NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Erik Jones’ Tricks Lead to Treat of Martinsville Top 10

Top Dog: Erik Jones

Do you want a scary combination? Try mixing Halloween with a 500-lap race at Martinsville Speedway. Oh, and did I mention that the race was an elimination event for playoff drivers? Yikes!

The Xfinity 500 Sunday (Oct. 31) featured the grit and gruel of NASCAR’s shortest track. Battles throughout the field intensified during the race, leading to hurt feelings and thin lines of patience as the laps wore on. One driver who was able to creep through the playoff chaos around him was Erik Jones, who earned a strong eighth-place finish in the penultimate race of the 2021 season.

After bouncing around the top 20 during the first two stages, it was the final one where the Petty blue and bright orange No. 43 began to make a splash. Jones ran in the top 15 for a considerable amount of time before fading a bit. Late in the race, he actually found himself a lap down when the caution flew. Crew chief Jerry Baxter opted to let Jones take the wave around. The move worked perfectly, as another quickie yellow allowed him to join the lead-lap cars and pit for fresh rubber.

While many teams ran out of sticker tires late in the race, Jones’ last set was used with 42 laps to go. The fresh Goodyears meant he quickly found himself in the top 10 battling with playoff contenders. The hard work and strategy call paid off, giving this No. 43 team some solid momentum heading into the last race of the season.

“Really solid day at Martinsville Speedway […],” Jones said after the race. “It was kind of an up-and-down day. There were times where I really didn’t think we were going to have the finish we did. It kind of worked out there at the end. We had a set of tires we put on and the car kind of came back around to us, balance-wise, and we were able to come home with a top 10.

“Just good to keep the string going. We’ve had a good couple of runs here the last month. Hopefully, we can go to Phoenix (Raceway) next week and finish it out on another good note.”

Jones was exactly right when highlighting the team’s recent performance. The result was his third top 10 in the last seven races, along with his fifth run of 17th or better. In comparison, he’d scored just three top 10s in the first 28 races this season. The six top-10 total matches Aric Almirola’s amount accrued in 2017 and surpasses Bubba Wallace’s high-water mark of five in 2020 during their tenures at Richard Petty Motorsports.

Diving Deeper

Jones was one of only two underdogs to crack the top 20. The 20th-place driver was a pleasant surprise, as rookie Anthony Alfredo kept his nose clean to wind up on the lead lap. If you look at Alfredo’s results this season, it would be easy to believe he’s really struggled to adjust to a Cup car. And while there have been many learning curves along the way, he’s impressed considering such limited experience in the lower series of NASCAR before moving up.

The Ridgefield, Conn. native secured his fourth top 20 of the season in 35 starts. Despite some damage sustained on the nose of his No. 38 Dude Wipes Ford, the Front Row Motorsports driver got better as the sun began to set and even ran top-15 lap times at several points throughout the race. Runs like these will only help Alfredo to mature and serve as a nice audition with his 2022 NASCAR plans up in the air.

Outside of the top 20 in this Martinsville race, you will find most of NASCAR’s Cup underdogs. Many of them experienced the beaten, banged-up and torn cars that are a common sight after Martinsville races. Coming to Martinsville, the half-mile was arguably one of Bubba Wallace’s best tracks. He was proving it, too, running inside the top 15 for most of the event. Stage three, however, was a disaster for him. It started with a speeding penalty that compounded into an unscheduled pit stop and was finished up by getting involved in a crash with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. with just under 40 laps remaining. Wallace finished a disappointing 25th.

Behind him, there were more victims. Daniel Suarez slumped to 28th after spinning out. Ryan Preece was involved in the penultimate caution of the race after sustaining a flat tire. The issue came after spending time in the garage, mechanical problems relegating him to 36th.

One of the major temper-flaring moments during the race involved Quin Houff and Josh Bilicki. On lap 324, Bilicki overshot the turn 3 entry, running himself and Houff into the outside wall. In a show of disapproval with Bilicki, Houff turned him under caution, within range of a safety vehicle on the backstretch.

NASCAR held Houff for five laps as a penalty and he finished 34th, one spot ahead of Bilicki.

Small Team Scheme of the Week

One of the traditional sights on Halloween is kids dressing up to go trick-or-treating. The paint schemes got some costumes of their own at Martinsville, too. It was difficult to pick from, but when it was all said and done, Alfredo’s No. 38 Dude Wipes Ford stuck out the most, decorated with Jack O’Lanterns on spiderwebs. Aside from a large strip of tape on the nose, it was a mostly clean car after 500 laps.

Playoff Underdog Watch

The last remaining underdog of the NASCAR playoffs in any of the sport’s three series was Carson Hocevar. He entered the Truck Series race at Martinsville in must-win territory, and for a while, it looked like he might have a shot. The 18-year-old stayed out on track after stage two, putting him on the front row for the following restart.

From there, Hocevar stayed in second until lap 147 following another yellow. Restarting in the runner-up spot, he was then hit with a restart violation.

The Niece Motorsports driver was understandably frustrated, saying leader Zane Smith spun his tires. Unfortunately, he had to go to the back of the field and never recovered, as a 12th-place run effectively ruined his title chances. Still, this rookie has nothing to hang his head about and a lot of people need to keep an eye on this teenager in the years to come.

What to Expect Next

Can you believe there is only one race weekend left in 2021? At this time next week, three champions will have been crowned after three Championship 4 finales held at Phoenix Raceway.

Wallace led the underdogs in the spring Phoenix race with a 16th-place result, while Jones tallied a 20th-place run. Brandon Brown used some strategy in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race to earn a third-place finish, while Bayley Currey earned a top 10 with a seventh-place effort.

For the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, this weekend will mark their lone trip to the Arizona desert.

What They’re Saying

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: MARTINSVILLE

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