Up to this point, has Brandon Jones had a good season? It seems to be a simple question in regard to most XFINITY Series racers. Yet the 19-year-old rookie’s results are such that they force fans to get to contemplate just what they consider to be a “good” season.
Fans who struggle to remember the last really good finish that Jones earned in 2016 can be forgiven. He does not have one. Through 23 races, Jones’ best finish is sixth at Las Vegas. That is one of Jones’ nine top-10 results of the season. But not only is he still missing his first win of the year, he is also without a single top 5.
Meanwhile, fans might try to recall the last time Jones had a DNF. It turns out he does not have one of those, either. Jones, Elliott Sadler, and Brendan Gaughan are the only drivers left who have made it to the checkered flag in every race this year. That is very much to Jones’ credit, especially considering that Sadler and Gaughan both have far more experience in NASCAR than Jones. In fact, Jones has had almost no mediocre to poor performances this year. In fact, a 25th at Dover and a 29th at the Daytona night race are his only finishes outside the top 20.
Jones’ season is peculiar because of how little noise he has made, either positive or negative. The vast majority of his finishes have landed him in the decent to middling range. With no wins, no top 5s, and very few laps led (only 36 this year, all of which were at Talladega), Jones’ level of performance has not been good enough to grab the attention of the fans and make them take notice. Yet he isn’t regularly crashing or running at the back of the field either, meaning that his performance is not poor enough to draw criticism. These noiseless results, combined with Erik Jones running away with the Rookie of the Year battle, means that the other Jones in NXS has become the forgotten man of 2016.
It is true that there are a few other drivers who are in the same boat as Jones. In a series dominated at the top by Sprint Cup drivers and filled out at the bottom by underfunded racers trying to make ends meet, Jones does not fit into either category. He is one of the 10 or so drivers who are XFINITY regulars but race for teams with Sprint Cup ties. The nature of NXS competition is partially the cause of Jones finishing in the sixth to 16th range so many times.
That said, even Jones’ closest competitors do not have the same quiet characteristic to their seasons as he does. For example, Brennan Poole is currently seventh in points, 17 markers ahead of Jones in eighth. Poole has also had a lot of decent finishes, few laps led (only nine this year), and just one DNF. However, Poole has become a more frequent sight near the front of the pack. He has three top 5s (highlighted by a near-win at Talladega) and 12 top 10s.
Additionally, Poole has garnered more attention than Jones this year because his success has been a bigger surprise. Poole, also in his first full-time NXS season, joined forces with Chip Ganssi’s reborn XFINITY team. Ganassi had collaborated with Harry Scott to field an XFINITY car in 2015, employing Poole as the driver in some of those races. However, Poole’s ho-hum results in the HScott/Ganassi car kept expectations for 2016 low, especially since Ganssi would go it alone this time. While Poole has not set the world on fire, he has displayed a higher level of performance than 2015.
Jones’ situation is different, though 2016 is his first full-time XFINITY effort too, he drives for Richard Childress Racing. RCR has a well-established, highly successful presence in the series. Despite the team’s recent Sprint Cup struggles, there was more certainty at the beginning of the season that Jones would have a strong NXS team behind him, giving him everything he needed to succeed. Considering that he is only 19, expectations for him still should have been kept in check. But it is fair that those expectations were higher than Poole’s in the first place.
Jones’ season may more closely resemble that of Gaughan, his teammate. Gaughan has led less laps than Jones and has a lot of decent finishes. Yet Gaughan also has top 5s and more top 10s to his name than Jones does. Moreover, Gaughan’s lively post-race soundbites prevent him from getting lost in the shuffle. Even if Gaughan is quiet on the track, he is rarely quiet off of it.
So turning back to the original question, has Brandon Jones had a good season? His position as the forgotten man seems to suggest that his season has left something to be desired. Additionally, most fans probably would have guessed at the beginning of the season that Jones would have a top 5 by now. RCR’s machines have lacked the speed of Joe Gibbs Racing’s and JR Motorsports’ cars, but it is not unreasonable to say that Jones’ lack of top 5s is a shortcoming of his season.
However, there is one more factor that will carry a lot of weight in determining the success of Jones’ season, and that factor is the Chase. If Jones can continue to avoid DNFs and stay out of trouble, he will have an advantage over less consistent drivers in the postseason. Besides, Jones will be returning to several tracks in the Chase where he raced earlier this year, and that additional experience will benefit him.
In the meantime, Jones is worthy of praise for putting together a season strong enough to reach the Chase in the first place. Sitting 153 points above the cutoff with three races left, Jones is in, and he has been comfortably above the cutoff for quite some time. When the points get reset after the race at Chicagoland, he will, in the worst case, be tied with all the other winless drivers who made the Chase, no matter how many top 5s each of them have.
Perhaps sitting behind the wheel of an RCR Chevy comes with the expectation to make the Chase, no matter how inexperienced a driver is. Expectation, however, is not a guarantee. The simple fact that Jones will be a Chaser (and not have to stress about points these next few weeks) means that his season, as it stands now, is a good one.