Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: Brandon Jones Is Turning the Corner

Nobody likes being the odd man out. In 2023, Brandon Jones was the only JR Motorsports driver to miss the playoffs. This year, through the first three races, he appears to be turning the corner.

After the first trio of events this season, Jones has two top 10s and a solid average finish of 10.7. He is 10 points above the playoff cut line, in 10th position. Just above Jones are teammates Sammy Smith and Justin Allgaier. Jones has a lead on Parker Kligerman and JRM teammate Sam Mayer, two drivers who made the playoffs in 2023. So, what is the secret to the early season turnaround?

“It’s about confidence,” Jones said. “I’ve spent a lot of time honing my skills and understanding the dynamics of the car. Confidence in myself and the team’s ability to execute race strategies has played a crucial role.”

In our last installment of Eyes on Xfinity, we went through the 14 drivers and teams that are most likely to reach the playoffs, with at least two of those teams missing out. Based on what happened in 2023 and a few other factors, I predicted that Jones and Josh Williams would be the two drivers among that group to miss the cut. It’s early, but right now it looks like I may have been wrong about Jones.

“We’ve made some strategic adjustments within the team,” Jones added. “We’ve fine-tuned our setups, focusing on areas where we struggled last year. The team has put in a tremendous amount of effort during the offseason, and it’s paying off early in the season.”

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Lifting his average finish by 12 positions compared to last season’s first three races is huge. Some might chalk it up to small sample size or even luck. For Jones, luck could have a little bit to do with it, but there’s much more at play.

“Luck can only take you so far in this sport,” Jones said. “Sure, it plays a role, but ultimately, it’s about preparation and execution. We’ve been in the right place at the right time, but it’s because we’ve positioned ourselves there through hard work and dedication.”

With 14 full-time Xfinity Series drivers in what could be considered top-tier rides, other teams like Jordan Anderson Racing and RSS Racing showing more speed this year, plus the routine appearances from ‘Buschwacking’ Cup Series drivers and people like Aric Almirola running a significant partial schedule, wins aren’t going to be easy to come by in the series. After Jones went winless last season, he knows this well. Going without a win doesn’t mean a driver can’t make the playoffs, but with only 12 spots available, it makes it a heck of a lot more difficult.

A former JR Motorsports driver had a similar first season with the team. That was Michael Annett in 2017. Like Jones, Annett had loyal sponsorship behind him, but his first season with the team left a lot to be desired. Annett had just one top five in his winless 2017 campaign to go along seven top 10s. Last season, Jones had three top fives and 10 top 10s.

The fact that Annett made the playoffs in 2017 and Jones missed by a margin in 2023 illustrates the growth of the series and the increased level of competition. Jones is well aware.

“The competition of the Xfinity Series is fierce, and we must stay sharp,” he said.

Annett’s sophomore season at JRM was even worse than his debut. Then, in 2019, he hit high watermarks for top fives, top 10s, and average finish. Still, he never got any higher than ninth in the final standings, and only won a single race during his four full seasons at JRM.

Jones has much higher expectations for himself. He came to JRM with a stronger resume, being a five-time winner in the series. If not for a run-in with former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Ty Gibbs at Martinsville Speedway in 2022, Jones might even have a championship under his belt. In that race, Jones sat on the pole, led a total of 98 laps and had the lead as the white flag flew, then his controversial last-lap tangle with Gibbs ended his title hopes.

When comparing to last year, this season is off to a great start, but Jones isn’t satisfied. He expects more. During the opening practice last week at Las Vegas, Jones raised some eyebrows by turning the fastest lap in the session. He seems to expect that as the norm, not the exception.

“Our performances this season have been creditable, yet I find myself surprised by our absence from the winner’s circle,” he said. “Nevertheless, I firmly believe our breakthrough is right around the corner.”

The Atlanta, Ga., native doesn’t undercut the team aspect of the sport. So many people have to do the right things for a win to be possible. One might’ve wondered if Jones had any second thoughts about coming to JRM after such a trying first season with the team. He firmly put those theories to rest.

“The unwavering confidence I have in this team is truly significant,” he said, “and when we achieve victory together, it will undoubtedly be all that more satisfying.”

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So when could that breakthrough come? Two of Jones’ best tracks historically are dead ahead on the schedule. This weekend, they’re at Phoenix Raceway, where Jones boasts a win and six top 10s. Another good opportunity could be a few weeks later at Martinsville, where Jones has also gone to victory lane and has five top 10s, a pole and a career average finish of 9.3.

The Menards-sponsored 27-year-old still has his sights set on a championship. He watched another Menards driver, Ryan Blaney, win the Cup Series championship last season, and his goal is to join Blaney in bringing a championship to John Menard, a longtime sponsor who finally broke through in NASCAR with Blaney’s championship after decades in motorsports.

“With the momentum we’ve built, I’m confident we can continue to make waves and chase down wins and a championship,” Jones said.

It’s hard not to appreciate the confidence and perseverance on display here. But is a championship realistic? He may not be the favorite, but I believe it could happen. Think back to 2022, when Jones nearly made it to the Championship 4. Who finished second in points just behind Gibbs, and what car did he drive? It was Noah Gragson, driving the No. 9 Chevrolet for JRM, now driven by Jones. Gragson won eight races in the car that year. Jones has been close, the funding is there, the team is there. Time to go out and make it happen.

In the spring Phoenix race in 2022, Gragson took the No. 9 team to victory lane. This weekend could be the satisfying victory Jones is looking for. To win, he’ll need to beat Cole Custer, the reigning series champion who won the title just four months ago at this very track. He’ll also have to beat two teammates with sharp resumes at Phoenix. Sammy Smith won this event last year, along with the pole for the season finale. Allgaier has two wins and 10 top fives at the track. A win for Jones here, or even another strong run, would make a real statement that Jones and his No. 9 team are real contenders.

We still have 30 races to go. 23 until the playoffs begin. Keep your eyes on Jones. On to Phoenix!

About the author

Steve Leffew joined Frontstretch in 2023, and covers the Xfinity Series. He resides in Wisconsin and has been a NASCAR fan as long as he can remember. He has served honorably in the United States Air Force and works during the week as a Real Estate Lender.

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