Top Dog: Erik Jones
The 2021 Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday night (Sept. 18) lived up to its status as a NASCAR crown jewel. The sport’s heavyweight drivers battled all night and desperate playoff contenders wrung out every last drop of effort to make the NASCAR Cup Series’ Round of 12. At the end of the race, a confrontation between Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick took center stage to cap a captivating evening at Thunder Valley.
There was so much to talk about, it’s easy to overlook the underdog performance of Erik Jones.
Bristol has been an ally to Jones in the past and this weekend gave him one of his best performances all season with a top 10. After starting 22nd, Jones only catapulted from there, fighting for position with top gladiators of this Last Great Coliseum like Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.
In stage two, Jones entered the top 10 for the first time and never let up. But it wasn’t all easy. The Byron, Mich., native narrowly avoided an end to his night in stage two, taking evasive action to miss a pileup involving Anthony Alfredo, BJ McLeod and Justin Haley. Then, after scrubbing the wall and battling tightness at the beginning of the final stage, Jones elected to pit, setting up another charge through the field. He got the famous No. 43 up to seventh before finishing eighth.
“It was a solid day,” Jones said after the race. “I am glad our Richard Petty Motorsports team could get a top-10 run at Bristol — we had some damage on the right side and the balance was a bit tight to run further forward than we did. Proud of the effort and hope we can keep the good runs going.”
It was Jones’ second top 10 in the past six races, including three top-11 runs. By comparison, Jones had two top 10s in the first 23 races of 2021.
RPM has a history of finding speed at the end of the season, and it certainly seems the talented 25-year-old is finding his footing with the program he’ll return to in 2022. Saturday was his third straight top 10 at Bristol and his fifth overall at the track.
To run with the big dogs for a large majority of the race can only benefit the team as it prepares for the Next Gen car. With Jones coming back and a clean slate ahead, races like Bristol will be places the team can capitalize on in 2022. It also earned the No. 43 team valuable television time for sponsor U.S. Air Force.
Excluding his brush with the wall in the latter stages of the race, Jones was one of the only underdogs to avoid issues.
Bubba Wallace was able to bring home a 16th-place result, on the lead lap but far off the pace of Jones’ No. 43. While it wasn’t the most impressive finish, it was a solid recovery for the No. 23 team after getting caught up in a lap 169 wreck. Wallace had a new head wrench calling the shots as Bootie Barker returned to the pit box for the first time in Cup since 2017. Wallace’s previous crew chief, Mike Wheeler, was named 23XI Racing’s director of competition full time after splitting the role with his old duties since the team’s inception.
Early in stage two, Barker was tasked with overseeing repairs on Wallace’s McDonald’s Toyota. An incident for Ryan Newman caused a stack-up, leading to Wallace running into the back of Daniel Suarez. While the damage was not lethal, the right-front fender and nose had some concerning scars. However, the team was able to fix it nicely, and Wallace continued at full pace.
A strategy call in stage two led to Wallace starting the final stage inside the top 10, where he remained for a large portion of the stage. Unfortunately for him, restarts and handling gave way, sliding Wallace back to 16th by the finish. It was nonetheless a promising day for the still-young team.
Right behind Wallace was JTG-Daugherty Racing’s Ryan Preece, who rallied for a 17th-place result despite fighting handling woes throughout the night. A gamble to stay out under a stage two caution lined Preece up in fifth for the final stage. However, the No. 37 Viva Chevrolet immediately fell victim to fresher tires, causing him to slide outside the top 15.
Late yellows allowed Preece to get back on the lead lap, allowing him to rally up inside the top 20. It was Preece’s third top-20 performance in the last four races, a nice boost of momentum for a driver auditioning for a ride in 2022.
Playoff Underdog Watch
While 12 playoff drivers were breathing more comfortably following Bristol’s 500 laps, four others saw their championship hopes come to an end. That included Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell, who entered the race in a must-win situation.
McDowell had decent pace in the first stage but never had speed to contend for the win. When it was all said and done, the No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford concluded the night in 24th, ending the round 49 points off the cutline.
While the Cinderella story may be over, a career year continues for McDowell and Front Row Motorsports. McDowell still holds a career-best average finish of 20.7 and has already eclipsed his top-10 mark with five.
In the NASCAR Xfinity Series, for the first time since 2017, Jeremy Clements is in the playoffs. After entering the Food City 300 with a comfortable cushion, Clements capitalized on the opportunity with a 13th-place finish Friday night.
Entering the playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Clements sits 12th in points, eight behind Harrison Burton for the Round of 8 cutline. The Spartanburg, S.C., native finished 17th at Las Vegas earlier this season.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Carson Hocevar is already one step ahead, taking the next step in the playoffs at Bristol. A wild ending to the UNOH 200 saw Hocevar hanging on for dear life, advancing to the Round of 12 by the skin of his teeth.
The Niece Motorsports driver turned in an impressive performance, running as high as second in the final stage despite older tires. Hocevar finished sixth and heads into the Round of 8 reseeded seventh, seven points behind fourth-place driver Zane Smith for a spot in the championship race.
Small Team Scheme of the Week
Once again, several underdog teams brought some sweet heat to the track with their paint schemes. McLeod brought a digital camouflage scheme adorned with “Honor and Remember.” The scheme paid tribute to the 13 Marines who were killed in Kabul, Afghanistan last month.
— Live Fast Motorsports (@teamlivefast) September 19, 2021
What to Expect Next
All three series will head to the neon lights of Las Vegas. The intermediate track plays host to the Cup Round of 12 for the second consecutive year.
Over in NXS, Clements will look to gain as many points as possible in an effort to close the gap he faces to advance into the Round of 8.
In the Truck Series, there’s Hocevar’s drive to survive. Running the third race of the season for CWTS earlier this year, he finished 24th at the 1.5-mile track.
What They’re Saying
Bristol has been good to us this season. ? Another top-10 in the books. Pumped to bring our Chevy home P8 for @USAFRecruiting. Let's keep the momentum rolling in Vegas. #AimHigh pic.twitter.com/pHNJwv0oGS
— Erik Jones (@Erik_Jones) September 19, 2021
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 19, 2021
Problems for Anthony Alfredo, BJ McLeod, and Justin Haley.
All right in front of #NASCARPlayoffs contender Joey Logano!
TV: NBCSN pic.twitter.com/Ii2vWWQI9T
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 19, 2021
We made the #NASCARPlayoffs! Big accomplishment for this team. Can’t thank @Mark_C_Setzer & crew enough for busting their tails every week. Also to all of our many partners who stepped up this year to make us better. Couldn’t do it with you all! We’re ready for the challenge! pic.twitter.com/JGZIFirGIM
— Jeremy Clements (@JClements51) September 18, 2021
— Carson Hocevar (@CarsonHocevar) September 17, 2021
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