CHASE FORMAT HAS ADDED AGGRESSION TO ERIK JONES’ RACING STYLE
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Top-seeded Erik Jones didn’t wait for the seven-race XFINITY Series playoff to alter his racing style to suit the new elimination format.
By his own admission, Jones raced conservatively last year in winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship. But the win-and-you’re-in structure of the XFINITY Chase has given the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota more freedom to race for victories at any cost.
“I feel like I’ve raced this year a lot different than I would race any other year,” said Jones, who led XFINITY regulars with four wins this season. “Last year in the Truck Series, I started out the year kind of going for wins, and the second half of the year, I was very conservative, taking what I could get.
“If a wins comes along, we took it, tried to take advantage of it, to get it. But I was just trying to top-10 it the whole way. This year in the XFINITY Series, I’ve just been going all-out to win the race. … We’ve just been going for wins every week. It’s nice to be able to do that, and it’s worked out for us.”
BRENDAN GAUGHAN TRYING TO REVISIT THE TITLE THAT GOT AWAY
It may not be a quintessential case of déjà vu, but Brendan Gaughan has been to Homestead-Miami Speedway before, under similar circumstances.
Now, as one of 12 drivers to qualify for the inaugural NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase that begins Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Gaughan hopes he’ll have a chance to claim a prize that eluded him 13 years ago—a title in one of NASCAR’s top three touring series.
In 2003, Gaughan entered the final NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Homestead as the points leader in a four-driver race for the championship. In addition to Gaughan, Ted Musgrave, Travis Kvapil and Dennis Setzer had a shot at the title.
Musgrave’s truck owner, Jim Smith, had five entries in the final event, and one of those drivers, Marty Houston, tangled with Gaughan in a violent crash on Lap 100. After Musgrave was penalized for jumping a subsequent restart, Kvapil claimed the championship with a sixth-place finish.
Though Gaughan says he spends little time regretting the missed opportunity, he does crave another opportunity to compete for a title in the final race of the season, albeit under a different format in another series.
“I’ve been in a Homestead race where four drivers were racing for the championship, and sadly, I was not the one who won it—sadly for me, not for Travis (Kvapil),” Gaughan said on Tuesday during XFINITY Series Chase Media Day at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “I would love to have all that pressure again and be in that situation again, and my goal is to get back to Homestead to be one of those four.
“I’ve always said to this day, that race that we ran at Homestead that day, we were the fastest truck on the race track that day. We were brilliant. One second of life—couldn’t have done anything different. It was just one second that you couldn’t change.
“And I would love a chance, not to change that one second, but to make a new one second and end up getting by that wreck and standing on that podium. … I would love to go back to Homestead and finish what I was trying to do 13 years ago and put a great cherry on top of a career for me.”
Not that Gaughan’s career is about to be over. The driver of the No. 62 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet said he’ll be back for another season next year, and the Chase format is a strong reason he’ll continue to compete.
“What made me want to keep racing was this Chase format, this excitement around this,” Gaughan said. “Now, instead of battling for fifth place, and we’re 89 points out of this championship—and we can get to maybe second or third if a guy has a bad race and we have a good ones, and you’re just watching points and going ‘Oh, man, let’s see how far we can get’—we’re racing for the championship.”
ELLIOTT SADLER HOLDS A UNIQUE DISTINCTION
Does experience matter?
If it does, Elliott Sadler should have an edge. Of the 12 drivers competing in the inaugural NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase, he’s the only one who also qualified for the original 10-driver NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase in 2004, finishing ninth in the final standings.
“I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” Sadler chuckled. “I do remember that, being a part of the first-ever [Sprint] Cup Chase and now this one. I think that’s pretty cool.”
But will his long-standing NASCAR experience help him in a Chase that’s top-heavy on 20-somethings?
“I don’t think so,” said Sadler, the regular-season series leader who saw his substantial advantage disappear when points were reset for the Chase. “It’s not like I’m a seasoned quarterback that can read the defense better than a rookie quarterback coming in. I think that’s when experience plays a part.
“I think now it’s just about which teams can get their cars the fastest, what driver can get the best information and not make mistakes on the track. I feel like everybody that’s a part of this Chase—all 12 guys—can do just as good a job as anybody else, no matter their age or where they’re from or how many years they’ve raced.”
PRESSURE’S OFF FOR BRANDON JONES AFTER NEW DEAL
Brandon Jones may not know where he’ll stand after Homestead, but he does know he’ll be back in the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet next season, thanks to a deal for 2017 that was announced on Tuesday.
Jones told the NASCAR Wire Service that getting his situation squared away for next season is a major weight off his shoulders.
“I’m tickled to death,” Jones said. “All smiles for me these couple of weeks here. I knew we’ve been negotiating with RCR again for ’17, and they’ve really been stepping their program up.”
It also allows a worry-free approach to the inaugural NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase.
“You kind of relax a little bit,” Jones said. “You don’t have to worry so much about being so perfect and everything like that. “I think these top 10s, we just wear those out for this first round (of the Chase), get inside that top five a little bit, and it’s easily going to transfer.
“Then we’re going to start looking at taking some chances on pit road and trying to get a win or get something pretty crazy or something like that. We’re going to get better for sure, but that’s what it’s going to take to get inside that top four for Homestead.”