Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Erik Jones Overcomes Monday Blues at New Hampshire

Another week down, another race impacted by weather.

For the third consecutive week, rain hampered the NASCAR Cup Series event. This time in the Crayon 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (July 17). The wet conditions forced NASCAR to make an early call to postpone the race to Monday.

As you can imagine, the anxiety of waiting another night to hit the track already contributes to the unknowns of a race at the slick Loudon track. And for the underdogs, they did not escape the Monday blues.

See also
Tuesday Morning Pit Box: Early and Late Race Calls Pay Off at New Hampshire

Following a rather eventful race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it was a clean slate for Erik Jones and the No. 43 LEGACY Motor Club team. After 301 laps at The Magic Mile, the 27-year-old experienced another turbulent day, finishing it off in 11th.

Starting the race in 30th, Jones didn’t make much headway in stage one, fighting the balance of his car en route to a 26th-place stage result.

During stage two, Jones’ day became more challenging. After staying out longer during a green flag run early in the stage, Jones was running 23rd when he got into the wall in turn 3, causing him to spin in the middle of the corner.

In spite of this, the Michigan native’s day took a turn for the better in the final stage. While experimenting with strategy once again by running long during green flag stops, a caution flew on lap 271 for his teammate Noah Gragson.

The yellow allowed Jones to get fresh tires and stay inside the top 20. From there, he drove from 20th to 11th, engaging in a tight battle with Bubba Wallace for 10th in the final laps. Jones was unable to finish that pass off but still left with a much better finish than previously anticipated.

Jones continues to find some momentum after a nightmare start to the season, earning his fourth straight top 15 and fifth top 20 in the past six races. There is no question he will have to win to make his first playoff appearance since joining Legacy, but given the team’s fortunes just a short while ago, the outlook is certainly more optimistic for this group.

Who Impressed

Michael McDowell may have been the next-highest underdog on the leaderboard, but this weekend could go down as a missed opportunity as well.

In Saturday’s practice session, McDowell was one of the quickest cars, topping Group A in single-lap speed and owning some of the best lap averages. While it was Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell at the top of most speed charts, McDowell was right on their heels. Unfortunately, it didn’t carry over to the race.

McDowell looked like he would continue the momentum in stage one, holding off Kyle Larson for the final stage point. He continued to impress in stage two, running inside the top 10 nearly the whole time. Unfortunately, a late caution and strategy by multiple teams cost him points with a 14th-place stage finish.

The final stage is where his run soured. McDowell was trapped outside the top 10 for the final frame and ended up making contact with Ryan Preece in the late going. The Phoenix native rebounded to 13th, but there will definitely be regrets of not being able to capitalize on the team’s speed. McDowell also had an initially tense but cordial conversation with Preece following the incident.

In reflection, there were three positive takeaways for McDowell. First, he is still above the cut line, though it is only by one point. Secondly, it is his best result on the one-mile track. And lastly, it is his fifth run of 13th or better in the past six events. Overall, there were multiple reasons for optimism for the No. 34 team.

The back half of the top 20 was full of underdogs. Kaulig Racing landed both of its drivers inside the top 20, with Justin Haley in 17th and AJ Allmendinger in 19th. Haley ran much of the race outside the top 20 and even had some contact with William Byron in the pits during stage two. Like many times, however, he fought until the checkered flag to ultimately crack the top 20, landing his third consecutive finish of 17th or better.

Allmendinger overcame early adversity, going for a spin while running 11th on lap 29. From there, he struggled with the aero balance and being free, but ultimately recovered for the top 20. The worst part was that he lost ground on the cut line, though he is still just 20 points back.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Harrison Burton also earned top-20 finishes, with Stenhouse in 18th and Burton in 20th, respectively. Both drivers came back from being a lap down, with blundered strategy trapping Stenhouse two laps down in stage two. The speed in his No. 47 was evident at times, but he was never able to gain the track position or avoid some of the late-race contact to work his way forward.

Burton had a solid run overall, flirting with the top 10 at times and looking like he would carry the Burton legacy at the track. Strategy and dirty air also affected the sophomore driver, who still left with his seventh top-20 of the season.

Who’s in the Dog House

Rick Ware Racing did not experience much magic in New England. Despite bringing back 18-time Cup winner Ryan Newman in the No. 15, as well as current NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Cole Custer, it was a day to forget for the team. Newman struggled to find much pace, finishing 30th, two laps down. On a positive note, New Hampshire is the site of his first Cup win, and he earned his third win at The Magic Mile 12 years to the date on Monday.

Custer, on the other hand, was impressive in the early going, running inside the top 20 and setting top-10 lap times. Unfortunately, it came to a screeching halt on lap 130 when he hit the outside wall as he prepared to pit. The contact bent the toe link and handed Custer a 35th-place result.

This season might as well be a trashed piece of paper for Gragson and his No. 42 team. It seems everything that could have gone wrong has done so, and it bit the rookie in Loudon once again. As mentioned earlier, Gragson brought out the yellow with about 30 laps remaining when a loose wheel sent him hard into the outside wall, leaving him with a finish of 32nd. The 25-year-old has now suffered 13 consecutive finishes outside the top 20.

For the second week in a row, Corey LaJoie left the track with a disappointing finish outside the top 30. On lap 70, Kyle Busch got into the wall in turn 2, effectively ending his day. A few seconds later, LaJoie was a victim of the wall too, sliding up the track and pounding the outside barrier. The No. 7 team was able to repair mechanical issues and get him back on track, but LaJoie would finish in 33rd after completing 176 laps.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After Martin Truex Jr. Dominates to Win Loudon at Last

What They’re Saying

Jones (11th): “It was an up-and-down day for the No. 43 Allegiant Chevy team. Just started out way deep in the field and had to work our way forward. We got our Chevy better throughout the day. We had one bad run, but fortunately we ran long and ended up on the good side of it. We got some track position there with the late yellow that got us back up in the top-15. We restarted 20th and came home 11th there, so it was a good run for what we had. We’ve been getting better the last few weeks; we just have a little ways to go yet. We need to get the balance a little better. I think our speed is getting there. We just have to figure out the balance and I think we’ll be in a good spot. Thank you to Allegiant and Chevrolet. We’ll keep rolling forward.”

Haley (17th): “We struggled the most in traffic in our No. 31 Chevy and lacked stability in the right rear. Track position was key, which made it hard to make too many adjustments for fear of losing that track position. We fought hard on that last run, and I feel like we got the most we could out of the day. Overall, I do feel like we learned quite a bit this weekend at a place that is usually one of my weaker tracks. Time to get back to work. “

Allmendinger (19th): “Today wasn’t our day in New Hampshire. We struggled really bad in traffic all day and just couldn’t get the right adjustments to help the handling of our No. 16 Nutrien Ag Solutions Chevy. We’re definitely disappointed with our run today, but we’re moving on to Pocono.”

Gragson (32nd):

Small Team Scheme of the Race

If you weren’t aware, July 16 was National Ice Cream Day. In relation, there was good news and bad news related to this. The good news was that an ice cream-sponsored car was on hand. The bad news? It didn’t get to run on one of my favorite national days.

Stenhouse had Drumstick on his car, one of the most popular ice cream treats and a nostalgic flashback to the days of little league baseball. If you look closely, the scheme features wording and symbols related to the brand hidden in the scheme. Nicely done JTG-Daugherty Racing!

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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Does anyone else get the feeling that Legacy will finally get they’re stuff figured out about the time the season ends? And just in time to start from scratch next year with Toyota’s.

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