Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: A Fortune Won, a Fortune Lost for Spire in Las Vegas

Top Dog: Erik Jones

Any time the NASCAR Cup Series rolls into the bright lights of Las Vegas, the race itself embodies a life-sized version of the roulette wheel.

Just as it looks like the prize will land in hands of one driver, it hops into the lap of the next one over.

That theme can relate to the results of the underdogs in the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 3). While one team took center stage early, Erik Jones left the table with the reward of topping his dark horse peers in 14th.

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Launching from 22nd to commence the 400.5-mile race, Jones struggled in the first stage, finishing in 31st after battling loose-handling conditions. But like that roulette wheel, things can change in a hurry, and they did by the conclusion of stage two.

Adjustments and better track position allowed the No. 43 to go to work, and he pocketed a stage point with a 10th-place stage two finish.

Jones was able to keep the momentum rolling for the most part in the final stage, spending much of it hovering around the top 15. A caution with 33 laps remaining saw Jones in 16th, but he was able to gain two more spots by the end to grab a solid top 15 finish.

While Jones and the new-look Legacy Motor Club have yet to find the speed of their Toyota counterpart teams, the result was a good recovery for Jones after a potentially discouraging opening act in the race. The showing gives the 26-year-old two finishes of eighth and 14th in the young season.

How Does it Compare?

Jones’s top 15 run does not match recent performances by underdogs, including one of his own in 2022. In this race a year ago, Justin Haley cracked the top 10 while driving for Kaulig Racing by grabbing an eighth-place finish.

And can you believe that Trackhouse Racing was an underdog just a short time ago? In 2022, while he was still on the column’s list, Ross Chastain turned in a third-place run that sparked a season that would see him reach the Championship 4 by year’s end.

Notable Underdog Runs

While Jones did top the leaderboard for the underdogs, he was arguably not the man of the hour, or team for that matter, in Vegas. That would belong to Spire Motorsports, who had rookie Carson Hocevar as its highest finisher in 15th.

Hocevar got roughed up in the first two races of the season, but his speed this week was evident, looking every bit the future star many have pegged him to be. His lap times were impressive in practice, and it carried over to the race. Hocevar ran inside the top 15 for much of the race, even having spurts inside the top 10 at times.

On lap 151, it nearly all unraveled when Hocevar had to pit for a flat right-front tire, setting him back a lap. Fortunately, he got a break seven laps later when a caution flag flew late in stage two, allowing him to take the wave around. By lap 200, the Portage, Mich. native had driven back into the top 10 before settling for 15th. What makes this run more impressive is the fact that it is the highest finish for the No. 77 on an intermediate track since Spire began using it in 2019.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s day was an overall fight. After starting 13th and driving inside the top 10 early on, the No. 47 fell back to 27th by the end of stage one. Stenhouse struggled to claw back inside the top 20 after that, but made a late charge at the end to earn a respectable 17th-place finish, his first top 20 in Vegas since 2021.

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Remember how Daniel Hemric was the model of how far consistency can take you during his time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series? While they may not be as flashy as top fives, top 10s or a last-lap pass for his first win (and title), he is beginning to repeat that in his return to Cup.

Like several underdogs, Hemric battled a stubborn-handling car throughout the weekend, slipping outside the top 30 at times during the race. And just as he finally began to gain traction in stage two, he was busted for speeding during a green flag pit stop cycle on lap 120, putting him down a lap.

After taking the wave-around on lap 158, Hemric found himself down a lap again when Corey LaJoie spun on lap 235, giving Hemric the free pass. The 2021 Xfinity champion cashed in on the opportunity, driving from 24th to 19th in the final 27 laps to start off 2024 with three consecutive top-20 finishes. It is the first time a Kaulig driver has accomplished that mark to open a season since their full-time Cup inception in 2022.

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Hemric’s Kaulig teammate this weekend was 22-year-old Derek Kraus, who made his Cup debut driving the team’s No. 16 Chevrolet. Frontstretch‘s weekly Friday Faceoff column asked what the expectations were for Kraus’s debut, and the answers varied from getting a top 25 to just finishing the event.

Overall, Kraus should be applauded for his Cup welcome. He ran a clean race, spent some time in the top 20 and even led two laps during a green flag stop cycle. He wrapped up the day in 28th, a respectable showing for the young driver.

During the first two stages, it looked as if LaJoie would land as the top dog in a big way. Two weeks after matching a career-best finish of fourth in the Daytona 500, LaJoie spent several laps running in the top five. He went toe-to-toe with and even bested drivers from teams such as Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske, looking like one of the strongest cars at times,. Additionally, he grabbed four stage points in stage one by finishing seventh, and continued to mix it up at the front of the field afterward.

Unfortunately, Spire’s promising day was full of bumps, and LaJoie’s came with 33 laps to go. Entering turn 1, the No. 7 snapped around and into the outside wall, relegating LaJoie to a 32nd-place result. Still, it was perhaps the strongest run in Spire’s young history on a non-superspeedway, and the team should carry a lot of optimism moving forward for all three of its entries.

What They’re Saying

Jones (15th): “Pretty up-and-down day. Up-and-down weekend really, fired off the race not where we needed to be, and had to make some really big changes the first three, four stops of the day to get the Dollar Tree Camry better. To salvage a top 15 is good, but we want more, so we will keep working on it.”

Hemric (19th): “We fired off decent in the race, but within a few laps, the No. 31 South Point Chevy just started getting tight. A speeding penalty set us back a bit, but fortunately we were able to get the lap back. We ran the best we had all day during those last couple of runs, and we were able to grab another top-20 finish.” (via Kaulig’s race recap)

Kraus (28th): “Overall, we achieved what we wanted to, and that was to complete all 400 laps. We were pretty good all day; I just have to work on my restarts and make sure I capitalize on track position when I have it. I can’t thank Kaulig Racing and Western States Flooring enough for the opportunity. I’m looking forward to Phoenix next week!” (via Kaulig’s race recap)

Who’s Really the Top Dog?

Underdog House Medal Count in 2024

Gold: LaJoie, Stenhouse, Jones

Silver: AJ Allmendinger, Harrison Burton, Hocevar

Bronze: John Hunter Nemechek, LaJoie, Stenhouse

Small Team Scheme of the Week

LaJoie certainly had the scheme to match the speed in Vegas. After taking the scheme of the week honors at Daytona International Speedway, the Spire driver takes it again this week with his No. 7 USANA Chevrolet.

Featuring a bright blend of blue, teal, and purple, LaJoie’s car was certainly one that would match the luster of the Vegas Strip lights.

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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