Thursday, Jul 07

Coming off of a rather lackluster season in NASCAR’s second-tier division, 2015 is set to be a lot more enticing. Dominating efforts by NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stars was taking place nearly each week, and that is going to change for the upcoming season.

XFINITY, which is owned by Comcast (who owns NBC), is taking over as the title sponsor from Nationwide. Not only is the logo getting a face lift for NASCAR’s version of Triple-A, but it will have plenty of fresh names in new places.

But even with all of the changes occurring, 2015 should witness a more competitive environment than ever before.

Chase Elliott, 18, dominated the XFINITY Series last year. Winning three races and having an astonishing average finish of 8.0 in his rookie season, the soon-to-be driver of the No. 24 Cup Series Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports is geared up to repeat his championship efforts. However, 2014 saw a lack of competition for the championship, especially with Cup Series drivers winning week-in and week-out.

Let’s take a look at the predictions for the top-15 in points for the NASCAR XFINITY Series for the 2015 season.

  1. Chase Elliott: It’s kind of cliché to pick Elliott as the champion once again considering the circumstances surrounding him. But with the amount of success he had in 2014, experience is going to help him run just as strong, if not better in 2015. With a new crew chief at the helm, we might see the reigning champion struggle at first, yet he should be on a steady pace after a handful of races into the season.
  2. Elliott Sadler: Making the move to Roush Fenway Racing from Joe Gibbs Racing, Sadler is expected to reemerge as a championship contender. The organization began to run stronger toward the end of last season, and Sadler will be the veteran of the team, which should propel him to success. However, he is going to need to find Victory Lane often if he wants to beat Elliott. Working with Phil Gould, the No. 1 Ford crew is going to be fast on a weekly basis, but being mistake-free will be the defying factor in their season.
  3. Regan Smith: Smith has been coming extremely close to winning the title for the past two years. After coming close last year to his teammate, he has more motivation than ever before to win the whole thing. However, he has experienced struggles at the intermediate tracks, which has been the difference maker against his competitors. It is going to be tough to be more consistent than he was last year, but leading just 133 laps definitely did not help his efforts.
  4. Chris Buescher: Buescher was exceptional late last season in the No. 60 car. This team found consistency in the latter part of 2014, and that is expected to carry over this season. Earning an average finish of 12.6, Buescher should work his way into the top 10 more frequently. Expect him to record a win or two, especially at the intermediate tracks, which have become his strong suit.
  5. Ty Dillon: There is just something missing at the Richard Childress Racing stable. Dillon has the potential to emerge as a championship contender this year after finishing fifth in points last year, but he will probably stay around there in 2015. Although the No. 3 team was arguably the most consistent besides the No. 9 crew, they didn’t have the speed to contend for wins on a weekly basis. The same will likely be the case this year, especially with the level of competition increasing. Expect Dillon to have only one win this year, but he will have more top fives than he did in 2014.
  6. Brian Scott: 2014 was Scott’s chance to have a breakout season. He did just that with 23 top 10s and an average finish of 9.3. However, he failed to find Victory Lane, and that is the difference maker. In 2015, the No. 2 team, led by new crew chief Mike Hillman, Jr., will find the winner’s circle at Chicagoland, Kentucky or Richmond. If they can win at least one event, they have potential to keep piling it on. But Scott has a pattern of struggling early each season, and that could carry on with a new crew chief at the helm.
  7. Darrell Wallace, Jr.: Bubba Wallace is back in the XFINITY Series. He’s finally getting the chance to race full-time, which is what he deserves. Over the course of his career, Wallace has run a mere six events in this division, so there is going to be a steep learning curve. He will have some trouble throughout the first part of the year, but with his experience in the Truck Series, he should be able to come away with a handful of top-five finishes, and about 15-20 top 10s.
  8. Daniel Suarez: Suarez is expected to run quite well in his first full-time season in one of NASCAR’s top-three divisions. He is going to get plenty of experience with a handful of ARCA Series races for Venturini Motorsports, along with 13 races for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series. Don’t expect him to score a victory in his first season, but three or four top fives is realistic for the No. 18 team. Gibbs’ full-time car usually struggles compared to the one that runs for the owner’s title, and that might be the case here.
  9. Brendan Gaughan: Winning two races last year probably wasn’t expected of the No. 62 team. He knew that he needed to win, otherwise his career could be coming to a close. Gaughan has repeatedly said that he needs to be in competitive equipment to continue racing, and 2015 should be a solid year for him. Expect him to earn a victory at an intermediate track, but inconsistency will plague this team once again. Seven top 10s just won’t do much in 2015, and he is certainly capable of doing better.
  10. Landon Cassill: Cassill was on the verge of breaking into the top-10 in points a few times last year. Although this team is expanding to a third full-time car, his leadership skills and added funding should provide them with more success in 2015. Mechanical issues plagued him for much of 2014, but if he can stay on the lead lap for the majority of the season, expect his average finish to increase to approximately 15th or so.
  11. Ryan Reed: Reed struggled throughout the entire 2014 season. Earning just one top 10 (a fourth-place finish at Daytona), the No. 16 team didn’t see much success. There were times where he ran inside of the top 10, but always had something go wrong that put him around 12th-15th nearly every week. If he can relax behind the wheel and focus on not overdriving the car, Reed has potential to run just inside of the top 10 on a weekly basis.
  12. Dakoda Armstrong: Lackluster is probably an understatement for Armstrong’s 2014 season. Having an average finish of 20.2 in decent equipment gave Richard Petty Motorsports a reason to split ways with him. However, resigning for a second season, Armstrong will continue to pilot the No. 43 Ford. Earning three top 10s in the final 11 races last year, he began to finally hit his stride just a bit. If he can run well once a month, he has potential to finish inside of the top-10 in points just like his predecessor, Michael Annett.
  13. David Starr: Starr is entering his first of three full-time seasons for TriStar Motorsports in the No. 44 Toyota. The four-time Truck Series winner will embark upon his first full slate in the XFINITY Series after running a career-high 14 events in 2014. Expect Starr to run around the top 20 for the most part, but he will have a few races inside of the top 10 with TriStar’s additional funding.
  14. Mike Bliss: Bliss should have another solid season in the No. 19 car. Although he’s been with TriStar for a few seasons, he has never had a year of more than two top-10 finishes. Coming off of a season with an average finish of 20.4, which is the worst since he joined the organization, Bliss should go back to finishing around 15th in 2015.
  15. JJ Yeley: Racing for JGL Racing, Yeley has become a team leader for this small team. After he had two top 10s in 2014, the No. 28 team should run better in 2015. Making the swap to Toyota, they had a solid run at Homestead, and that should be expected of them for the majority of 2015. Although it isn’t known if Yeley will run for points in the Cup Series for BK Racing or in XFINITY, the No. 28 car should be inside of the top-15 on a weekly basis.
  16. Cale Conley: Conley is going full-time in the No. 14 car this year. After running 11 events for RCR, he showed the potential to be a top-10 caliber driver. Expect him to run better than his teammates, with approximately 10 top-10 results. However, consistency has been a problem for this organization, which is going to put him back a bit in points.
  17. Blake Koch: Koch will get his shot at running full-time in 2015. He ran 28 races each of the past two seasons, but never had enough races to gather momentum. As long as he isn’t forced to start-and-park, Koch should run in the top-20 weekly, with a handful of top-10 finishes.
  18. Ross Chastain: After a breakout season in the Truck Series in 2013, Chastain didn’t run full-time last year. Earning his first career top-10 finish at Kentucky for Hattori Racing Enterprises, he earned a chance to finally race full-time in the XFINITY Series. Although he is going to be racing for JD Motorsports, Chastain should have a few Cassill-like races, where he runs stronger than the equipment he is in.
  19. Jeremy Clements: This family-run team has run well over the years. This will be his fifth full-time season in the No. 51 car, and he will continue to work with 1986 and 1987 championship winning crew chief Ricky Pearson. In 2014, he had two top 10s, and ended the season with 11th and 13th-place finishes, respectively. Expect him to have a solid season, but they will likely finish around 20th each week, which is solid with the limited funding that they have.
  20. Jeffrey Earnhardt: Earnhardt is moving over to Viva Motorsports in 2015. Jamie Dick is stepping out of the seat after running for a few years. This team usually runs outside of the top-20, but is a step up from the equipment that he drove last year. In 2014, he failed to finish inside of the top-10. However, with potential to have a solid season in 2015, expect Earnhardt to earn a pair of top 10s, plus an average finish inside of the top 25.

You can follow Joseph Wolkin on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR

On Saturday evening, Kevin Ward Jr. passed away during a sprint car race in Canandaigua, New York. Ward made contact on the track with NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart. Ward, 20, went outside of his car to show his frustration with Stewart, but Stewart’s car made contact with him – evidently ending his life.

According to Ontario County Sheriff Philip C. Povero, Ward was taken to a local hospital after being hit by Stewart, and was pronounced deceased on arrival. Although Stewart was not charged, an investigation is ongoing as local officials are still speaking to witnesses of the incident.

Stewart’s team, Stewart Haas Racing, released the following statement after the accident early Sunday morning:

“A tragic accident took place last night during a sprint car race in which Tony Stewart was participating. Tony was unhurt, but a fellow competitor lost his life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. We're still attempting to sort through all the details and we appreciate your understanding during this difficult time."

In the accident, Stewart squeezed into Ward’s No. 13 car in Turn 2 – causing him to have a flat tire. When he exited the cockpit of his race car, Ward walked down the track to express his displeasure with the 43-year-old driver. However, during the caution laps, he was using a slightly higher lane compared to the other drivers, and Ward rapidly walked towards Stewart’s vehicle. He was caught underneath Stewart’s right rear tire – sending him flipping in the air multiple times until he landed flat on the ground.

Since he was a four-year-old, Ward had been racing cars. Starting out in go-karts, he progressed over the years to race in Empire Super Sprint division.

In 2013, the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion was involved in an incident at the same track in upstate New York as well. In a 15-car crash, which Stewart caused, Alysha Ruggles, 19, received a back injury.

After originally planning on racing the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International, approximately one hour away from the dirt track where the incident took place, Stewart’s team announced at 10:20 a.m. ET that he will not be racing on Sunday afternoon. Even though he was not charged by county officials and was released, he opted to sit out the race after carefully discussing the incident with his team.

Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition for Stewart-Haas Racing, told reports that Regan Smith will replace Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet for Sunday’s event. Smith drives the No. 7 car for JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Nationwide Series – a team that has an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. There is no word on whether or not Stewart will return to the seat of his car next weekend at Michigan International Speedway since the investigation is pending.

“We at SHR support it and agree with it,” Zipadelli said. “It's a difficult time for both parties. This is what we feel is right and we're supporting Tony in it."

Following Zipadelli’s press conference, NASCAR issued this statement:

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and fellow competitors of Kevin Ward Jr. We support Tony Stewart’s decision to miss today’s race and we will continue to respect the process and timeline of the local authorities and will continue to monitor this situation moving forward.”

Ryan Sieg is making noise. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet in the NASCAR Nationwide Series was praised by drivers throughout the sport on Friday evening after finishing a career-best third at the Daytona International Speedway.

Sieg was the man which pushed Kasey Kahne to victory on Friday evening, and it didn’t go unnoticed. The 27-year-old made his first appearance in Nationwide Series competition last season when Jeremy Clements was suspended for the second and third events of the year. He then ran two races with his family organization – RSS Racing.

“Hopefully, it will bring some more sponsors,” Sieg said. “We are getting better and better each week.”

After originally being scheduled to run the full schedule in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, RSS Racing opted to race in the Nationwide Series on a full-time basis. Sieg was a late entry for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award, and currently sits 18th in points.

“What Ryan has been doing all year long, people have been noticing him. He has been doing a heck of a job,” Regan Smith said. “

And not only are drivers noticing, but owners are noticing as well. Dale Earnhardt Jr., owner of JR Motorsports, was ecstatic about Sieg’s performance as of late. Sieg gained noticed in the Truck Series as he finished inside of the top-15 in nearly every race in which his truck didn’t have any issues. Now, in a case similar to Brad Keselowski, the possibility of working his way to a larger team is possible.

Over the course of this season, he has earned nine top-20 finishes. It might not seem too impressive, but for a team with blank quarter-panels, it is not bad at all.

Sieg and the RSS Racing crew are now eligible for the Nationwide Dash For Cash award – opening up the possibility of being the ultimate underdog. 

JR Motorsports loves having a date on Friday evenings. The organization has now continued their streak of winning each race that has been held after the Sun has set. After Regan Smith led 47 laps, Kasey Kahne made a last second pass while entering the tri-oval during a green-white-checkered finish to capture the victory during the Subway Firecracker 250 at Daytona.

Making his second start of the year, Kahne had a quiet evening as he was running outside of the top-15 for the majority of the event. However, he came on strong after the final restart where teams were worrying whether or not they had enough fuel to make it to the finish. This is Kahne’s first victory since winning at Charlotte in 2007 with Evernham Motorsports, and it is his eighth career win in 204 Nationwide Series starts. The win marks JR Motorsports’ 18th victory since 2008 as well as their sixth triumph in 2014.

Ryan Sieg, who moved over to the NASCAR Nationwide Series after racing full-time in the Camping World Truck Series since 2010, pushed Kahne to victory lane on the high side. Conversation was sparked with the way Sieg pushed the No. 5 car, yet NASCAR did not unleash a penalty to either driver. The third-place finish is the best result the 27-year-old has recorded in his 20 career starts.

Kyle Larson was contending with Smith for the lead on the final restart, but he slipped back after the white flag came up when he began to receive pressure from several drivers. Larson finished fifth – his best finish at Daytona in his fourth start at the 2.5-mile track. Kyle Busch held the lead after the halfway mark, but his teammate, Elliott Sadler, had to pit due to a loose wheel. Busch caught up to Sadler’s No. 11 Toyota, but instead of going around him – the No. 54 slid behind Sadler and helped keep him as the first car one lap down. Sadler finished 21st after being involved in an accident with Trevor Bayne and David Ragan when Chase Elliott had a fuel issue while going back to the green flag late in the race.

Smith now holds a 12-point lead over Sadler in the championship standings. Elliott is 15 markers behind his teammate, Smith, with Richard Childress Racing drivers, Ty Dillon and Brian Scott rounding out the top-five.

Here are some notables from the Subway Firecracker 250:

-          Ryan Reed recorded a career-best fourth-place finish in the No. 16 car. ““That was what we needed right there. You know, we were trying to conserve all night but man it felt good to get our first top-five,” he said.

-          Jeremy Clements finished eighth on Friday evening – the second best finish he has recorded in his 150 career starts. Clements’ best result came at Road America – finishing sixth. This marked his seventh career top-10 finish in Nationwide Series competition.

-          Mike Wallace started his 10th race of the season for JGL Racing – recording his first top-10 this year. The 10th-place result is Wallace’s best since finishing seventh at Talladega for JD Motorsports at Talladega last year.

-          Darrell Wallace Jr. earned his first top-10 this season – finishing seventh. The results ties his best career finish (Iowa 2012).

-          Derrike Cope finished 13th on Friday evening. This is his best finish since finishing 17th at Road America in 2011 and 13th at Daytona in 2003.

-          Johnny Sauter finished 15th in the No. 80 car for Hattori Racing Enterprises.

-          There were 11 different leaders with 14 different lead changes.

-          The race also averaged a record 157.012 mph with just three cautions totaling 12 laps. 

The NASCAR Nationwide Series is back at the Dover International Speedway this weekend for the 33rd running Buckle Up 200 presented by Click It or Ticket. Joey Logano has dominated the past four Nationwide Series events at the Monster Mile. However, Logano has yet to win in NASCAR’s second-tier division in multiple starts this year as he has been enjoying success in the Sprint Cup Series with Team Penske.

If anyone will stop Logano’s dominance at Dover, it will occur this weekend. The Nationwide Series regulars have won nearly half of the events this season, and a track such as Dover falls into the hands of some younger drivers which often race well at the shorter tracks.

Regan Smith enters Dover with the points lead after 11 events in the Nationwide Series in 2014. After winning at Daytona to start off the year, Smith has been extremely consistent – finishing inside of the top-10 during each race this season. However, he has not led at any tracks this season other than the two restrictor plate races. In eight starts at Dover in Nationwide Series competition, Smith has recorded one top-10 finish.

“We just need to put ourselves in situations to get up front and lead laps. We are not lacking that much really. I think all three of our cars are capable of winning. Chase has two intermediate wins, and as you said – we have been top-10 all season long. It is just the little stuff. Maybe we need a better pit stop here or an adjustment there, or maybe a little better qualifying at some places,” Smith said. “I think in the first five/six races, we were really learning each other. We really had some struggles with the No. 7 car in particular. Around Darlington, we really started making a turn, getting better each week.”

Kyle Busch will be attempting to score his third victory of the season this weekend, and his fourth win at Dover in what will be his 18th career start at the track. Busch has finished inside of the top-five at each race he has been entered in this year, and is looking to score his 66th career Nationwide Series victory. Busch’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, is also racing in the Nationwide Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. This will be Kenseth’s ninth start of the 2014 season, but he has been winless this year, albeit leading 253 laps.

“There’s always the argument being made that there are certain tracks where it is nice to get extra track time. It’s good at a track that you go to once a year and take two tires or something like that. It’s nice to get some extra time,” Kenseth said on how running the Nationwide Series races effects his Cup Series effort.

There are 40 drivers entered in the Nationwide Series event this weekend. Paulie Harraka is making his first start for TriStar Motorsports in the No. 44 Toyota. Todd Bodine returns to the Nationwide Series for his second start of the year in the No. 55 Chevrolet. Joe Nemechek will not be racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event this weekend, but is making his fifth Nationwide Series start of the year for his self-owned NEMCO Motorsports team. Morgan Shepherd is making his return to the Nationwide Series as well this weekend. Shepherd, 72, will make his 352nd career start in NASCAR’s second-tier division after resetting his previous record of being the oldest driver to start a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Phoenix earlier this year.

The Buckle Up 200 presented by Click It or Ticket starts at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday afternoon. 

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