Top Dog: Erik Jones
It had been nearly a decade since Richard Petty’s famous No. 43 had started on the front row for a NASCAR Cup Series race. The last occurrence happened in 2013 when Aric Almirola sat on the pole for the fall Talladega Superspeedway event.
However, the streak came to a halt with the Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 27) when Erik Jones piloted the No. 43 to the outside pole position. It was Jones’ first front row appearance since Texas Motor Speedway in 2019.
Several times in the past, we’ve seen smaller teams qualify well only to avalanche down the leaderboard. That was not the case for Jones, however, as the speed of the No. 43 was something that fans had not seen in years from the car on an intermediate track. A top five backed up the strong qualifying run, giving Jones an even stronger start to 2022.
Austin Cindric rallied past Jones in qualifying to claim the pole, but Jones immediately took the lead from the rookie on lap 1. That’s where he stayed until lap 11, where Tyler Reddick, the race-high leader in laps, would pass him. That wasn’t the only time the No. 43 FOCUSFactor Chevrolet was out front, though. Overall, the Byron, Mich. native led six times for 18 laps. That amount surpassed the total amount of laps he led in 2021.
Jones finished in third, a healthy turnaround after his strong run in the season-opening Daytona 500 was foiled by a late crash. The speed in the No. 43 has been more than promising, and the talent that was once called generational in Jones was on display once again. In a weekend of attrition that extended beyond just the race (there were 10 incidents between practice and qualifying), Jones never appeared to be uneasy.
There was a point in the race where it legitimately appeared Jones was the favorite to win, something that hasn’t been said about the No. 43 in years, aside from superspeedways. While battling Reddick for the lead with just under 50 laps to go, Reddick blew a tire that sparked a bizarre crash with William Byron. That gave Jones the lead with the dominant driver’s chances up in smoke. However, Kyle Larson had other plans en route to his first victory of the season.
If late-race restarts had gone a little differently, the headlines would be significantly different. In fact, Jones tied Larson for the most points earned on the day with 52, something that may have been unthinkable a year ago. Attribute that to Jones’s talent, the improvement from Petty GMS Motorsports and that the Gen 7 car is doing what was promised in leveling the playing field so far.
Daniel Suarez had a strong but quiet race, staying out of trouble and running inside the top 15 for good portions of the race. It was the end, however, where he made his presence known. And by presence, he came agonizingly close to earning his first career Cup win. Suarez lined up on the inside front row for the final restart of the race. With four laps to go, Suarez received a push from Jones to propel by Larson for the lead. It appeared that’s where he was going to stay until turns 3 and 4 happened. Suarez opted to run the bottom line, allowing Larson to gain momentum on the outside and retake the lead from the No. 99. Suarez ultimately slipped back to finish fourth, but his first top five of the season shows that this No. 99 team can be serious contenders for a win this year.
The final restart.
From aboard the No. 99.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) February 28, 2022
In the second of his eight scheduled races for Kaulig Racing in the No. 16, Daniel Hemric may have had one of the most underrated stories of the race. After qualifying fifth for the event, Hemric had shifter issues late in stage one. He returned to the track after extended maintenance in 35th, seven laps down. Impossible to overcome, right… right? Not so. Thanks to strategy and the accumulation of cautions during the race, Hemric was able to get back on the lead lap. But that wasn’t good enough for him. Late race restarts and speed from the No. 16 Poppy Bank Chevrolet were enough for Hemric to rebound for a ninth-place finish. It was Hemric’s third career top 10 in his 40th Cup start and Kaulig’s first top 10 in their first Auto Club Cup race.
After coming oh-so-close to winning his first Daytona 500 a week ago, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. found himself back at the front of the field in California. Stenhouse got as high as second in the race, but was appearing to fizzle out midway through the race. The No. 47 went from fighting for the lead to struggling to crack the top 10. However, it did not stay that way, as Stenhouse was able to endure to earn a 10th-place finish. The Olive Branch, Miss. native had an average finish of nearly 19th entering the race, with only one top five to show for in his previous eight Auto Club starts. However, as FOX Sports commentator Mike Joy noted, nobody appeared to tell him that stat, as the speed from the JTG-Daughtery Racing team was very promising today.
Todd Gilliland became the third driver this season to lose a wheel, this time on lap 70 under caution. However, the rookie contender was able to rebound to earn a respectable 20th-place finish. It was his first career top-20 in just his second career Cup start.
Anthony Alfredo deserves a shout out for his fifth-place finish in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race. Alfredo pitted his No. 23 Dude Wipes Chevrolet for Our Motorsports late in the race, and the move nearly proved genius. The Ridgefield, Conn. native got as high as third with a shot to win, just missing out in the end.
Underdogs Sound Off
Erik Jones: “It was good. It feels good to be interviewed after the race, too. It’s awesome, but it’s frustrating too. You’re that close and you have a car that you feel like can do it. The No. 43 FOCUSFactor Chevrolet definitely had it today. It was a matter of getting up front and taking advantage of clean air, and we did that a couple of times. A couple restarts just didn’t go our way. I probably could have done a better job here and there, and it just didn’t add up. I just haven’t raced up front a lot in the last year and a half. There are some things I need to be better at. Hopefully I have a lot of time to work on that. We want to keep running upfront and if we keep doing that, we’re going to win some races.
“I’m really proud of this whole group. It’s been a big off season with the merger and everything we’ve done, so this is a very satisfying run for everybody and I just hope we can keep going.”
Daniel Suarez (fourth): “We’re going to win a few races very soon here. I just can’t thank everyone enough on my team. We had a fast car, but we went through a lot of adversity. We had a few issues. We hit the wall once. We had an issue with a diffuser.
“My pit crew, those guys are legends; it’s unbelievable. It’s the best pit crew I’ve ever had, and it’s a lot of fun to race like that. Freeway Insurance, Chevrolet, everyone that helps Trackhouse Racing out to be able to be here and perform this way. I can tell you that I’m going to work very, very hard to go to Victory Lane very, very soon.”
Daniel Hemric (ninth): “What a day! I felt like we had a really good car, and we were able to maintain good speed and move forward. Unfortunately, we had an issue with our shifter and lost six laps. I can’t believe we got all of them back and were even able to contend there at the end. I’m super proud of everyone on this No. 16 Poppy Bank Chevy team, My crew chief, Matt Swiderski, and everyone else at Kaulig Racing put together an incredible race car. It was really good and super fast – it was just a matter of being back on the lead lap.”
Todd Gilliland (20th): “The entire Frontline Enterprises team worked their tails off all day to get our car at its best at the end. I learned a lot and did everything I could to make the best of the changes we made throughout the race. The whole thing was about not making mistakes while capitalizing on ones made by our competitors, and I think we did just that. I’m glad to leave Auto Club with a top-20 finish, and I really can’t wait to get to Las Vegas and do it all over again next week”
Justin Haley (23rd): “Overall it was a good race. We stayed on the lead lap and raced in the top 15 quite a bit. We made the car better with each stop as the race went on, so l’m proud of everyone the No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevy team for working hard all day. At the end, we were racing hard for 11th or 12th and made contact with the 12 car. It wasn’t the finish we wanted, and the car is a little torn up, but I’m happy with the performance of the car and the gains we made.”
Ross Chastain (29th): “To use a backup car and start the race without any laps on it was a handful. We were really loose to start and I was not sure if we’d be able to get on the other side of it. My crew chief Phil Surgen and the Trackhouse team kept changing a lot of things on the car and got the balance where I could drive it. At the beginning of the race, I was pretty worried that we were just going to be loose and slow all day. Obviously, we got a lot better and had a shot at a top-five and I messed up. I made an unforced error running around the sixth spot. I was just riding along and hit a bump wrong and didn’t catch it in time. A mistake on my part. Seeing the transition from the beginning of the race to the end, gives me a lot of hope.”
Michael McDowell (31st): “It’s a real shame. The Stage Front Tickets Ford Mustang was lightning quick, and it’s a real bummer we didn’t finish how we should have. We were in such a good spot on the last restart, and the car really took off in the late running. I think we really showed how great this Next Gen car is and how we can compete up there with the top guys, so there is definitely a lot to look forward to.”
Small Team Scheme of the Week
Ty Dillon brought home a 17th-place finish for Petty GMS Motorsports in the No. 42 Allegiant Chevrolet. Allegiant, a long-time partner of GMS Racing, made its debut on Dillon’s No. 42 this week, giving the car a clean look to shine under the California sun. It was also Dillon’s birthday Sunday, as the newly-turned 30-year-old brought home his second consecutive top-20 finish to start the year off.
Fresh tires for the final push 💨 pic.twitter.com/yYxihBQqkB
— Petty GMS Motorsports (@PettyGMS) February 28, 2022
Top Dog Count
Throughout the season, I will be keeping track of who the top dogs are each week to see who’s standing atop the underdog house at the end of the season. Here are the top 3 from the first two races:
That’s all the underdog action from The Golden State, and we will see what happens in the Neon Garage at Las Vegas Motor Speedway next week!
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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