Top Dog: Erik Jones
The midpoint of the NASCAR season typically spurs a rumination of what the first half brought while looking ahead to the remainder of the season.
As writers, along with fans, we like to categorize certain aspects of the season relating to performance. One common theme would be, “Which team has been the biggest disappointment thus far?”
For many, an easy answer would be Legacy Motor Club. Entering 2023 after a season that saw Erik Jones win the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and turn in one of the best full-season performances in the team’s history, along with having a new co-owner in seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, the team had a lot to be excited about.
Flash to the present and the wheels have fallen off the bus. Entering the Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway (June 25) after an off week, Jones sat 30th in points with only two top 10s, and after recently incurring a 60-point penalty for modifications to the greenhouse issued on June 7.
His teammate, Noah Gragson, has been no stronger, as he entered Nashville 33rd in the standings without a top 10, and unfortunately missing Sonoma Raceway with a concussion.
However, the one-week breather seemed to be just what the doctor ordered for Jones and the No. 43 team, as he earned an eighth-place finish in the Music City.
Jones was fast throughout the weekend, setting a strong pace in practice. Despite qualifying 23rd for the race, Jones moved to 17th by the end of the first stage.
Stage two carried an even more optimistic outlook for the Byron, Mich. native, as he cracked the top 10 before rounding the stage out in 10th.
In the final stage, the No. 43 looked sporty, fighting inside the top 10 for the majority of the final frame. Over multiple series of pit stops, Jones requested either few or no adjustments to his car, an encouraging sign for a team who has experienced one challenge after another in 2023.
Jones capped off the night by sealing the top 10, his third of the season and first on a non-superspeedway. It is also the 26-year-old’s first top 10 at Nashville.
A run to the playoffs may look unlikely at this point, though don’t rule Jones out at the superspeedways (Atlanta and Daytona are still to come in the regular season). But with one weight after the other toppling this team in 2023, this result has to feel like a victory.
AJ Allmendinger picked up right where he left off before the Father’s Day off weekend. In the last Cup race, Allmendinger scored his second top 10 of the season with a sixth-place run at Sonoma, leaving him just 33 points off the playoff cut line.
That may have been just what the Kaulig Racing driver needed. In the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Nashville, Allmendinger scored his second win of the season in exciting fashion, treating the win like it was his first. In the Cup race, he followed it up with his second consecutive top 10, finishing 10th.
After starting 19th, Allmendinger marched his way forward, running some of the fastest laps at times en route to a 10th-place stage one showing. Despite a slow pit stop at one point in stage two that pushed him back to 18th, the No. 16 quickly rallied to earn three more stage points ending in eighth.
Allmendinger’s car got tight in the final stage, sliding him down to 15th. However, the final stop set him right back on track, allowing him to close the deal for the top 10. The 41-year-old continues to chip away at the playoff cut line, now sitting just 24 points behind.
And oh, by the way, since we are going to the Chicago Street Course next weekend, I should mention that Allmendinger knows a thing or two about winning on road courses.
Outside of the two Chevrolet drivers mentioned above, the underdogs had a somewhat average night in Nashville. Corey LaJoie continues to peg one top 20 down after another, turning in a respectable 20th-place result.
LaJoie didn’t have an easy weekend, spinning out during practice during a weekend filled with incidents. However, he was right back to business on Sunday, getting into the top 15 during stage two. The Charlotte, N.C. native bounced around the top 20, eventually notching his third top 20 in four races and 10th this season. It is the quickest LaJoie has gotten to double-digit top 20s in his career.
While the team will certainly be looking for continued improvement, it was a respectable night for Harrison Burton. The sophomore driver finished 21st in a race where he was able to run all the laps, something that is still crucial for him as a young driver. It was his best finish since an 18th in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s also the fifth straight race he has completed every lap.
Who’s in the Dog House?
In a season where disappointments have come few and far between for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the team missed a note in the Music City. Stenhouse finished 22nd, the first car one lap down.
The team will have to mark it down as a missed opportunity, as Stenhouse, who had finishes of sixth and 16th in his two prior Nashville starts, never found the top-10 speed he has shown so many times this season, especially on intermediates. The JTG Daugherty Racing driver struggled with front grip over the course of the event.
In contrast to his teammate, the Nashville track did not mesh with Justin Haley‘s optimistic starting spot. Haley turned heads in qualifying, setting a lap good enough to place him in third, a career-best Cup qualifying effort.
Unfortunately, it went downhill from there, as dirty air upset the handling of Haley’s No. 31. He slowly sunk down the leaderboard, eventually concluding the night in 23rd.
Like Allmendinger, Michael McDowell found himself in a good spot entering Nashville. He too was coming off a top-10 performance at Sonoma and was even closer to the playoff cut line than Allmendinger, sitting only 14 points behind. Nashville appeared to be a good track to boost that momentum, considering McDowell had finishes of 13th and 16th there the past two years.
However, things went sour quickly. After gaining nine spots from where he started, McDowell suffered a penalty during a green flag pit stop in stage one.
After falling three laps down, McDowell was able to get back on the lead lap, but things didn’t improve much. Loose handling conditions on a slick track do not mesh well, especially in dirty air, and the Phoenix, Ariz. native fought that en route to a 28th-place result. He now sits 27 points below the cut line.
McDowell’s Front Row Motorsports teammate, Todd Gilliland, didn’t have better fortunes, as he too was trapped three laps down early on. Gilliland struggled with a loose-handling car as well throughout the night, severely limiting his performance. At the end of 300 laps, Gilliland retreated home in 35th.
What They’re Saying
Allmendinger (10th): “We had a really good day. Our car was really balanced all day; we didn’t have to make adjustments. We just couldn’t get the track positions and we lost spots on pit road and had to make up for it. At the end of the day, that probably cost up three or four spots overall. I’m proud of the team. We are making a lot of progress, we had a lot of speed all weekend. I’m looking forward to going to a street course here to hopefully make up some more ground.”
Noah Gragson (26th): “It was a smooth day. Proud of the No. 42 Black Rifle Coffee Company Chevy team’s effort. We brought the car home in one piece. A day like this is what we needed to build momentum on.”
Small Team Scheme of the Week
If you were wondering, yes, RAZE Energy is back on a Cup car and yes, there was an extra ‘seven’ on the number. After sponsoring LaJoie in multiple races last season, RAZE returned to Spire Motorsports at Nashville, this time on Ty Dillon‘s No. 77, the first of six scheduled primaries this season. The car promoted the new RAZE Tea, featuring a blend of peach, gold and blue on the car. Dillon finished 32nd.
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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