Auto Club Speedway back in March.  That was the race in which Kyle Busch, who had dominated the afternoon, blew a tire on the final lap, allowing Austin Dillon to slip past to victory.

Perhaps the problem is more pronounced this season.  Through the first 20 of 33 races in total, Joe Gibbs Racing  has consistently brought the fastest cars to the track.  Moreover, none of the other teams have made much progress in catching JGR.  JR Motorsports appeared to be closing the gap in the late spring, but that momentum has stalled.  Team Penske scored its first win of the year last week, but nobody is sure if the Penske cars can measure up with JGR on the all-important intermediate tracks.  As for RCR, Ty Dillon drove a great race at Iowa Speedway that nearly ended with a win.  Unfortunately for him, he could not hold off the faster car of Erik Jones as the laps wound down.  Dillon was vocal that day, as he has been all season, that his team is working hard to equal the speed of the JGR Toyotas.  But if RCR is going to find any more speed, it must happen soon and the change must be big.

It is far more likely that Ty Dillon, Brendan Gaughan, and Brandon Jones will wind up following the path that Newman forged in 2014.  RCR will not, and should not, stop trying to make its cars as fast as possible.  If the team can make enough improvements to catch JGR, then it will be that much better prepared for the Chase.  But even if it does not, RCR’s championship hopes will be far from over.  It is worth noting that Ty Dillon, with zero wins, is currently 16 points ahead of Erik Jones, who is a three-time winner this year.  Gaughan also has zero wins, and just two top fives to Jones’ 11.  Yet Gaughan is only 15 points behind Jones, which is not a huge deficit considering the superior speed of the JGR cars.

Richard Childress’ XFINITY team is admittedly a hard one to figure out.  For a Sprint Cup organization dipping down into NXS competition, the team has usually not displayed a level of performance comparable to that of JGR, Team Penske, or Roush Fenway Racing.  Yet that does not mean that RCR has not found ways to succeed.  In 2013, Austin Dillon famously (or infamously) won the XFINITY title without winning a race all year.  Do not think that the elimination-style Chase guarantees fans a champion with a high number of wins.  RCR found that consistency was a good alternative to wins for advancing through the Chase in 2014.  It might be a good alternative once again.

About the author

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Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong student of auto racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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