Chicagoland Weekend Preview: Richard Childress Racing digging for wins with clean Chase slate

Ryan Newman.

Ryan Newman.

A half-second.

Ryan Newman’s Cinderella bid for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship last year came up short by a half-second – the amount of time Kevin Harvick beat him to the finish line by in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Channeling his inner “Little Engine that Could” combined with some grit and no-holds-barred racing, Newman maneuvered his way through the 10-race, four-knockout round Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup to finish second in the final standings despite not winning a race all season.

The No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet driver is back in the Chase again and is still searching for that elusive win when 16 Challengers begin their quest for the 2015 Sprint Cup Series championship Sunday in the MyAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Newman hasn’t visited Victory Lane since July 28, 2013 at Indianapolis – 78 races ago.

“In the end consistency did pay off,” Newman said of his 2014 championship run. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to this year.”

He understands that playing the points is risky business when it comes to the new Chase format.

“We haven’t performed the way that we’ve needed to in order to win a championship, but we still have 10 races to prove that,” Newman said. “We have to win. We have to win when it comes to the last race, that’s for sure. Every race in between that, it helps to win. The last one is the one that’s important. So you have to build up to that.”

Newman has proven historically he can lead the pack to the checkered flag. He has 17 career Sprint Cup victories to his credit, including marquee wins at the Daytona 500 (2008) and the Brickyard 400 (2013).

Working in Newman’s favor is his history at the trio of tracks in the opening Challenger Round of the postseason. He is one of only five Chase drivers – Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth are the others – to win at all three ovals (Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover).

“Our goal is to go out there and do the best job we possibly can,” Newman said. “But we have to step it up. We haven’t led enough laps. We haven’t put ourselves in contention enough times to get that victory and that’s what it takes to guarantee the next round.”

Joining Newman in the Chase is his Richard Childress Racing teammate Paul Menard, who in his ninth full-time season will make his NASCAR playoff debut at the Joliet, Illinois, track.

“I’m obviously really excited to be in the Chase,” said Menard, who is also winless this season. “Once you get into the Chase, now you have a shot.”

Of all the Chase drivers, Menard has started the most races (150) since his last victory on July, 31 2011, at Indianapolis.

Menard saw first-hand what Newman did last year and knows he can advance without winning.

“Like you saw with Ryan last year, as long as you’re in it, things reset and you’re back to business,” he said. “I think we can accomplish the same thing. We just have to be consistent every week, have fast cars like we normally do have, keep our nose clean. One bad race definitely will knock you out.

“Ryan showed that if you’re in it, you have a chance. And we’re in it.”

Elliott goes for second straight win at Chicago

After winning three races in his rookie season last year, defending NASCAR XFINITY Series champion Chase Elliott was still searching for his first victory of 2015 before last Friday night’s race at Richmond.

The 19-year-old Chevrolet driver came through, capturing the checkered flag to snap a 39-race winless streak.

JOLIET, IL- JULY 19 2014 :  Chase Elliott, drive driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet,  celebrates in victory lane after winning during the NASCAR Nationwide Series EnjoyIllinios.com 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 19, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

JOLIET, IL- JULY 19 2014 : Chase Elliott, drive driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning during the NASCAR Nationwide Series EnjoyIllinios.com 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 19, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

“It was an epic night for us,” Elliott said. “I thought the NAPA AUTO PARTS crew was absolutely phenomenal on pit road and really gave us the chance we needed to get to Victory Lane. I just wanted to stick around and enjoy it, because you never know when you’ll be back (to Victory Lane).”

Elliott has a quick turnaround as he goes for his second straight win in Saturday’s Furious 7 300 at Chicagoland Speedway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

In three career starts at the 1.5-mile track, Elliott has finished first (June 2014), 10th (September 2014) and 14th (June 2015).

“Chicago is a fun track with a lot of particular elements,” Elliott said. “We didn’t run all that well last time we were there and we as an organization have to improve on that. With a few races left in the season, there can’t be any hiccups. We’ll review our notes from the past three times we’ve been there and be prepared for when it counts Saturday night.”

Although Elliott leads the XFINITY Series with 20 top-10 finishes and ranks second to Chris Buescher with 10 top-five showings, he sits second in the championship points standings – 21 points behind Buescher.

Buescher has built his lead by winning two races and posting an average finish of 8.3. The 22-year-old Texan has finished no lower than 20th this season.

Elliott’s No. 9 car crew chief, Ernie Cope, remarked his team will take an aggressive approach down the stretch in an attempt to capture its second consecutive XFINITY Series crown.

“We’re just going to say ‘hammer down’ the rest of the season. We talked about it after (finishing 24th) at Darlington. Forget about it. We’re going to try winning races. However it falls is how it’s going to fall. We’re just going to be aggressive. We’re going to be aggressive with setups, pit calls, everything we do.

“However it falls, it falls.”

Jones heads to Chicago for first race as standings leader

For a driver who’s only 18 years old, Erik Jones carries a pretty hefty résumé.

His accomplishments include youngest driver to win a NASCAR national series race, most NASCAR national series victories before the age of 18 (5), a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start and a key role in two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Owner’s Championships with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Erik Jones. (Getty Images)

Erik Jones. (Getty Images)

Jones heads into Friday’s American Ethanol E15 225 at Chicagoland Speedway (8:30 p.m. on FS1) with the latest title to his name – NASCAR Camping World Truck Series standings leader.

Following his victory in the last race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park on Aug. 30, Jones vaulted from third in the standings up to the top position. He now holds a three-point edge over two-time defending series champion Matt Crafton and a 15-point advantage over Tyler Reddick.

Jones has never raced at Chicagoland in a truck, but his two XFINITY Series starts at the 1.5-mile track – a win in June and a seventh-place showing last July – indicate he’ll likely run up front again.

“Chicago has always been one of my favorite places to go to,” Jones said. “I’ve actually never been there for a Truck Series race, but I’ve made two XFINITY Series starts and we were very fast at both of them. Any time you’ve been fast at a track, you look forward to the next time you get to go there.”

NASCAR Race Weekend Guide

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Race: MyAFibRisk.com 400
Track: Chicagoland Speedway
Date and Time: Sunday, Sept. 20 at 3 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps)
What to Watch For: The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series opens its 10-race, four-knockout round Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway. … Jimmie Johnson enters the Chase as the No. 1 seed and owns the most Chase victories with 25. … Brad Keselowski heads to Chicagoland with a nine-race top-10 streak – the longest in the NSCS. … Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards attempt to win the organization’s ninth race in the last 12 events. … Kevin Harvick begins his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship defense at Chicagoland. … Jeff Gordon ties Ricky Rudd for the all-time consecutive starts record (788) by beginning Sunday’s race. … Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard make their Chase debuts.

NASCAR XFINITY Series
Race: Furious 7 300
Track: Chicagoland Speedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Sept. 19 at 6 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 300 miles (200 laps)
What to Watch For: Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Daniel Suarez, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch try to complete the season series sweep of Chicagoland for the organization after Erik Jones won there in June. … Chris Buescher attempts to build on his 21-point series standings lead over Chase Elliott. … Suarez continues to battle with Darrell Wallace for the XFINITY Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award. Suarez leads Wallace by 30 points in the rookie standings. … “Furious 7” star Chris “Ludacris” Bridges will serve as the grand marshal of Saturday night’s race.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Race: American Ethanol E15 225
Track: Chicagoland Speedway
Date and Time: Friday, Sept. 18 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Tune-in: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 225 miles (150 laps)
What to Watch For: A new winner is guaranteed at Chicagoland as no driver in the field has won at the 1.5-mile track. … Timothy Peters makes his 200th career series start. … NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular Kyle Larson will pilot the JR Motorsports No. 00 truck. … NASCAR Next member Jesse Little competes in his second career Camping World Truck Series race on Friday.

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