Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Erik Jones’ Luck Finally Turns Around at Talladega

Top Dog: Erik Jones

The 2022 season as a whole was a leap forward for Erik Jones.

In his second season with the team then known as Petty GMS, Jones had his best season since his tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing, which included a breakthrough victory at Darlington Raceway.

The momentum appeared to keep rolling, as Jones’ strong finish to 2022 was coupled with Jimmie Johnson joining the ownership group at Petty GMS, NASCAR Xfinity star Noah Gragson moving into the No. 42, and the team re-branding itself as Legacy Motor Club.

But a quarter of the way into the season, it has been anything but roses for LMC.

Entering the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (April 23), a top 10 from Jones at Atlanta Motor Speedway accounted for the team’s only top 10. A sixth-place result produced by Jones at Talladega changed matters.

Jones quickly advanced from his 24th starting position, getting up to the lead at one point during the first stage. An untimely caution during green flag pit stops mired the No. 43 in traffic, leaving him in 30th by the stage end.

Stage two was more of the same, with the Byron, Michigan, native sampling different lines. He moved up into the top 10 with one move to the top line, but would slide back to finish the second frame in 24th.

What is so unpredictable about superspeedway racing is opting whether to be in the lead draft or hang out back. In this case, Jones found himself watching from the nosebleeds while the lead drivers diced it out in the closing stages. This go around, it paid off.

With five laps remaining, a multi-car crash occurred while Jones was in 26th. That set up an overtime restart that saw another pileup before they made it through turn 1, launching the No. 43 to 15th.

On the final overtime restart, Jones found himself in tow with the bottom line. That would be the safest place to run, as a late block from Bubba Wallace on Ryan Blaney set off the Big One to end the race. As the smoke settled, Jones had escaped through the mess to finish in sixth, the team’s best finish of 2023.

The 26-year-old has certainly found a knack for superspeedway racing. In fact, this was his third consecutive sixth-place finish at Talladega, a track where he lost the race in the tri-oval on the final lap a year ago. In the past six races at the Alabama track, Jones had only finished worse than ninth one time. Eventually, you have to think that success lands him a win there.

But until then, this was certainly the result Jones and the team needed. The No. 43 has been non-existent at tracks that are typically Jones’ bread and butter.

Entering the race, he was 28th in points, now leaving Talladega in 25th. For context, the seventh-year driver finished 24th and 18th in his two prior seasons with LMC.

Whether it has been sponsorship woes, not having as strong of an alliance with Richard Childress Racing since Ty Dillon departed, or just a step back in general, questions have arisen about the future of this organization.

However, there is no denying the talent of Jones, and a finish like this one should serve him well in the coming weeks.

See also
Kyle Busch Wins After 2 Talladega Overtimes

Who Impressed

It was the same story, different verse in 2023 for Todd Gilliland. The sophomore driver continued to impress in his second season in Cup, scoring a 10th-place finish. Not even a switch from his typical ride diverted him from his recent momentum.

With Zane Smith in the No. 38, Front Row Motorsports fielded a third car for Gilliland in the No. 36. Gilliland showed speed all race, finishing stage one in 10th and keeping his car clean all day. He also had to overcome an early penalty for too many men over the wall. After two multi-car crashes in the last five laps, Gilliland had done his job: survive.

During the final two-lap shootout, the 22-year-old ran inside the top 10 on the final lap. However, his chances of winning were dashed when Wallace’s spin ignited a crash, involving Gilliland. Still, watch him steer his red No. 36 to an incredible save.

That save would allow Gilliland to earn his third top 10 in the past five races. The Sherrills Ford, N.C. native now has more top 10s this year than his entire rookie season. It is the most top 10s by an FRM driver not named Michael McDowell since 2020.

J.J. Yeley piloted Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 to an 11th-place finish. Yeley’s finish was no fluke, as he had his No. 51 up inside the top 10 at moments during the event. The 46-year-old also had to overcome what was possibly a first this year: a vehicle interference penalty on pit road. Despite this, Yeley raced to his best finish since the 2013 Daytona 500 and have RWR their second-best finish of the year.

The remainder of the top 20 was filled with some solid runs as well. Ty Dillon earned his first top 15 of the season with Spire Motorsports in 14th. Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. overcame significant damage from a lap 184 crash to finish 15th. BJ McLeod earned Live Fast Motorsports its best finish of the season with an 18th-place run. And Justin Haley closed a fairly quiet race with a 19th-place run, his fourth top 20 of the year. Additionally, Riley Herbst overcame being involved in the lap 184 crash to finish in 20th, making him two-for-two on top 20s in his Cup starts.

While heartbreak struck several drivers, no one may have experienced it more than Noah Gragson.

The rookie driver ran inside the top five or top 10 for a large majority of the final stage, putting himself in position to win. After the caution with five laps to go, Gragson found himself on the front row for the first overtime attempt.

Receiving a push from Ross Chastain, Gragson edged out ahead of Blaney for the lead entering turn 1. However, he washed up just enough for Chastain to peak low, causing contact between and resulting with Gragson smashing the outside wall. The crash left Gragson with an undeserved 32nd-place showing.

Underdogs Who Built the Sport

When reflecting on Talladega’s history and what it has meant throughout NASCAR’s 75 years, the first race there can’t go without mention.

Several stars, including Richard Petty, boycotted the event due to concerns over tire failures during testing at the track, which was stirred even more by the ongoing tire wars over who would be the primary tire provider. Several other drivers such as Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker joined Petty in the boycott.

A lot of chaos and tension happened behind the scenes, including LeeRoy Yarbrough punching Bill France, but the race would ultimately go on. Fans who bought tickets were offered free admission to the 1970 Daytona 500 and Goodyear delivered new tires for the event.

Driving the No. 99 for Ray Nichels, Richard Brickhouse won the inaugural Talladega race in his 1969 Dodge Daytona, leading 33 laps. However, several people, including runner-up Jim Vandiver, though that Vandiver had lapped Brickhouse. Nevertheless, Brickhouse’s win stood and the race has since been dubbed “the worst race in NASCAR history.”

Brickhouse’s win turned out to be the beginning of several underdog triumphs in the track’s storied chronicles, as it was the only win of the Rocky Point, N.C. native’s career.

See also
Going for Win, Bubba Wallace & Ryan Blaney Come Up Empty

What They’re Saying

Jones (sixth):

Yeley (11th):

Noah Gragson (32nd):

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Legacy Motor Club certainly did not make this honor easy, with Gragson’s Wendy’s machine joining a mouth-watering list of restaurant sponsored-cars this weekend between both series that included Raising Cane’s and Buffalo Wild Wings.

However, I had to go with his teammate’s car in Jones, who piloted the red, white and blue U.S. Air Force machine. While it has ran once this season, this scheme will not get old, and may quite possibly be my favorite Air Force drip.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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Dawg

For me. JJ was the big surprise. That had to be tremendously satisfying for he & the team. Well done, Dude. See you at the Chili Bowl.

DoninAjax

That goes to show how the finishes at Talladega , Daytona and Atlanta are skewed. He will get the usual finish at Dover a bunch of laps down and acting as a rolling roadblock along with the 51, 78 and 77.

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