Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Erik Jones Nearly Spoils the Party in Kansas

Top Dog: Erik Jones

We’re not in the regular season anymore, Toto.

Kansas Speedway continued to display its character of causing calamity as a NASCAR Cup Series playoff race, the Hollywood Casino 400. When that happens, it opens the door for non-playoff drivers to break through.

For the second consecutive season, missing the playoffs has not negatively affected Erik Jones. In fact, it has done the opposite.

A year after conquering the playoff opener at Darlington Raceway, Jones nearly upset the playoff field again in the Round of 16, just missing the win in third.

See also
Erik Jones Earns Podium with Strong Run and Gutsy Strategy

And just like that Darlington win, his performance was no fluke. The No. 43 absolutely lit it up on track, running inside the top five or top 10 all day.

Jones started in the 19th position but quickly advanced forward, entering the top 10 before the first round of green flag pit stops. He wrapped up stage one in 11th.

The Legacy Motor Club driver was held outside the top 10 briefly early in stage two, but quickly found his rhythm and made waves, improving upon the first stage with a sixth-place result in the second frame.

Jones settled into the top 10 in the final stage when the final caution flew with six laps remaining. That was the opportunity the No. 43 team sought.

Crew chief Dave Elenz made the call to take two right side tires, which got Jones off pit road first and placed him on the front row for an overtime shootout.

The Byron, Mich. native launched on the restart in an initial three-wide battle for the lead with Daniel Suarez and Joey Logano. Both Jones and Logano surged ahead, staying deadlocked for the next lap.

However, that gave Tyler Reddick momentum, especially with four fresh tires. Reddick made it three-wide coming to the white flag and sealed the deal to grab the victory, while Jones slid to third.

Despite the sting of defeat, Jones’ performance deserves applause. He gave Legacy its best finish since re-branding from Petty GMS to the current name, as well as earning his first top five of the season.

Perhaps the fact that it came on an intermediate track was the most impressive feat, as he only had one top-10 finish on the track type this season. With the announcement of John Hunter Nemechek moving into the fold next season and Jones’ recent surge of back-to-back top 10s, things are looking bright for Legacy.

Playoff Underdog Update

Two races down, one to go in the Round of 16. For Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell, it is their last shot to get on track to make a playoff push.

Things were looking optimistic for Stenhouse when he unloaded off the truck, with his overall, single-lap, five-lap and 10-lap averages all inside the top 10 during practice. Starting 16th, the path forward was a little smoother for Stenhouse. However, that strength never translated into race speed.

After finishing stage one in 19th, the handling went away on Stenhouse’s car, causing him to free fall to 30th by the end of stage two. During the stage, things got tougher when he made contact with the wall, prompting the team to go under the hood multiple times during the race.

The JTG-Daugherty Racing driver was stuck one lap down in the final stage before finally getting the wave around for the overtime restart. Unfortunately, the compounded challenges were too much to overcome, leaving Stenhouse in 23rd. As the series heads to one of Stenhouse’s better tracks in Bristol Motor Speedway, he will need to be on it from the start, as he sits 22 points below the cut line.

McDowell’s day wasn’t much better. He too showed potential on Saturday with a seventh-place qualifying run. He finished stage one in 14th, keeping him within distance of the top 10.

From there, however, things went downhill. In stage two, McDowell tagged Austin Cindric after contact on a restart, sending Cindric for a spin.

McDowell and crew chief Travis Peterson made one final Hail Mary attempt at the end by staying out long during the final round of green flag stops in hopes of getting a caution. That yellow never came when they needed it to, forcing the No. 34 to pit. McDowell left with a 26th-place showing, and sitting 40 points below the transfer, he is practically in must-win territory at Bristol.

Who Impressed & Who’s in the Dog House

Kansas was not kind to the underdogs, with just one driver joining Jones in the top 20. That would be his Legacy teammate this weekend, Carson Hocevar, who finished 20th.

Hocevar is two-for-two in earning top 20s with Legacy, making just his third career Cup start. The 20-year-old impressed in stage two, finishing 15th before experiencing a hiccup in the final stage. Hocevar made contact with Harrison Burton, causing Burton to get into the wall in turn 3 and ending his day. Still, Hocevar overcame going one lap down and continued to show why he is one of NASCAR’s brightest young prospects.

Sheldon Creed made his Cup debut in the No. 78 for Live Fast Motorsports after qualifying for the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the day prior. While Live Fast lags behind the equipment of other teams, Creed did a solid job by having a clean race and learning. He told Frontstretch afterwards that the Cup guys “cut you no breaks.” It was a valuable experience for the 25-year-old, who finished 29th.

For the second consecutive week, Burton had to watch the remainder of the race from his motorhome, as the damage he suffered on lap 174 was not enough to repair within the DVP clock. With a result of 35th, Burton now has four consecutive finishes of 28th or worse. On the bright side, it appears his 2024 future is secure, as The Athletic‘s Jordan Bianchi reported Burton is returning to Wood Brothers Racing next season.

What They’re Saying

Jones (third):

Carson Hocevar (20th): “To come from one lap down, really struggling myself to get a grip on the racetrack to finish in the top-20 is super big for me. We finished 15th in one of the stages, and were one or two restarts away from having a great finish. I plugged the fence once or twice and got myself a little bit behind, and by that point I was kind of deep.

It was a lot of fun trying to get the balance right and learn this stuff. For it to be my first true mile-and-a-half and finish top 20, I can’t hang my head too bad on that. I’m thankful to Maury (Gallagher), Jimmie (Johnson), and Richard (Petty) for the opportunity to drive their Sunseeker Resorts Chevy and can’t wait for Bristol!”

Creed (29th):

Burton (35th):

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Lions, and tigers, and … elephants, oh my? J.J. Yeley carried the colors of Jungle Law on his No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford this week. The scheme was not hard to find, as it popped out with green and cheetah-print colors. Contact with the wall hindered Yeley’s day, leaving him in 34th.

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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