For XFINITY Series, the Chase starts Saturday

The second NASCAR XFINITY Series race of the season at Kentucky Speedway carries some added significance.

It's the opener of the series' inaugural seven-race championship Chase.

Twelve drivers enter the 300 at 8 p.m. Saturday with title hopes still alive. That number will be cut to four through two elimination rounds preceding the season finale on Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The highest finisher of the final four drivers in that race will win the championship.

"I'm treating it as if I wasn't even part of the Chase," said Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. "I'm just treating it as another race. Erik (Jones) is probably the favorite to win. There's a lot on the line for those guys. It would be a heck of a story if they didn't make it in though, but you never know what can happen.

"There's a lot that can go down. There could be contact between whoever. Blown motors. Blown tires. You never know. Mother nature comes through and changes things up. It's just taking it one race at a time. Don't get caught up in the hype and just go out and do what you do."

The 12 drivers who qualified for the Chase start with 2,000 points, plus three bonus points for each victory earned during the 26-race regular season. Drivers are ranked in order of the reset points.

Jones won four races, good for 12 bonus points, and is the top seed. Elliott Sadler (two victories) and Daniel Suarez (one victory) are the only other Chase drivers who start with greater than 2,000 points. In addition to Wallace, Ty Dillon, Justin Allgaier, Brendan Gaughan, Brennan Poole, Ryan Sieg, Ryan Reed, Brandon Jones and Blake Koch are the other Chase drivers.

A victory by any of those drivers on Saturday will advance them to the Round of 8.

"We'd love to get a win here (Saturday) night and be locked in and not have to worry about it," said Jones, who has an average finish of 4.7 in three career XFINITY Series starts at Kentucky. "At the same time, you have to be conservative. It's easy to put yourself in a bad position, especially on a repave, so we don't want to do that. We want to make sure we finish and get a strong finish out of it. Definitely, if a win's there, we want to go for it. It's a fine balance. You're definitely points racing at the same time but I think we're going to be charging for that win pretty hard."

Out of the 12 Chase drivers, only Gaughan has an XFINITY Series victory to his credit at Kentucky Speedway. But he's not the only Chase driver with a trophy from Kentucky in his collection. Dillon scored a Truck Series victory in 2013 and Reed and Poole have won at Kentucky in the ARCA Racing Series.

"At the end of the day, you've got to be smart, and we've got 12 guys in this group that all know how to race smart," Wallace said. "All of us have brain farts every once in awhile. But at the end of the day, we know what we're going out there. So we can race hard and race respectfully. I say that, but hell, we might go out there and look like Bowman Gray (Stadium)."

Jones showed Friday that he has a strong car. He led each of the two practices. In final practice, he not only posted the fastest lap (188.022 mph) but also the best 10 consecutive lap average (183.903).

"I think it's fast," Jones said of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. "Hopefully we can qualify up front and stay up front. It's going to be big on track position. I was out on that last run and kind of got behind a couple of cars and really got stuck behind them for a while. It was pretty tough to get around them. Hopefully we can qualify up front and show that speed. I feel really good about it. The car is good. It's just a matter of getting out front and seeing where it goes."

BEATING THE HEAT: Goodyear brought a new right-side tire for Saturday's XFINITY Series race after some competitors' tires blistered during the July race.

"Tires were big," Wallace said. "You thought you were good. You thought you were good. And then all of a sudden you had chunks coming out of your tires 30 or 40 laps in."

The new tire features a minor construction change and a compound change to be more heat resistant.

"It's a little bit more forgiving," Jones said. "Overall, I think that's the biggest thing. Speed-wise, I think we're pretty close. We've been firing off similar speeds. It's a little more temperature sensitive but other than that it's pretty similar."

VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: Allgaier did not score a victory during the regular season and is fine with being labeled an underdog in the series' inaugural Chase.

The format is not new to him as Allgaier was exposed to it while racing full-time in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 and 2015.

"The only thing I learned about it was the things that you don't want to do," he said. "You look at the things that put yourself in trouble, the calls that you go, 'Man, that would've been a great call had we been in the regular season, but that was a terrible call during the Chase.' The other part of it, for me, is just expecting the unexpected. When you have a tire go down, or you have a bad pit stop, or you have a speeding penalty, don't let that define your Chase. One bad race and honestly you could end your Chase hopes. Usually, the first mistake is followed up by a second one. So it's not making that second mistake and then keeping yourself in position to be able to move forward in these races."

DOUBLE DUTY: Dating to the summer of 2011, the No. 22 car belonging to Team Penske has won five of the past 10 XFINITY Series races at Kentucky Speedway.

Two of those victories came with Ryan Blaney behind the wheel, including last season's 300. This weekend, he is pulling double duty and will be the only Sprint Cup Series regular in the 300 field.

Blaney drives for Wood Brothers Racing in the Sprint Cup Series and spent Friday in New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Austin Cindric subbed for Blaney in the No. 22 in the XFINITY Series practices at Kentucky Speedway. Blaney is expected to arrive in Kentucky in time for XFINITY Series qualifying at 4:45 p.m. Saturday.