Redemption might be on the mind of reigning NASCAR XFINITY Series champion Chase Elliott as he prepares to race in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Speedway. Elliott, who will make his second Sprint Cup Series start, will have the opportunity to have a turn around from his Cup Series debut, as it did not go as he would have liked.
Elliott had made his debut during last month's race at Martinsville -- the STP 500. Martinsville was Elliott's first start in a Cup Series event as he prepares to take over the No. 24 car in 2016 -- currently driven by Jeff Gordon, who announced his retirement from full-time racing after this season.
At Martinsville, things didn't work out in Elliott's favor as he had contact with Brett Moffitt on lap 75. After some damage to the car, Elliott went behind the wall and ended up falling 73 laps behind and finished in 38th.
Martinsville, a 0.526-mile track, was Elliott’s first Cup Series attempt, and the upcoming Richmond race will give him a similar challenge -- in the sense of both races being on short tracks.
Although Elliott is making his first Cup Series start at Richmond, he's no stranger to the track. In the XFINITY Series, he captured two second-place finishes in 2014.
With two runner positions and the Friday night race at Richmond, it will prepare Elliott for a better performance in his second cup start than his debut. Unlike Richmond, Elliott had not raced at Martinsville in the XFINITY Series, as the series does not compete there. However, he had made two Truck Series starts, where he captured a sixth place finish and a 20th place finish in 2013.
Richmond seems to be a great track for Elliott as he also made a K&N Pro Series East start in 2011, finishing in 24th and a runner-up finish in 2012.
The upcoming race at Richmond does give Elliott a chance to improve his Cup Series performance, not only from his debut but it helps prepare him for the remainder of the races he is scheduled to compete in this season. Charlotte, Indianapolis and Darlington remain on Elliott's schedule following Richmond. How all these starts will prepare him for 2016 will be seen at the conclusion of 2015.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Paul Menard is back in victory lane for the first time since he won the Brickyard 400 in 2011. However, this win is in NASCAR’s second-tier division, the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
Menard has won his second career Nationwide Series event in 183 starts as he came out victorious at the Michigan International Speedway on Saturday afternoon for the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 200. With five laps to go, Joey Logano had to pit after leading 43 laps during the race. Logano’s right rear tire gave out as he had a 1.3 second gap over Menard, handing over the No. 33 team their first victory of the year.
“This is a brand new car. It’s good to be back in victory lane. This feels really good,” Menard said. “I was trying to run him down and we were going to catch him a little bit, but we weren’t going to pass him.”
The Wisconsin native lone Nationwide Series win prior to Saturday’s event came in 2006 at Milwaukee while he was driving for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. In eight prior Nationwide Series starts at Michigan, Menard earned seven top-10s, and nearly went to victory lane in 2012 after leading 37 laps. The victory also marks the first win for Richard Childress Racing in any of the top-three NASCAR divisions since Kevin Harvick won at Phoenix towards the conclusion of the 2013 season.
Sam Hornish Jr., who was racing the No. 20 car for the first time this season, gave Menard a run for his money, but came up less than a half of a second short for the win. Hornish spun out of the second lap after getting loose in Turn 2 – forcing him to race his way from outside of the top-30 to the front of the field. He has finished no worse than fifth in his three Nationwide Series starts this season.
On Lap 79, Dylan Kwasniewski got loose while trying to get around Trevor Bayne for the 11th position. Kwasniewski slid right into Bayne’s No. 6 Ford, sending both cars hard into the outside wall in Turn 2.
"I have to start driving smarter. This is all my fault," Kwasniewski said on the wreck.
Elliott Sadler was running in the second position with 25 laps to go when there was a piece of debris on the grille of his No. 11 car. Sadler attempted to get the debris off his car by letting Earnhardt Jr. go by him, but he was unable to do so – forcing him to pit.
Regan Smith continues to hold the drivers points lead as he is 14 markers ahead of Sadler. Chase Elliott, who finished sixth, is six points behind Sadler in the third position. Elliott was battling Kyle Larson for the lead for the majority of the race, but the two opted to stay out during a caution flag while the majority of the lead lap cars pitted. Then, a caution came out several laps later, forcing them to take four tires while their competitors took either two tires or fuel-only. Larson ended up finishing eighth after leading a race-high 46 laps.
Here are some notables from the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 200 at Michigan:
-Ryan Reed recorded the second best finish of his career and the best result of his season as he finished 11th in the No. 16 Ford.
-Ty Dillon led nine laps early in the race, but ended up finishing ninth as he is 35 points behind Smith in the standings.
-Ross Chastain recorded his best career Nationwide Series finish in his second start as he finished in the 12th position for Hattori Racing Enterprises.
-Landon Cassill raced his way to his seventh top-15 of the season for JD Motorsports as he finished 14th.
-There were six different leaders for a total of 14 lead changes.
Joey Logano will be leading the NASCAR Nationwide Series field to the green flag on Saturday afternoon for the Buckle Up 200. Logano set a blistering pace during the second qualifying session at 23.155 seconds to win his 24th career Nationwide Series pole award and his first of 2014.
Entering Dover, Logano is winless in the Nationwide Series this year. However, he is currently seventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings with two wins which should lock him into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Logano has won four straight races at Dover International Raceway, and has an average finish of 5.4 in 10 starts at the track.
Logano set the pace in the first round as well with a time of 23.289 seconds. Brian Scott fell just short of Logano’s time at 23.289 seconds in Round One.
Chase Elliott will start on the outside pole after pacing both practice sessions. Elliott was less than a tenth of a second off of Logano’s lap, but was not able to get a run off the corners like Logano. This will be Elliott’s eighth start inside of the top-10 in 2014 and his second start on the front row. Chris Buescher was the second highest qualifying rookie as he will start eighth in the No. 60 Ford.
After winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Friday afternoon, Kyle Busch qualified fourth in the No. 54 Toyota.
James Buescher will start 21st in the No. 99 Toyota. Dylan Kwasniewski was extremely loose during his run, and is going to start mid-pack. Morgan Shepherd will start last as he makes his first start of the year in the No. 89 Chevrolet.