Can anyone beat Chase Elliott for the regular season title?

[Chase] Elliott, [Ryan] Blaney or [Ross] Chastain, who wins the regular season championship? Shirley S., Hartford, Conn.

There is a small breakaway of three cars at the top of the points classification. After the Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Chase Elliott leads his old friend Ryan Blaney by 47 points, with 2022 standout and Food Lion pugilist Ross Chastain just three points behind. These three drivers are the only drivers within a race of the lead (60 points, including stages) with seven races remaining in the regular season.

It’s the boring pick for sure, but my bet is on Elliott to maintain his current points lead and bring the regular season title back to Dawsonville, Georgia.

Over the past few weeks, Elliott has gone from the guy quietly leading the points to the guy leading the points very hard and obviously, culminating in the win at his home track in Atlanta that made him the only three-time winner in the race so far. now in 2022. The story was ‘how no one noticed Chase Elliott was racing so consistently’, but after two wins and a second-place finish in the last three races, plus a four-straight stage win streak, the story suddenly became: “Can someone arrest Chase Elliott? And I don’t think so.

Blaney might have the best chance. After all, he really warmed up at this time last year and is the defending winner in the upcoming races at Michigan and Daytona. Blaney is the only driver to match Elliott’s total of five stage wins, but has yet to win a points-paying race in 2020. In fact, Blaney is feeling the added pressure. If he fails to win the regular season title from Elliott and there are three new winners (e.g. Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell and Kevin Harvick), the No. 12 team could miss out. the playoffs.

But the biggest demerit in Blaney’s column is the little horse in the front of his race car. Of the top nine lap leaders in 2022, fourth-placed Blaney is the only Ford driver. While his Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Austin Cindric both took wins, as did Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe, the Next Gen Mustang didn’t show the same speed, especially on the intermediate tracks. and aero-heavy road courses, like Chevys and Toyotas. . Michigan International Speedway, Pocono Raceway, Watkins Glen International and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course will all likely pose a challenge for the Blue Oval brigade, and for that reason, I don’t see Blaney leaving with the gear.

What about Chastain? He’s shown a pretty remarkable ability to consistently lead in so-called wild card races, winning at Circuit of the Americas and Talladega Superspeedway earlier this year, with two road courses and a superspeedway between now and the playoffs, and Chastain behind the wheel of a slick Chevy Camaro, you’d think the points title was wide open.

Yes, Chastain has been good on road courses and superspeedways this year, and he even has momentum on those types of tracks: he’s riding a two-straight top-five streak at Road America and Atlanta. The problem is, Elliott beat him convincingly in both races. Chastain’s shrewd ability to finish on the periphery of the top five every week in his first season for Trackhouse Racing Team was the biggest surprise of 2022, and when other teams struggled to master Next Gen cars, it would have been enough. Right now, Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 9 is class in the field, and even if they don’t have the best car (see Nashville Superspeedway), the team and driver can fight their way to the top. victoire. For the first time this season, Chastain isn’t the sexiest driver in the garage.

This may not bother Chastain and the Trackhouse team. Trackhouse owner Justin Marks has said on several occasions that he doesn’t care about championships yet, but rather focuses on individual racing performance. To his credit, despite a series of on-track break-ins, Chastain’s results didn’t drop at all, Elliott’s just improved.

Elliott, Blaney and Chastain have always been running forward all season, but since Nashville, the No. 9 team has always been running. at forward, and that will make all the difference.

Is Zane Smith a good option for the [No.] 8 cars in 2024? Harry D., Plano, TX.

Well, the season has definitely gone silly. With the surprise announcement Tuesday July 12 that Tyler Reddick will join Toyota and 23XI Racing for 2024, the social media speculation machine went into a frenzy trying to decide who should take over Reddick’s current Richard Childress Racing seat. in 18 months (if not sooner). Aside from the usual collection of NASCAR Xfinity Series favorites and respected Cup Series mates, one name stood out: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series points leader Zane Smith.

After dipping his toes in water with just one truck start in 2018 driving a Toyota DGR-Crosley, Smith signed a part-time contract to drive JR Motorsports’ number 8 in the Xfinity Series in 2019. The Huntington Beach, California native made 10 starts that year, scoring just two top five finishes before dropping back down to the Truck Series for 2020. Over the next two years, Smith would win three times for GMS Racing, winning twice the championship 4 and finishing second. on both occasions.

Amazingly, Smith jumped ship from Chevrolet to Ford before the start of 2022, joining Front Row Motorsports to run No. 38. The move has paid off with a career year so far: three wins and the title of the regular season practically blocked. , as well as a 17th-place finish on his Cup Series debut while covering Chris Buescher, who has COVID-19.

The fact that RFK Racing called him up when they needed a reserve driver would indicate that Ford Racing has a high opinion of Smith as a future talent, and beat fellow Cup champion and co-owner Brad Keselowski in his first outing certainly helped his case for the Coupe Series.

The problem is, after completely dominating the Truck Series, where does Smith go next? RFK Racing and Team Penske have ended their Xfinity Series programs in recent years, and Stewart-Haas Racing has switched to a single car, Riley Herbst’s #98, which brings sponsorship and has shown real signs of improvement. in 2022. RSS Racing, owned by the Sieg family, and SS-Green Light Racing, winners of Auto Club Speedway this season with Cole Custer, are the only other Ford-backed operations in the Xfinity Series, and while both teams have raced forward this season, neither has the budget to really race for the title.

Should Smith leave Ford Racing? With Austin Cindric entering the Cup Series this season, he is its most promising lower-series driver, so Ford is unlikely to want to let him go. He could pull a Reddick and try to prepare for the RCR open seat by joining RCR’s Xfinity program, and there may also be open seats in the Chevrolet family at JRM or Kaulig Racing depending on where the dominoes of the Cup fall.

Still, the far more likely outcome is either one of the Ford’s Cup teams bringing back their Xfinity program or SHR expanding to a second car. As far as the Ford Motor Company is concerned, money isn’t much of an issue, and with Keselowski likely thinking of retirement in the next few years, Smith could find himself the clear favorite for the famous No. 6 sooner rather than later. .

Smith will probably need at least a year in Xfinity before any Cup contending team (RCR or anyone else) will give him a chance, but I have no doubt that Ford is ready for it. help to take this step. I predict we will hear a lot more about Smith in the years to come.

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