Auto Club finish continues strong start for Erik Jones

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Although crew chief Dave Elenz and Erik Jones had talked on the phone three or four times last year, they didn’t meet in person until the Nov. 17 Next Gen test at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In barely 100 days since Elenz started working with Jones, Elenz:

  • Witnessed Richard Petty Motorsports’ merger with GMS Racing to create Petty GMS Motorsports.
  • Executed the No. 43 team’s move to the GMS shop.
  • Overseen the team’s development of the new car.
  • Helped Jones to his best Cup finish Sunday since the 2020 season – when Jones was with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Jones’ third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway follows his fourth-place result in the Clash at the Coliseum and a Daytona 500 that saw him lead three laps before he was collected in an accident while running 11th late in the event. 

Since his contract was not extended by JGR after the 2020 season — making way for Christopher Bell to take over the No. 20 car — this three-week stretch represents the most Jones has run at the front in Cup.

“I still want to make my mark in the Cup Series,” Jones said after qualifying second at Auto Club Speedway this past weekend. “I’ve been able to win before, but I want to get back to that point. I know we’re capable of it. We just have to continue to do what we’ve been doing these last four weeks and continue it into the season.”

Jones was solid throughout Sunday’s race, showing signs that all the off-season changes are working. 

“The biggest thing it means,” Elenz told NBC Sports via phone after Sunday’s race, “is just a reward to all the hard work we’ve been doing. We’ve busted our behind with the merger, moving, getting all the people together. It’s been a lot of work. 

“Of course, the parts shortage that we have, it’s created even more work and our guys have done an outstanding job. I think we’re going on like 16 days straight working. (Finishing third is) a good reward, keeps spirits high and know that we can compete with those guys.”

The 52 points Jones earned Sunday tied winner Kyle Larson for most points scored in the race. 

As Elenz talked, he could be heard receiving congratulations in the garage for the team’s finish.

When Jones and the team looked at crew chief options for this season, Elenz was at the top of the list. 

Elenz and Jones both hail from Michigan – their hometowns are less than three hours away. Racing led Elenz away from the family’s logging company. He went to Clemson for its engineering program and proximity to the race shops near Charlotte, North Carolina. Elenz spent one spring break visiting about 40 race shops seeking an internship, which he got with Jasper Motorsports in 2001.

After college, he joined Ginn Racing as an engineer, working with Mark Martin. Elenz later moved to Red Bull Racing and was a part of the team when Brian Vickers scored the organization’s first Cup win in 2009. 

Elenz joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2012 and was an engineer on Jimmie Johnson’s 2013 championship team. Elenz went to JR Motorsports in 2015 and won Xfinity titles with William Byron in 2017 and Tyler Reddick in 2018. 

Even without experience as a Cup crew chief, Jones knew Elenz was right for him.

“I just think of what he’s done in the Xfinity Series over the last few years, where he’s worked in his career, the things he’s been able to do, the people he’s been able to work with, all molded him into the type of person and crew chief that I was looking for,” Jones told NBC Sports in January.

“The attributes that he has is, No. 1, decisiveness in a crew chief. I give feedback, and I’m looking for a change or a call, or whether we’re pitting or what we’re doing. I want somebody to give me a straight answer pretty quickly. Dave is pretty good at that. 

“(Two), someone who is engineering based. My whole career and background, especially in NASCAR, has been very engineering-heavy on the crew chief and what they can do there, and Dave has definitely got that. Three, just the experience level. If that sounds funny because he has never been a Cup crew chief, he’s been a crew chief for so long at the Xfinity level.”

One of the keys with any crew chief/driver pairing is the communication between the two. There’s no set time on how quickly it comes. For some pairings, it never quite works. For others, it can come naturally.

So far, things are going well.

“I think, between him and I, our communication is pretty direct, and he gives very accurate feedback to what he’s looking for,” Elenz said. “… I think we’re kind of like-minded. I feel we’ve clicked pretty well at understanding where each other is at right now.” 

That helps because Elenz is still learning the car after having been in the Xfinity Series since 2015. Some elements carry over. Some don’t.

“The geometry and setups in these things are definitely drastically different and that’s been probably the most challenging part to comprehend how to adjust them,” Elenz said.

Even with a this past weekend’s strong performance, Elenz said work remains for the team.

“I’m very content with a third,” he told NBC Sports. “It was a good day for points. We had mistakes we’ve got to clean up. Our pit road was not the greatest. Some of our restarts weren’t very good. Just kind of learning adjustments throughout the race, we felt we could have done a better job on. 

“There are things we need to clean up and do better, and to still come away with a third-place finish with all the stuff we have to work, I feel good about that.”

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Seven of the 12 cautions in Sunday’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway were for single-car incidents or spins.

It wasn’t until the eighth race of last season that the Cup series had seven single-car incidents for the year.

With a low-downforce package and the Next Gen car, drivers are learning the vehicle’s nuances while also trying to figure out how far they can push the car before losing control. Habits gleaned on how to keep a car from spinning in the past aren’t as effective with the new car.

“There are a lot of things that are new, and when you have a lot of things new, especially in race cars you are trained by muscle memory in a lot of ways to key off different things,” Austin Cindric said after winning the pole on Saturday. 

“I am not saying I am doing anything better than anybody else, but you key off different things with different race cars when you get loose or have a moment or when things are right or wrong.”

Four former champions — Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano — each hit the wall or spun in practice or qualifying Saturday. In Sunday’s race, former champions Kyle Busch, Elliott and Keselowski were among those who spun.

Aric Almirola slid through Turn 4 on Saturday and in Sunday’s race.

“These cars are certainly a handful,” he said. 

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Daniel Hemric came back from six laps down to finish in the top 10 Sunday. He placed ninth.

An issue with the shifter early in the race forced the team to lose multiple laps for repairs.

“I can’t believe we got all of them back and were even able to contend there at the end,” Hemric said after the race. ”

Hemric credited crew chief Matt Swiderski and his team for the effort.

“It was really good and super fast,” Hemric said. “It was just a matter of being back on the lead lap.”

Hemric’s achievement puts him in a rare group.

In 2014, Jamie McMurray went seven laps down after being involved in an incident at Talladega in the spring race. He got the free pass six times, finishing one lap down in 29th.

Kyle Busch came back from five laps down at Watkins Glen in 2006 to finish ninth.

There have been a couple of cases since 2007 where a driver four laps down got back on the lead lap and finished in the top 10.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. went on to finish ninth at Dover in Oct. 2018.

Marcos Ambrose went on to finish 10th in the 2013 Coca-Cola 600.

According to Racing Insights, there have been 19 times a driver has rallied from three laps down to finish in the top 10 since 2007.

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)