Friday 5: Erik Jones balances playoff bid and future

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As Erik Jones prepares for one last chance to make the Cup playoffs this year, he also focuses on his future.

With a pair of Cup wins, two playoff appearances and youth on his resume, Jones is selling himself to teams for next year after Joe Gibbs Racing decided not to extend his contract.

“I’ve been burning up the phone more in the last two or three weeks since I found out I wasn’t going to be back at JGR,” he told reporters this week. “Just trying to work on opportunities and find out what is out there for next year because I didn’t have really an inkling that I was going to be in that spot.

“I guess that’s probably more of what I’ve been focused on right now, which is unfortunate because I want to be focused on racing 100 percent and be able to do what I need to do there and go and be competitive each and every week. I’ve been putting in the time on that as well. It definitely seems it has been split more to the side of me trying to work on opportunities for next year.”

Jones declined to reveal which teams he’s had discussions with but is optimistic he’ll be in winning equipment next year.

“There are still some other dominoes to fall in the sport to make the decisions for them and what they’re going to do,” he said. “I feel good about the couple of opportunities that we’ve got out there right now.”

He also notes he faces some challenges in securing a ride.

“I don’t have sponsors with me to move around and any kind of money to bring,” he said. “That’s been part of the challenge.”

Erik Jones celebrates after winning the Busch Clash in February. He likely needs to win Saturday night at Daytona to make the playoffs for a third year in a row. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jones previously said he was “blindsided” by JGR’s decision to let him go after talks had progressed on a contract extension. Plans changed after Bob Leavine sold Leavine Family Racing. That left Toyota without a place to put either Jones or rookie Christopher Bell. Toyota and JGR went with Bell. Jones was left without a ride for next year.

Joey Logano can relate to what Jones is experiencing. Logano was not retained by JGR, opening a place for Matt Kenseth to join in 2013.

Logano texted Jones to see how he was doing. Although they are not close, Jones asked to meet Logano for lunch to talk.

“He went from not being 100% competitive where he wanted to be at JGR to being obviously a champion after he left,” Jones said of Logano, who won the 2018 Cup title for Team Penske. “I kind of wanted to know what switched for him and what really clicked for him after he left. … It was an enlightening conversation.”

Jones’ immediate goal, is making the playoffs for a third consecutive year. The 24-year-old all but needs to win Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Daytona (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App) to do so.

He scored his first career Cup win in the July 2018 Daytona race. Jones also won the crash-filled Busch Clash to open this season in February.

“Both of those races my car was pretty destroyed, so I don’t know that laying back and trying to avoid the wrecks helps that much,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you’re still in it with five to go or 10 to go, even if you’ve got damage, it seems like it doesn’t really matter.

“I know there is going to be a lot of aggression.”

2. A life-changing experience

It’s tempting to look ahead to what could be, but Matt DiBenedetto is focused on making the playoffs for the first time.

DiBenedetto is in danger of falling out of a playoff spot after large leads on William Byron and Jimmie Johnson disappeared the past three races.

DiBenedetto is 15th in the playoff standings heading into Saturday night’s race at Daytona. Byron, who holds what would be the 16th and final playoff spot trails DiBenedetto by five points. Johnson trails DiBenedetto by nine points.

Matt DiBenedetto is on the cusp of making the Cup playoffs for the first time. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It’s probably going to be a game of survival when it comes down to the very end, especially as desperate as a lot of people will be,” DiBenedetto said. “We’ll be paying pretty close attention to what those guys are doing. Where they’re at. If they’re getting into any trouble or anything like that, but it changes lap by lap at Daytona.”

Two weeks ago, DiBenedetto led Byron by 37 points and Johnson by 57 points.

DiBenedetto’s advantage narrowed after he placed 15th at the Daytona road course and then 20th in the Saturday Dover race and 17th the next day. Johnson has finished no worse than seventh in the last three races. Byron scored two top 10s in those three races.

As far as where my emotions are at I haven’t been able to answer it real well,” he said. “Because it’s like, man, am I excited that we have a shot to make the playoffs? For sure. Am I frustrated that we had a much bigger cushion and we had a bad couple Dover races and lost a whole bunch of points? Yeah. Am I a little uneasy knowing that the cutoff race is Daytona and not like a short track or some more straightforward race? Yeah.”

Should he get through Daytona, he’ll have a chance at the title. While Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will be the favorites, DiBenedetto could imagine being the champion in November.

“This stuff is life-changing for me if we make the playoffs,” he said. “Because not only knowing that we could just make them and be there, knowing that we have the speed and the team to really go and compete and hopefully make it through rounds and make a big splash in the playoffs and you’re in the fight for a championship.”

3. Teamwork

Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Jimmie Johnson are racing for the final playoff spots. While there is a chance both could advance, it’s possible they could race each other for the final playoff spot.

Johnson, the seven-time champion, seeks to avoid missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year. Byron seeks to make the playoffs for a second year in a row.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Cliff Daniels enter Daytona outside a playoff spot. (Photo: Getty Images)

The question is how much will their teams work with each other?

Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Johnson, said he’s had conversations with Chad Knaus, crew chief for Byron.

Very close in our communication in what we’re doing with our cars and what we’re doing with our strategy,” Daniels said. “I’m so thankful, along the course of my career, working with the No. 48. Chad, I was his engineer for a while, and he was a great leader and great mentor. He was very supportive of my switch to the role of crew chief on this team. He still loves Jimmie to death and loves his team.

“Chad and I were talking the other day and we both want each other to be in the playoffs, just not quite as much as we want ourselves to be in the playoffs, right? So, it’s been great to have a relationship with that team. Those guys have done a good job digging out of the few holes that they’ve been in. I know that they’re going to be strong and tough.

I hope to work with them, and we are going to work with them, all night Saturday night and put ourselves both in a good spot. And I would love to be side-by-side, door-to-door with them, with points in the bag, coming to the finish line for the final checkered flag with those guys. It would be a great position to be in.”

4. Is this his time?

Saturday night’s regular-season finale provides drivers outside a playoff spot hope. That’s not something they could truly say about past regular-season finales.

Only once in the last four regular-season Cup races did a driver outside a playoff spot finish in the top five. Bubba Wallace placed third at Indianapolis last year.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters Saturday night’s race at Daytona outside a playoff spot but a win would give him a chance to race for a Cup title. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For those seeking playoff bubble drama, Indianapolis was not an ideal track to host the regular-season finale because of the unlikelihood of a surprise winner. Richmond hosted the regular-season finale before that. It’s last two regular-season finales saw only one driver outside a playoff spot entering that event finish in the top 10.

Daytona offers more of a chance for a surprise winner. Justin Haley scored his first career Cup win in last July’s rain-shortened race. Erik Jones scored his first career Cup win in the July 2018 race there.

That gives Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hope. He finished second to Ryan Blaney by inches at Talladega in June in the most recent superspeedway race.

Stenhouse’s previous two Cup wins came at Talladega and Daytona in 2017. Could he race his way into the playoffs with a win Saturday night?

“We have a lot better shot to win here than we did at Indy or Richmond in those final regular season races,” Stenhouse said. “But, to me, I don’t really feel like I’m going into this race any different than I would if it was in July. I still feel like the July race is our opportunity to make it into the playoffs.

“Yeah, it’s kind of a little more dramatic with it being the final race of the regular season and it’s super nerve-racking for those three that are trying to get in on points. So, they will be tiptoeing around and making sure they get to the end, but stage points are also critical for them.

“It’ll be kind of crazy, as far as that scenario goes – that playoff bubble. And then if somebody like ourselves or somebody outside of the playoffs gets a win, I think that’s kind of the thing that’s exciting – makes it come down to the final lap in the last race of the regular season because there’s multiple people that can win and move somebody out of the playoffs.”

5. A race of his own

Mac MacLeod’s interest in motorsports comes naturally. His great-grandfather raced stock cars and was a thrill show stunt driver in Canada. MacLeod grew up in Blind River, Ontario, Canada, about six hours north of Michigan International Speedway.

He followed his love of motorsports to North Carolina. MacLeod graduated in May 2018 from Belmont Abbey College in the Charlotte suburb of Belmont, North Carolina. 

He works at Front Row Motorsports, serving as the social/digital media manager and public relations manager. MacLeod works with driver Michael McDowell. MacLeod handles various media and partnership duties related to it. Before NASCAR reduced the number of team personnel at the track because of COVID-19, he was at the track most weekends. He now does the same work at home as many others in similar positions for other teams. 

As the season moves closer to the end, MacLeod faces his own challenge in securing a visa to continue his work. With restructuring in visas, what MacLeod must have has changed. His current visa expires at the end of January.

It’s just an example of some of the challenges those in the sport can have as NASCAR draws people from outside the U.S., whether they are engineers, mechanics or work on the business side of the sport. 

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NASCAR viewer’s guide for Charlotte Roval

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Sunday provides a final chance for drivers to advance to the Round of 8 and keep their Cup championship hopes alive.

Talladega winner Chase Elliott is the only driver who has advanced to the next round. That leaves seven spots available going into Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe holds the final transfer spot by a tiebreaker over Austin Cindric. At least for now.

William Byron is 11 points behind both drivers, but Hendrick Motorsports will appeal Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas on Thursday. Should Hendrick win and Byron get those points back, he would move into a transfer spot.

There’s just part of what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

Favorites to be No. 20

This season remains tied for the most different winners in series history at 19, but there are a few candidates who could become the 20th different winner this year on Sunday.

Among the favorites to do so:

Ryan Blaney, who came close to winning last week at Talladega, won the inaugural Cup race at the Roval in 2018.

Martin Truex Jr., who has four career Cup wins on road courses, still seeks his first victory of the season.

Michael McDowell, who is coming off a third-place finish at Talladega, has had a career-high 12 top-10 finishes this season, including top 10s in each of the last four road course events this year.

Will history repeat?

Last year, the four drivers eliminated after the Roval were Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell and William Byron.

Harvick was eliminated in the first round this year, but Byron (-11 to the cutline) and Bell (-33) are in jeopardy of being eliminated in this round again. Bowman stated Tuesday that he will miss his second consecutive race because of continued concussion symptoms. He will be among the four eliminated from title contention.

Bowman missed last weekend’s race because of concussion-like symptoms suffered at Texas. A decision on if he’ll be able to race at the Roval will come later this week.

Will chaos continue?

Consider what some of the former Roval winners have endured on their way to the checkered flag:

In 2019, Chase Elliott drove into the Turn 1 wall on a restart while the leader. He recovered to win.

In 2020, Elliott overcame a loose wheel to win for the second year in a row.

In 2021, Kyle Larson won after his team changed batteries and put the alternator belt back on.

Could a similar fate be in store for this year’s winner? Or will they have a cleaner day?

Entry lists

Thirty-nine drivers are entered including IndyCar driver Conor Daly, former Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat, former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and former 24 Hours of Daytona winner Joey Hand. JJ Yeley will drive the No. 51 for Cody Ware, who stated that he would skip this event because of his ankle injury at Texas the footwork needed on a road course.

Charlotte Roval Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are IndyCar driver Marco Andretti and former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat.

Charlotte Roval Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Oct. 8

Forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 66 degrees. No chance of rain during the Xfinity race.

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 64 degrees. No chance of rain during the race.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).