Preece wasn’t eligible for next week’s Dash 4 Cash race because he’s not entered in the event.
Christopher Bell’s chances for the Dash 4 Cash ended after a hard hit just before the halfway point in the 300-lap race. Vinnie Miller and Cody Ware crashed, and Bell’s car went into a slide when he applied the brakes and slammed Miller’s car.
Stage 1 winner: Christopher Bell
Stage 2 winner: Ryan Preece
Who had a good race: Anybody who made it through with all the cautions. … Shane Lee was impressive in his Xfinity debut, driving for Richard Childress Racing. He was headed for a top-10 finish before he got into the wall with less than 20 laps left. Still, he had a strong run and performed well throughout the race. He placed 14th. … Justin Allgaier’s runner-up finish marked his fourth top–three finish in the last five races. … Elliott Sadler is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all seven races this season. … Ross Chastain finished ninth for his third top-10 finish of the year. He had two top 10s all last season. … Alex Labbe placed a career-best 11th.
Who had a bad race: Matt Tifft finished a season-worst 35th after he was involved in two incidents. It ended his streak of 15 consecutive top-20 finishes, dating to last season. … Kaz Grala was eliminated in an early crash and finished a season-worst 38th. … John Hunter Nemechek was running third when he had a tire go down and had to pit under green with 30 laps to go, ending his chances for a win. He finished 13th.
Notable: Spencer Gallagher, making his 47th series start, earned his first career top-five finish by placing fifth.
Quote of the day: “That’s the second time this weekend that I’ve crashed from guys going seconds off the pace. Can’t slow down whenever they spin out, and it’s frustrating,’’ Christopher Bell after being eliminated by a crash.
Next: The series races at Richmond at 7 p.m. ET on April 20.
It took until March 9 for Matt Tifft to realize it wasn’t 2017 anymore.
During a press conference at ISM Raceway, Tifft was not introduced as the driver of the No. 19 Toyota owned by Joe Gibbs Racing.
That honor went to the driver sitting to his left – Brandon Jones.
“I was like, ‘Oh wait, that’s not me,’” Tifft said that day.
On race days in the Xfinity Series, Tifft now pilots Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevrolet.
The end of the 2017 season and resulting offseason saw arguably the silliest of “Silly Seasons” in recent NASCAR history.
Drivers retired, got promotions, were forced to unceremoniously retire and in a few cases, swapped teams.
The last option was the case for Tifft and Jones.
A STEP BACK
Things did not go well last year for either driver.
The 21-year-old driver calls his last 33 races with RCR “bizarre” and “confusing.”
It started with Jones on the pole for the season-opener at Daytona.
It ended with Jones 16th in the standings (he was 10th in 2016). He recorded no top fives, three top 10s and seven DNFs.
“It was definitely rough time, man,” Jones says. “It was just confusing because we had guys on the team and stuff that were top-of-the line guys and we put this team together and we were honestly having so much fun as a team that it almost took away from having bad luck and bad runs and stuff.”
“I had everything possible except for a blown motor that could have gone wrong,” Jones says. “It was just bizarre. Couldn’t ever catch a break. We kind of put that behind ourselves this year. Wanted to try and start fresh whenever I made the move to JGR.”
WELCOME TO WELCOME
In the middle of 2017, Tifft had a conversation with Ben Kennedy, then one of the drivers rotating in and out of RCR’s No. 2 car.
Kennedy brought up his crew chief, Randall Burnett.
“I just lean on this guy because he’s got to much experience,” Kennedy said. Burnett was in his first season as an Xfinity crew chief. In 2016, he was crew chief for AJ Allmendinger in Cup after 10 years as a Chip Ganassi Racing engineer.
“That was way before I knew I was going to RCR,” Tifft told NBC Sports.
In October, the 21-year-old driver was announced as moving to RCR after one full-time season with JGR.
While his rotating cast of teammates won 12 of 33 races in 2017, Tifft came up empty. He earned just two top fives, at Mid-Ohio and Road America, and 13 top 10s.
Even without a win Tifft made the playoffs, where he placed in the top 10 in seven of the eight races. But was eliminated after the second round.
“I felt like we were competitive in the playoffs. That’s the time there I felt like we were starting to get there. But it took that long,” Tifft says. “I think I just had a hard time putting the races together and dealing with pressure and the ups and downs. I don’t think I knew exactly how to handle it. I think part of it was I didn’t know how to prepare for it, too.”
Tifft eventually found himself eating lunch at “one of the few restaurants” in Welcome, North Carolina, where RCR is headquartered.
With him was Burnett, who he had found out that day would be his crew chief in 2018.
“I felt like there was just a really good connection there as far as personalities and where he was at,” Tifft says. “This deal is so stressful that you’ve got to be able to have that trust in a relationship with your crew chief. Jimmie Johnson talks about it all the time. It really is a relationship. You’ve got to have that.”
Early on Tifft established a clear understanding with his car chief, Cam Strader.
“He said straight up, ‘Hey, we’re going to bust our tails to make sure that we’re bringing the best stuff for you but you make sure you focus on what you need to do, not only from a driver side of things, but also from a promotional side of things.,’” Tifft says. “If we’re out doing events and stuff and I can’t be at the shop that one day they understand because I want to make it clear to them if I’m not in the shop I’m doing something that’s productive for our race team.”
Tifft is keeping his side of the deal with Strader.
Where race preparation was a weakness last season, Tifft isn’t just relying on resources provided by RCR to improve.
He’s getting a little help from “the hardest working” guy he knows in the garage – Blake Koch.
While Tifft and Jones landed safely during “Silly Season,” Koch found himself without a ride at the end of 2017, replaced at Kaulig Racing by Ryan Truex.
Now, through a mutual connection who manages drivers, he’s Tifft’s unofficial driver coach.
“It wasn’t like I was in a dire situation where I needed somebody like that,” Tifft says. “But I was just thinking back to when you start racing in go karts and late models and all that stuff, there’s usually a strong mentor piece or someone that’s looking out for you. I felt like I was going to have a very strong foundation there this year at RCR with having (Daniel) Hemric as a teammate and whoever’s rotating through the 3 car is going to be really strong I felt like. Anything I could do to try to step up my game and keep on accelerating that learning curve to where I can make our organization better by being a better teammate, just trying to give the best effort I could.”
Koch, who has 213 Xfinity starts since 2009, helps Tifft with his workouts, weekend prep and debriefs him after the race weekend.
“He’s very particular about every single thing I’m doing,” Tifft says. “From first lap on practice to coming up to speed in qualifying, your lines and techniques. … I think a lot of the fundamental stuff that you can improve on as a driver was something I felt I needed to get better at last year and I felt like I made that jump in the playoffs.”
Koch is even picky about “garage flow,” an effort to declutter Tifft’s mind at a track
“When you show up to a race track and you get in your car you shouldn’t have to wonder how the heck you get on the race track,” Koch says. “When you get to the race track, the only thing you should have to think about is hitting your marks and running in a perfect line and focusing on your task at hand, not the other small details that are just cluttering your mind.”
What’s been Koch’s emphasis through the first few weeks of their partnership?
Tifft points to being more efficient in passing.
For Koch, it’s all about restarts
“That was the main thing we focused on going into the year, let’s be the best at restarts,” Koch says. “I think five races in he’s had better restarts than he had in the entire year last year and that’s pretty important in our series right now with the stages, with track position being so important. I would say that’s the No. 1 improvement.”
There’s not that much different in terms of resources when it comes to teams like RCR and JGR.
But Jones has found there’s a difference in how they’re used.
No more so than when it comes to simulator time.
Every Tuesday, he and teammate Christopher Bell spend the day in Toyota Racing Development’s simulator. Bell takes the morning shift and Jones takes over in the afternoon.
“We’re there and talking to each other and bouncing stuff off each other, what’s working and what didn’t,” Jones says. “That’s been a really big help for me this year. There were times last year where I was able to run a little bit on the simulator, but it wasn’t every single week and it wasn’t a set date. That’s been one of the things that’s been really cool about going to Toyota this year is just having a set date for their simulator every single week.”
Also, there’s data. So much data. The information proved to Jones that simply having better cars wasn’t the only reason the field was left chasing JGR the last few years.
“I think they were available to me at RCR, either I didn’t know to ask for it was they didn’t cram it down my throat kind of deal,” says Jones. “I get everything possible I can for a driver.”
Some of that info comes straight from the mouths of JGR’s Cup drivers.
“Even when it comes to talking to Kyle Busch or one of those guys on how they do pit stops, ‘Man, I do it way differently, but your way is more effective, so I’m going to work on doing it that way.’” Jones says. “It’s hard to know how to do all that stuff without ever being taught it. At the end of the day, some of it’s pretty obvious when they show it to you, but you would have never thought of doing stuff like that without seeing it.”
BACK ON TRACK
Whether it’s data, equipment or luck, Tifft and Jones’ first five races of 2018 are a marked improvement from last year.
Following Saturday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Jones has two top 10s and he’s finished outside the top 15 once.
Last year, he didn’t have a top 10 until race 13. He’s also catching breaks he didn’t in 2017.
At Atlanta, he cut a tire and brushed the wall, but narrowly avoided being rammed by cars as he dove to pit road. He finished 17th.
At Phoenix, Jones “saw my life flash before my eyes” when he avoided a lapped car on the backstretch that didn’t have power steering. He placed 11th.
In Fontana, after a harmless spin in practice, he kept from wrecking with Kaz Grala at the checkered flag. He finished 13th.
“Just about everywhere we were pretty quick,” Jones says. “We’re very close. I think by the end of the year, we’re going to be very, very close if not right there with them. … We’ve got the long-run speed figured out. It’s more just trying to figure out how to get short-run speed out of me and how to qualify just a little better.”
Tifft has seen improvement every week. After finishing 19th at Daytona, he had finishes of 12th, 11th, seventh and then eighth in Fontana after starting 20th.
His first consecutive top 10s last year weren’t until races 11 and 12.
Even though they’ve swapped teams, Tifft doesn’t see Jones as his head-to-head competition, at least not yet.
“To be focused on one car and beating them is kind of stupid unless you’re in the Dash 4 Cash or the playoffs,” Tifft says. “It’s too early in the year to say we need to go out and beat the 19 car. You’d just drive yourself crazy for no reason.”
“Total team effort there,” Logano told Fox Sports 1. “Great pit stops, great car, oh my gosh. It’s one of those races that you feel relieved when you win. … Man, you’re supposed to win when you have a car that fast.”
Logano led 139 of 150 laps. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 5. He didn’t relinquish it until he was the only leader to pit on Lap 122 during a debris caution.
He restarted 16th and was back in the lead within four laps.
Logano was the only one to pit because on the previous caution he was the only leader who stayed out. He managed to retain the lead.
“I did not opt to do that, (crew chief) Brian (Wilson) opted to do that,” Logano said. “It ended up working out. I thought we were going to lose more track position than we did. … Just shows how fast our car was.”
It’s the second consecutive win for Team Penske after Brad Keselowski won last week at ISM Raceway.
The win, Logano’s 29th, is his first in the Xfinity Series since the March 2017 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
STAGE 1 WINNER: Joey Logano
STAGE 2 WINNER: Joey Logano
WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Austin Dillon finished fourth after starting 19th … Daniel Hemric finished fifth for his best finish of the season … Ross Chastain finished 10th for his ninth top 10 and just his third on a non-restrictor plate track.
NOTABLE: Team Penske is now winless at three active tracks in the Xfinity Series … Joey Logano joins Jack Ingram as the second driver to finish in the top seven in his first 10 starts at a track (Ingram did it at three different tracks).
POST-RACE INSPECTION: Ryan Preece‘s No. 18 Toyota had one unsecured lug nut.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “When you have a car that’s that strong and a driver that’s this good, sometimes he has to dig you out of some holes.” – Brian Wilson, crew chief for Joey Logano.
WHAT’S NEXT: My Bariatric Solutions 300 at Texas Motor Speedway at 3 p.m. ET on April 7 on Fox