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Xfinity has bankable star in Elliott

NASCAR's top developmental series has always been about opportunity for young stock car drivers.

But 2015 is a year of opportunity for the rebranded Xfinity Series itself.

The arrival of communication giant Comcast's Xfinity brand as title sponsor (replacing Nationwide Insurance, which had branding rights since 2008) gives NASCAR the opportunity to project more of a modern, high-tech image for a series that has sometimes struggled to find its niche.

"Xfinity is an innovative company, and they're leading their industry with both distribution and technology for video, and being the lead internet provider," remarked NASCAR CEO Brian France. "That's exactly what we're trying to do at NASCAR in a different way."

Xfinity caught a huge break to kick off its 10-year sponsorship of the series because it has a genuine star to promote in the form of defending series champion Chase Elliott. The 19-year-old son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott already has been anointed as Jeff Gordon's replacement in Hendrick Motorsports' No. 24 Sprint Cup Series for 2016, but for the time being, he's back to defend his Xfinity title in a JR Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro.

"The biggest thing is trying to just stay focused on this year, knowing that there's a lot of racing left," Chase Elliott said. "Everybody is talking about 2016, but I need to stay focused on 2015. There's a lot of Xfinity races this year, I have a lot of goals and as a team we have a lot of things we want to try to get better at.

"I'm just trying to keep all that in mind and just learn as much as we can," he added. "I hope we can compete for a championship this year and get some more wins."

The biggest recent change in the philosophy of the Xfinity Series came in 2011, when NASCAR decreed that every driver had to declare championship eligibility for one of three championships -- Sprint Cup, Xfinity or Camping World Truck Series. The intention was to prevent Cup drivers from "cherry picking" the title from Xfinity Series regulars.

Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer all won what were then called Nationwide Series championships while moonlighting from their day jobs in the Cup series.

Cup drivers may no longer be eligible for the Xfinity championship, but since the rule change in 2011, they have still won 76 percent of Xfinity Series races, the majority split between Busch and Brad Keselowski.

Busch is the all-time leader with 70 race wins at the Xfinity Series level, including a record 12 in 2013 when Cup drivers won 29 of 33 Xfinity races.

Other Cup drivers expected to make regular Xfinity appearances in 2015 include Keselowski, Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne.

While those drivers are most likely to be Elliott's main competition for race wins, his championship challengers are likely to be a mix of young up-and-comers like himself mixed in with a few former Cup veterans including Elliott Sadler.

Sadler is the veteran presence in a young Roush Fenway Racing lineup that also features Ryan Reed and Chris Buescher.

"I feel like I'm back home with Ford," Sadler said. "The Ford Motor Co. gave me my first big break in racing with the Wood Brothers, so it's great to be back in that family, especially with Doug Yates horsepower. We know we'll always have plenty of motor and I hope to get a lot of wins for those guys this year."

RFR's biggest news is the signing of Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., the most talented African-American racer to emerge in years and the first to race full time in NASCAR since the days of Hall of Famer Wendell Scott.

Fifty years passed between Scott's historic win in a NASCAR Grand National race in 1963 and Wallace's first triumph in the Camping World Truck Series for Joe Gibbs Racing at Martinsville Speedwayin October 2013. Wallace added four more race wins and finished third in the Truck series points in 2014, but without the prospect of a full-time ride in the Xfinity Series, he left the Gibbs organization to join RFR.

"It's exciting and different for me," Wallace said. "I didn't know what to expect, but it's been a great jump for me and the next step in my career. We're counting down the days.

"Trevor Bayne [now a Cup series driver for Roush] talked to me about some of the negatives the team has been through, but I'm looking forward to helping them bounce back," Wallace added. "They hit on the negatives they were missing and they turned them into positives. There's been a lot of hard work and excitement in the shop with my guys."

Aside from Elliott, Chevrolet's top championship hopes lie with JR Motorsports' Regan Smith and the Richard Childress Racing trio of Ty Dillon, Brian Scott and Brendan Gaughan.

Dillon is trying to emulate his older brother Austin's feat of winning the Xfinity championship for RCR and advancing to Sprint Cup.

"I want to win a lot of races and I have the opportunity to do that in all the series I'm running," Ty Dillon said. "But I won't feel I accomplished my main goal of the year unless I win that Xfinity championship."

Daniel Suarez (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Erik Jones (Kyle Busch Motorsports) are expected to be the top full-time Toyota runners.

There are no major changes to the Xfinity Series cars this year, but the qualification rules are slightly modified. The fastest 33 cars in the 40-car field are locked in based on lap speeds, followed by the top six non-qualified cars on owner points and a single past champion's provisional.