Turn 2 Blog: Running mid-pack in the top series vs running up front in a lower series

*Turn 2 Blog is a regular feature on InsideCircleTrack.com. Here, site operators Michael Moats and Richard Allen take turns offering their thoughts on the NASCAR and pavement short track racing topics of the day.

Would you rather run mid-pack in the top series or compete for wins in a lower series?

Richard: This past Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race highlighted two drivers who are in the middle of answering that question. Both John Hunter Nemechek and Cole Custer have been in the NASCAR Cup Series and experienced little or no success. However. both have done well and are doing well after having dropped down to the lower levels.

Both have scored multiple wins this season and look to be solid championship contenders on NASCAR’s ‘second series’. Although Custer did win one NASCAR Cup Series race for Stewart-Haas Racing and made the NASCAR Playoffs once, he was never a serious threat to win a title at the Cup level. Nemechek spent one season in the top division with Front Row Motorsports then opted to leave in hopes of giving himself a chance to find victory lane.

Obviously, both would like to be in the Cup Series with contending organizations, but it would seem as though they are content with their current situations.

The other aspect to be considered is the money. Although NASCAR organizations nor drivers share their contract details with me, I would guess that it is better financially to run mid-pack in the Cup Series than to be a title contender in either NASCAR Xfinity Series or the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. So if it’s money and the status of being a Cup driver that matter most, racing in the middle of the pack might be sufficient.

But to answer the question at hand, I would rather race for wins even if it meant having a lower status in the racing world and a bit less money than to leave a race track on Sunday evening thinking that a 16th place finish was a great day.

Did John Hunter Nemechek make the right move when he dropped down?

Michael: I see it a little differently. If I’m a driver and I have confidence in my ability, I would want to be at the mid level in the Cup series in hopes of getting a better ride. It seems like when a driver is in the Cup Series and has to go back to the Xfinity Series, they don’t go back to Cup unless it’s for an even lower team.

Maybe there is a new template where a driver can drop down, have some success, and become associated with some good sponsors that help them land a solid Cup ride. But to this point, I have not seen that come about.

Is Chase Elliott in a situation where he must go all out for a win or can he still play the points game?

Richard: Because of a snowboarding injury and a suspension, Chase Elliott has missed a total of seven NASCAR Cup Series races this season. Even with that being true, the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet sits 23rd in the series standings only 60 points behind the all-important 16th position.

To make the NASCAR Playoffs, which will begin after the final ‘regular season’ race in Daytona takes the checkered flag. a driver must either win a race and/or finish in the top-16 in the standings. At the time of this writing, there were seven races remaining on the schedule before the cut is made. Of course, Elliott and his crew are capable of winning any of those events rendering this question moot. But if he doesn’t, can he still make the Playoffs?

In theory, Elliott could in fact point his way into the top-16 without a win between now and Daytona. But the problem isn’t just the number of points between he and 16th place Michael McDowell but also the fact that there are seven drivers he would have to pass along the way, anyone of which could run off a streak of good finishes to stay ahead of the 2020 champion. And, of course, there is always the chance that someone not in a Playoff spot could win a race and take away one of the remaining places.

All that said, I am not yet ready to say that Elliott is in a ‘must-win’ situation. However, if two weeks from now he has not won a race nor chopped 20-30 points off of the deficit between himself and 16th, I will say that.

Working in Elliott’s favor is the fact that none of the drivers immediately ahead of him have shown the ability to get hot over a sustained period of time. If they had shown that, they themselves would no be on the Playoff bubble. Still, he and crew chief Alan Gustafson are now at the point of having to decide just how aggressively they need to plan on being in terms of race conduct as well as fuel and pit strategies.

The next couple of weeks will be very important for this team.

Is Chase Elliott in a must-win situation?

Michael: I think he needs to win a race to make the Playoffs. I know the math is there to get in on points. At some point, the math won’t work out. He’s run pretty good, but I don’t think he’s running high enough to make a serious dent into his deficit.

I think Elliott’s best shots at wins are coming up. He should be one of the favorites at Watkins Glen and will be a serious contender at the Indy road course. Of course, Daytona is a big wild card. Otherwise, he’s not shown be enough to point his way into the top-16.

Who has the most work to do to get Playoff ready among those who are already locked in?

Richard: 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson has won two points-paying races this year, but at the same time, he has also posted seven finishes outside the top-25. Although not all of those results have been of his or his team’s own making, the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports operation has struggled with consistency. They have to find some way to eliminate the mistakes that have caused them trouble if they are to make a serious run at a second title.

Two other drivers who I believe can have a chance if they can clean up some issues are defending champion Joey Logano and Tyler Reddick. While both have shown speed this season, it seems as if each has had trouble sustaining that speed throughout entire weekends. Either of these two drivers could walk away as the 2023 champion if they and their teams can find a way to be fast right off the truck and maintain that through the checkered flag.

Kyle Larson has been a bit inconsistent in 2023

Michael: I agree with you on Larson. He’s either hit or miss, though some of the misses were results of contact with other drivers.

Christopher Bell needs to be more consistent as well. His pit crew seems to be his biggest detriment. He’s up front at most races, only to find himself mid-pack or worse after a pit stop.

I also think Denny Hamlin is another seems to be hit or miss. He’s fast most weeks, but the wins aren’t there whether it’s from pit road mistakes or getting caught up in wrecks. To me, it’s some of the same problems as he had last year.

Please consider also reading:

Brandon Sheppard looking forward to a more consistent second half

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