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.