ATW: An in-depth look at NASCAR’s minor leagues

(Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

After a rejuvenating off weekend, the stars of NASCAR are set to return to action this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS). And while the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) has stolen the majority of the limelight, the sport’s minor leagues also find themselves waiting to return from a brief hiatus.

The XFINITY Series (NXS) will return this weekend, sending a group of series regulars and young MENCS hopefuls to the half-mile BMS oval with a chance at riches and playoff points courtesy of a veteran-less Dash4Cash race. The Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) continues to lay quietly amidst a schedule lull that stretches for over a month from the prior race (Martinsville Speedway, April 1) to the next (Kansas Speedway, May 12).

Regardless of how soon they’ll be back on track, both series have supplied their own steady stream of notes and storylines throughout the early season. Here are a handful of things that have stood out from the year to date.

Stages Change Everything

Under the points system of old, all eyes would be on young prospects William Byron and Christopher Bell in the NXS and NCWTS, respectively. After all, the two young stars have arguably led the way in their respective tours – Byron with an average finish of 7.7, and Bell with a victory and average end result of just 4.0.

However, thanks to the new stage racing and the bonus points they offer, the top drivers in each tour’s standings are grizzled veterans.

In the XFINITY Series, it’s longtime contender Elliott Sadler that leads the way, besting his JR Motorsports teammate Byron by six markers in the regular season standings despite the Virginian’s DNF at Daytona International Speedway and his resulting average finish of 9.8 – which is still impressive, but trails Byron by two full positions per race.

How can this be, you ask?

Stage points.

Sadler has been noticeably better than any of his competitors at gaining stage points in the early season. The 41-year old has managed a top-10 finish in nine of the 12 stages to date, tallying a total of 62 stage points, including two playoff points for segment wins.

Earning 62 stage points out of a possible 120 thus far is an impressive feat, but it’s proven all the more incredible when compared to his championship rivals. Byron is the next highest in terms of stage points, with 43 markers. Justin Allgaier follows in third with 35 points, while Ryan Reed is a distant fourth with 22.

Heading to Bristol, Sadler holds more than twice the amount of stage points of anyone outside of the top three, and with no one else over 20 points, more than triple the amount of stage markers of anyone outside of the top four.

Sauter’s Stage Surge

The Truck Series has seen just three races due to their spread-out early schedule, but despite the limited amount of starts a similar story has already begun to play out.

Defending NCWTS champion Johnny Sauter has continued where he left off in 2016, rising quietly to a four-point advantage in the championship standings against another strong prospect from Kyle Busch Motorsports in Bell.

Much like with Sadler in Xfinity, Sauter owes his early advantage to stage points.

Sauter, 38, has been no slouch in his first three starts, averaging a finishing result of 6.8, but it’s early in the race where he’s shined brightest. The Wisconsinite has tallied 49 stage points out of a possible 60 thus far, including three playoff points for stage victories.

The GMS Racing shoe has yet to claim a race win, but his strong runs in stages has afforded the veteran a slim edge in the standings. Meanwhile, another veteran in Timothy Peters and Bell have each tallied 33 stage points. Two-time NCWTS champion Matt Crafton has earned 31 markers in stages thus far, while prospects Ben Rhodes and Chase Briscoe have managed 28 and 21 points, respectively.

Whether the advantage in stage points can continue to compensate for late-race drops remains to be seen, but regardless it’s thus far been two veterans that have made the most of NASCAR’s newest championship system to lead the way.

Familiar Faces

 

MARTINSVILLE, VA – APRIL 01: Johnny Sauter, driver of the #21 Allegiant Travel Chevrolet, leads a pack of trucks during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at Martinsville Speedway on April 1, 2017 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Take a quick glance at the top of the NCWTS point standings, and you should see a familiar scene.

Sauter. Bell. Crafton. Peters.

Save for one position swap – Bell in second over Crafton – the top four positions in the Truck Series standings are the exact same as they were leaving Homestead-Miami Speedway at the end of 2016.

They’ve combined to win just one of the opening three races (Bell at Atlanta), but consistency has separated last year’s Championship 4 from the rest of the field.

As mentioned above, Sauter, Bell, Peters and Crafton have earned more stage points than anyone else in the field. The quartet are the only series regulars to tally multiple top 10s in the opening three races, and they’ve combined to lead 320 of the 361 laps led by NCWTS drivers – MENCS stars Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott have led 117, with NXS regular Spencer Gallagher leading two.

If they can keep up this level of domination, it won’t be any surprise to see a Championship 4 repeat in Nov.

XFINITY Drivers Are Shining in the Spotlight (So Far)

Last season it took until this very week, the seventh race of the year at Bristol, for the XFINITY Series to send a series regular to victory lane.

This year, the tour heads to Tennessee with two regulars already cemented into the playoffs with wins.

Reed was the first one to make a trip to victory lane, repeating his surprising 2015 victory at Daytona with another spirited drive to the checkered flag in the season-opening race. Just three races later, the NXS regulars struck again when Allgaier held off a slew of challengers for his first NASCAR victory in five years at Phoenix Raceway.

Make no mistake, Cup drivers have still largely owned the show. Four different MENCS regulars have made their way to victory lane thus far, and the series’ best aren’t likely to stop winning any time soon.

Still, the XFINITY Series has at least managed a respectable showing thus far, and they have hope to continue the trend, particularly in this weekend’s Dash4Cash (D4C) race at Bristol.

The first D4C race, wherein Cup regulars with more than five years of experience are banned, saw a battle of Cup prospects and series stalwarts that ultimately ended in Allgaier’s victory. With luck, this weekend’s second of four D4C races could yield a similar result.

The contenders are there. Byron’s exceeded expectation for JRM. Darrell Wallace, Jr. has tallied five-straight sixth-place finishes, and a host of other drivers ranging from Daniel Hemric to Cole Custer have shown glimpses of promise throughout the first stretch of the season.

The field’s talent is apparent. The onus is now on the teams to find a way to get to victory lane.

Stuck in a Rut

While most organizations have been able to find their form quickly, a few championship hopefuls are already playing catchup after digging themselves into an early deficit.

Case in point: Richard Childress Racing (RCR).

The organization’s returning stars are each on the wrong side of the XFINITY Series playoff bubble entering Bristol. Sophomore Brandon Jones sits 13th in the standings after a sluggish start that’s seen him finish no better than 14th in the opening six races. Brendan Gaughan has seen a fifth-place run in the Daytona fizzle out with four-straight finishes of 19th or worse.

Hemric, the newest addition to the team, has performed to expectation for RCR, sitting seventh in the standings with two top 10s as he adjusts to his new ride. The occasional drives for MENCS brothers Austin and Ty Dillon have also yielded strong runs.

History suggests that Jones and Gaughan will ultimately find success, too. However, both teams have work to do if they hope to contend for playoff points through the summer months.

On a similar note, NEMCO Motorsports’ John Hunter Nemechek’s 2017 NCWTS effort has started amid of a flurry of trouble.

Make no mistake: the North Carolinian has shown flashes of speed through the opening weeks. In fact, Nemechek opened the year with a fourth-place run at Daytona. But thanks to subsequent issues at Atlanta (crash) and Martinsville (ignition box failure), the 19-year-old finds himself 15th in the standings.

All is not lost. Nemechek has 13 races to make up the points deficit, and he’s managed to win at least one race in each of the past two seasons, which could make points a non-factor for playoff eligibility.

Still, the late model standout has some ground to make up if he hopes to pass some of his fellow contenders – ARCA Racing Series champions Briscoe and Grant Enfinger, MENCS winner Regan Smith and even father Joe Nemechek among them – to rise back into the championship conversation.

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