TALLADEGA, Al.— As the first quarter of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season came to a close last week at Richmond, drivers begin to assess their seasons and where they would like to improve on throughout the rest of the season.
The first nine races of the season have seen encumbered wins and side-by-side racing. Seven different drivers have made their way to victory lane this season, while Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson have made their way into victory lane twice. Three short track, one restrictor plate event, and five different tracks have encompassed the first quarter of the season.
Some teams have struggled while some teams have flourished with the new aero packages, while some teams have excelled in stage racing.
Kyle Larson leads the points standing by 40 points over Martin Truex Jr, 52 points over Chase Elliott, 71 points over Brad Keselowski (pending points penalty from Phoenix), and Joey Logano sits 90 points out of the lead following his encumbered win at Richmond.
In his first season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Erik Jones has made a name for himself in the top series. He currently has one top-10 finish this season.
“I wish through the first part of the season we would have just had more results. I think we've ran a lot better than what we've really finished, which is disappointing and unfortunate in a way. But knowing that we showed up at the race every week ‑‑ I can only point at a couple races where I didn't really feel like we should have ran in the top 10, just circumstances, and the way these races have kind of played out, at the end of the them, it just hasn't been in the cards for us,” said Jones.
When asked how he would like to improve on the season, Jones stated, “I think beyond that as the season goes on, we just want to keep working on executing better at the end of the races, getting these finishes and running up front and honestly feel like we keep bringing these fast race cars to the track, one of these weeks it's just going to kind of click for us, and we're just going to be running up front and have a good shot at the win. I thought Bristol was kind of going to be that day, but it seems as things have gone, we just haven't had the tides been falling in our favor."
Although he received an encumbered penalty after his win last weekend at Richmond, Logano is impressed with how his season as gone.
“For us as the 22 team, we were able to kick off the season great with the win at The Clash. That was nice, and since then we’ve had decent speed in our cars. At the beginning part of the year we didn’t execute perfectly during the race, so we didn’t get many stage points, but we were able to recover and get a lot of top 5s and top 10s so far this year. Our average finish is great. I think last week to get through and win the race is a nice thing,” said Logano, “Obviously, this is a little bit of a setback, so I think in general we’re doing a good job. I think we’ve cleaned up the mistakes that we had earlier in the year to where now we’re running as well as we should during the event, which is gonna help us score stage points because we all know how big that is right now and it will be forever. I think the fact that we cleaned up our races a little bit, that’s a big deal, and our speed is still really well. We have good speed in our cars, so those wins will start clicking off is good. I feel happy with where we’re at. I think we have an average finish of around sixth and seventh with the blown right-front at Phoenix and a thirtysomething finish there, so I’m proud of the way we’ve handled the situations this year and the finishes we’ve been getting and the way we’ve been recovering I think that’s an A-plus, and I think we’ve cleaned up to where we don’t have to recover as much, hopefully, here in the future.”
For Ryan Blaney, the season has been filled with ups and downs. He assessed his second season with the Wood Brothers:
“We started off the year really strong. I feel like we didn’t get good finishes the first six or seven races. We had really good cars where things happened and we didn’t get the finish we deserved. I’d say our season started off really strong. The past two weeks have been kind of rough on us. Bristol was a shame. We were really fast and had that power-steering issue and had to ride around there for 300 laps to the end of the race. Richmond, I actually salvaged a really good finish out of that after not being good all day…running 18th all day. I think we drove up to eighth and got the car better, and then Kurt (Busch) wrecked us. I feel like those are the things that we need to do if we don’t run well the first three-quarters of the race, keep working on our car and finish well,” said Blaney. “That’s what we did last week, and I feel like we didn’t have that last year. If we ran bad last year, the first portion of the race we stayed there all day, so this year I feel like we’ve gotten better with that. I’m pretty happy how the Woods Brothers team is running now and where our performance is. It’s just a matter of getting back on track and getting the finishes that we deserve. I feel like there are some really good race tracks that we can definitely capitalize on.”
Consistency in second place, a win at Auto Club, and during the stages was key. Here is how Larson rated his first quarter:
“It’s been good. We had three consecutive second place finishes that led to the win and then we got another second-place finish after that. Four second place finishes and a win to start, I think our average finish is like basically sixth. It’s been a solid start to the year we’ve just got to keep working hard. It’s a really long season. Teams get better and worse throughout the year, so we’ve just got to continue to dig deep and build on what we have right now to get better and hopefully challenge for some more wins,” said Larson.
Chase Elliott has not had the first quarter he would like, it has been full of ups and downs.
“I think we’ve had some ups and downs. I feel like we fired off really well with the way we ran at Daytona and Atlanta. I thought our West Coast swing was pretty strong. I feel like over the past few weeks we really haven’t performed up to our potential. As a group, I think anybody in our group would feel the same way. We’ve had some fast cars at times. We’ve had our driving good and then other weeks, not so much,” said Elliott. “But, we definitely need to execute races; even on the days that your car is not driving like you want it to. That execution and doing everything correctly on pit road, restarts, giving the right information, can turn a bad day into a pretty good day, really. Like last week, for instance, we ran not very good and just inside the 15th; not quite inside the top 10 the majority of the day. We got towards the end of the day and had an opportunity to finish up well inside the top 10 if we had just executed a little bit better. So, that’s what we need to do. And we know we need to do that. And, we’ll try to make that happen.”
Although he won the Daytona 500 this year, Kurt Busch has had a season of ups and downs highlighted by alternator issues.
“For us on the 41 car, we’ve almost gotten a top 10 at half the races so far. This will be our 10th race, so if we get a top 10 this weekend that means we’ve been in the top 10 half the time. We had a couple alternator bugs and issues that we had to work through on the west coast trip. We missed the setup at Fontana. Martinsville was better this time around, we just didn’t seal the deal. We got caught up in a wreck there,” said Busch. “Overall, when you win the Daytona 500 it can carry you for a lifetime. It can carry you for a season and so for the first 10 races, we’ve had a great deal of success and we’re very happy about that with our Ford, with Haas, with Monster and for everybody on the team. Ring-sizing was this week at Stewart-Haas Racing for everybody to get their ring sizes measured up to get a Daytona 500 championship ring, so it’s been pretty special so far to start the year.”
Although the first quarter is a basis for many teams, there are still many more opportunities in 2017 to improve and stay consistent.
Due to persisting mist, Erik Jones has won the pole at Dover. This is his second straight pole. The field will be set by first round speeds.
Despite rain cutting the Sprint Cup practice session short, qualifying went underway as no cars hit the track within the opening four minutes with Timmy Hill being the lone driver to hit the track. The first round of qualifying was able to go the distance as E. Jones topped the board with a speed of 158.318 mph. Kyle Busch was second at 157.660 mph, Joey Logano was was third at 157.480 mph, Alex Bowman was fourth at 157.089 mph, and Daniel Suarez rounded out the top-five with a speed of 157.048 mph. All drivers made a lap on the speedway, and no drivers will be going home.
NASCAR is hopeful to get the Drive Sober 200 completed in its entirety beginning at 3:00PM EST on NBCSN and Motor Racing Network. Green flag is scheduled for 3:06PM EST.
Erik Jones outlasts his teammate to score the pole in the VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 from Kentucky Speedway. Jones had a speed of 187.207 mph. This is his eighth pole of the season. Joe Gibbs racing has swept the front row for all 1.5-mile speedways this season.
The first round began with a track that had been sitting under the Kentucky sun all day. When the green flag for the session flew, not many drivers were not in any hurry to get on track. Turns three and four were washed down after last night’s ARCA race. There were no major incidents in the first round. Suarez was the fastest in the opening round at a speed of 186.580 mph, E. Jones was second fastest at 185.103 mph, Darrell Wallace Jr. was third fastest at 183.107 mph, Ty Dillon was fourth fastest at 182.630 mph, and JJ Yeley rounded out the top-five at a speed of 182.494 mph. All 12 drivers of the chase advanced to the second round. Timmy Hill will be the lone driver who does not qualify.
Unlike the first round, the second round of qualifying began with a plethora of cars going onto the track. The second round went without incident. E. Jones was at the top of the board with a speed of 186.761 mph, Suarez was second with a speed of 186.625 mph, Ryan Blaney was third with a speed of 185.707 mph, Hornish Jr. was fourth with a speed of 185.065 mph, and T. Dillon rounded out the top-five with a speed of 184.565 mph. Chase drivers who did not advance to the final round were Brandon Jones who will start 14th, Blake Koch who will start 15th, Ryan Reed who will start 16th, and Ryan Sieg who will start 19th.
The third and final round saw cars strive to hit the track. The third and final round concluded a qualifying session that went without incident. E. Jones was the fastest. Suarez will start second with a speed of 186.425 mph, Elliott Sadler will start third with a speed of 185.829 mph, T. Dillon will start fourth with a speed of 185.561 mph, and Hornish Jr. rounded out the top-five with a speed of 185.420 mph. Brennan Poole, who will start in the 11th position, was the slowest of the chase drivers with a speed of 183.867 mph.
The VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 will begin at 7:30PM EST on Performance Racing Network. NBCSN will go on the air beginning at 8:00PM EST.
In a media availability on Friday with Truex and Garone, the idea of a second car was hinted by Joe Garone, general manager of Furniture Row.. “It’s certainly a part of it for the growth of the team. It’s been over this journey we started off and Barney (Visser, team owner), his company has funded our car all along and are still there, but Bass Pro Shops really coming onboard this last year has really opened up a door for other sponsorships. And, it’s kind of settled us to where we feel we’re getting strong enough to support a second effort and it’s no secret we’ve been working on that and we’ll see where that takes us. If we can get it all pulled together it will be ’17. Yep.”
However, after weeks of speculation and a preliminary report by Motorsport.com, Furniture Row Racing made it official Sunday before the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen that Erik Jones will move from NASCAR Xfinity Series competition to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition in 2017 to field a second car for Furniture Row, alongside Martin Truex Jr., who re-signed this week with a two-year contract extension. 5-hour ENERGY will be the primary sponsor for the new no. 77 Toyota, leaving their current sponsorship of Clint Bowyer, driver of the no. 15 HScott Motorsports Chevrolet.
Barney Visser, owner of Furniture Row Racing, explains how quickly this deal came together. "We're very excited to have all the components of a second race team pulled together here. It's all come together in the last month.To find a driver like Erik, a sponsor like 5-Hour ENERGY, along with our technical agreement with Gibbs, we think we're going to be able to run right up where we need to run. We're very excited to get it all pulled together here.”
Rise Meguiar, vice president of Living Essentials, was also in attendance in today’s press conference. “They came to us and presented the program for Erik. I've been watching Erik and seen his talent in both series. We have watched what Furniture Row has done with the car that they have. We just felt that it was going to be a good place for us to be. It was just a really good fit.”
"It's hard to say I'm not excited but anxious at the same time, anxious for this day, and excited to be here. It's pretty cool for me to be partnered up with Furniture Row and be part of them growing and part of 5-Hour, too. To have such a big company like that be partnered with me is pretty cool this early in my racing career and something I've always wanted,” said Jones of his new partnership with Furniture Row and 5-hour ENERGY.
Toyota Racing Development is pumped to have a new team in Sprint Cup Series competition. "I think Erik ascending to the Cup level, for Toyota, this is the first time a Toyota driver has grown from the grassroots ranks all the way through NASCAR's national series. I think it's a great story for Toyota, but probably a greater story for NASCAR and the future of our sport,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development USA.
Furniture Row Racing will be seeking charter status for the no.77 entry in 2017. "There's several charters out there that we're hearing are available. We've been looking at it some. We're not exactly sure where we're going to be on that. We are going to get a charter, but we're not sure who we're going to get it from yet,” said Visser.
Adding a second team, according to Garone, will not affect day-to-day operations because the team has already begun modifying the shop in Denver, Colorado to accommodate two cars.
Visser and Furniture Row hope the one-year deal with Jones will turn into many more to come.
5-Hour ENERGY will also be proudly displayed for two races on Martin Truex Jr.’s car, which includes the NASCAR All-Star Race in 2017.
Jones is the reigning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion. He currently holds the top seed in the Xfinity Chase with three wins. He has clinched 11 top-five finishes in 2016. He also has six poles under his belt in 2016. With an average start of 2.7, Jones has an average finish of 11.4. Jones has a couple NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts under his belt from 2017, filling in for Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth in 2015. Jones also filled in for Denny Hamlin in Sprint Cup competition during the Food City 500 in support of Steve Byrnes and Stand Up to Cancer at Bristol Motor Speedway in early 2016.
With a one car operation, Furniture Row has clinched a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup in three of the last four years. In 2016, the team has one win, three top-five’s, three poles, an average start of 9.6, and an average finish of 13.4.
After a speeding penalty in the beginning of the race, Daniel Suarez surprises Kyle Busch for his first career victory followed by Paul Menard, Erik Jones, and Elliott Sadler round out the top five. This is Joe Gibbs Racing’s eighth win of the 2016 season. Suarez made the charge to the lead on the final restart to pass Kyle Busch on the last lap of the Menards 250. Suarez also locks himself into the 2016 Chase for the Xfinity Series Championship. Suarez is credited for leading the last two laps. The driver from Mexico is the sixth foreign born winner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and the second on an oval. Suarez is also a graduate of the NASCAR Next and Drive for Diversity programs.
In victory lane, Suarez was elated about his first victory. “I don’t think I can speak English or Spanish right now. I don’t have the words to describe what I’m feeling right now.”
Suarez dedicated this victory to his teammate, Erik Jones. Jones lost his father in a battle to cancer on Tuesday.
“You never want to get beat, but it’s cool when you get beat fair and square. He ran me down and had a really fast car at the end. He had some speed and a really good car,” said Kyle Busch post-race.
The Menards 250 from Michigan International Speedway saw eight lead changes among seven drivers. Kyle Busch led the most laps at 59. followed by Erik Jones (18 laps), Alex Bowman (11 laps), Daniel Suarez ( two laps), and Elliott Sadler, Paul Menard, and JJ Yeley leading only one lap.
The caution flag flew for three times for a total of 14 Laps. There were two cautions for debris at lap 29 and 82. The third caution involved an incident with the car of Chris Cockrum, where he backed it into the fence on lap 88.
The average speed of the race was 155.952 mph. Time of the race was one hour, 35 minutes, and 11 seconds. Suarez beat Busch by a margin of victory of .280 seconds.
Suarez extends his points lead to 18 over Elliott Sadler, followed by, Ty Dillon (-36), Erik Jones (-55), and Justin Allgaier (-64). Jones, Sadler, and Suarez have locked themselves into the Chase with a win.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series will join the Camping World Truck Series at the Iowa Speedway for a Father’s Day special in the American Ethanol E15 250 presented by Enogen. The first practice session at Iowa will begin at 4:30 pm Eastern.