MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Feb. 8, 2019) — The last two seasons, JR Motorsports rode a rookie driver in its No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro SS to the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
2019? Wash, rinse and, hopefully…repeat.
Dave Elenz, the winningest crew chief in JRM history, is also the first to earn two titles, having led William Byron (2017) and Tyler Reddick (2018) to the championship. Greg Ives was on the box for the 2014 title with Chase Elliott, who also happened to be a rookie.
Elenz, for the third straight season, will have a rookie as his driver in Noah Gragson, the 20-year-old Las Vegas native who competed for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship last year. While some have dubbed Elenz the “Rookie Whisperer,” the Michigan native says it’s all about the process.
Gragson takes over for Reddick in the seat, and inherits veteran spotter Earl Barban, who was on the tower for Byron and Reddick the past two seasons. That’s a ton of experience for the young driver to have at his disposal, and it likely explains at least a part of the success Elenz has had in guiding his young chargers to the Promised Land at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PROCESS: There is no best way to win championships. Winning it however you do it is, by definition, the right way. Elenz has that math down, as evidenced by what he’s been able to do the past two seasons with young drivers. What is the magical silver bullet he uses?
“It’s just trying to manage expectations,” he said. “Whatever way we talk about it, however we approach the races, we still have the same expectations with all three of them (Byron, Reddick and Gragson), which is to lay a solid foundation throughout the beginning the year, then get ourselves to the point through the summer months where we’re trying to compete for wins and moving forward to a good Playoff season.
“Two years ago with William, our summer went very well and we kind of peaked too early and kind of fell down when we should have been getting back up. Tyler, we fell down all the way through the summer and it took us a while to get back up. We finally made it. I had the same goals, with both drivers, and their peaks and lows weren’t the same, but we were able to figure out how to get through that situation and get through the Playoffs.”
It really is that simple, Elenz said. At this early stage, that process is in its infancy with Gragson. There is no way, yet, to compare his newest charge to the two previous drivers.
“Among the last three drivers, it’s all pretty similar,” Elenz said. “Right now you’re just trying to understand who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are. It’s not to the point where we’re performing and racing week in and week out yet. I haven’t really figured out where he’s at compared to the other guys yet. We’ll get through the West Coast swing and we’ll have a good understanding of his abilities and we can compare and contrast at that point. Right now it’s just getting to know him.”
YOUTH AND ENTHUSIASM: Gragson is a rising star, for sure, but he has a solid understanding of what he’s facing this year by driving the de facto championship favorite. As for goals, he kept them basic.
“I’ve set some personal goals for myself, and the overall idea is to ultimately grow as a driver and as a person,” he said. “I think striving to be better on and off the race track is the most important thing to me. Sometimes you hear people saying, ‘oh, I want to go knock off seven or eight wins this season,’ and I wouldn’t say those were really my goals. It’s the small, fine details that are more the priority for me. I’d take the seven or eight victories, absolutely, but you have to fine-tune everything before you get to Victory Lane.”
Not that he wouldn’t take the seven or eight victories, of course…but the devil is in the details.
“Obviously, I want to win every race and I’ll try my best to win every race, but it’s the small things like trying to maximize pit road, getting into the pit box…just doing everything to the best of my ability and executing all race long and all season long is the most important thing for me,” he said. “I know I have a great group, not only the guys on my team, but the whole organization is really behind me. I’m really fortunate to have that kind of team.”
For Elenz, having a third straight rookie means he’s at least well-versed on the getting-to-know-you part of the season.
“That’s the toughest part, trying to figure out what they’re like and how they want to be talked to during the race, what they want to hear,” Elenz said. “Is it always something positive, or you have to do this better, or in some cases they already know what they have to do better and they don’t want to be told. I do think he’s probably in the middle (between Byron and Reddick), which is not good, bad or indifferent. We’re just not to that point yet, and it will take us a while to get there. It’s just matching what they like to hear and how they like to be approached. It takes time to build.”
They got a good start on it during the organizational testing period at both Atlanta and Las Vegas.
“He (Gragson) did a very good job at the test,” Elenz said. “These guys coming up from the Truck Series…these cars drive quite a bit different so there’s a little bit of an adjustment there. It’s hard to do when you’re not racing other guys and are just there by yourself. He did a good job getting used to the cars and we had some speed compared to some of the other guys, so we’re excited about that.”
LITTLE BIT OF CHANGE: Elenz has been able to keep his team together for the most part, retaining car chief Cory Shea and mechanics Jared Hewitt and Jacob Schauf. The biggest loss for Elenz was race engineer Brandon McSwain, who went down the road to HMS on the No. 24 car for Byron. Josh Graham, the tire specialist last season, has moved to the No. 8 car this season. Phillip Bell, who was with Elenz in 2017, returns to the No. 9 this season as lead engineer. Cal Stewart, a new addition from Hendrick, moves into Graham’s slot.
“Brandon and I had a really good relationship,” Elenz said. “He knew what I expected, and he could answer questions that he had for me without even asking because he knew how I was going to approach it. Luckily, with Phillip, he has been with us before, and he knows kind of how I think already, so it’s more or less just brushing up. I don’t see any issues there, and Cal is coming from an HMS background. He’s ready to go and will be a good asset to us.”
FUEL TO THE FIRE: Gragson knows there will be plenty of eyeballs on him this year, as the heir apparent to a title-winning legacy. Working with Elenz provides the young driver with some additional ammunition, he said.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure working with Dave, coming off two championships,” Gragson said. “Some people would say those are big shoes to fill; I think it gives me added opportunity, motivation and fuel to the fire because I know that I have an opportunity in great equipment and with a great crew chief to get the job done. That fuels me even more to maybe do one more rep in the gym, watch one more race tape and just go the extra mile.
“I know they’re willing to support me and back me and do whatever it takes and I’m willing to do the same.”
NEED VS. WANT: Elenz is cerebral enough to see that there’s a difference between needing to do something and wanting to do something, and it is part of his program.
“We don’t need to do anything,” Elenz said. “It’s what we want to do. For sure, Noah wants to follow everybody else (to the title). There’s no need for him to do it exactly like anybody else did it. The end goal is the same for everybody that you talk to. Everybody is saying that they want to go out and win the championship, but you don’t need to do anything to get there. You have to figure out what your process needs to be to get there. I don’t know that yet. We’re going to try to run as well as we can and try to get better each week. That’s all we can do, really.”
LONG TIME GONE: One thing Gragson has to face for the first time is the fact that NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule is 10 races longer than the NGOTS schedule he raced last year.
“It’s definitely longer, going from 23 races to 33 races,” Gragson said. “I’d love to be in the car every single day if I could, and it’s going to be mentally exhausting throughout the summer months and toward the end of the season, but I think it’s the motivation and the group surrounding me at JRM that will keep me pushing hard. I love racing and it’s all I think about every single day, so with that being said, there’s going to be adversity and challenges. We’re going to keep our heads down and keep on digging. We have one goal, and that’s to chase a championship.”
Add to it some tracks he’s never raced on before, and it’s going to get hairy at times.
“I think it’s going to be somewhat challenging,” he said. “Indy and those road courses throughout the middle stages of the season…the first one I haven’t been to will be Auto Club. It’s going to be a little nerve-wracking going there without a notebook of personal experience, but I feel once I get behind the wheel and get a few laps in, I start to feel comfortable and start figuring things out. I start learning and adapting and adjusting. I’m not too nervous now, saying this, but I’m sure I will be on the plane out to California!”
Gragson is confident in his team, which is experienced and versed in the ways of the sport. There’s the feeling that he needs to hold up his end of it, too.
“I’ve just got to stick to what I know and that’s to drive a race car to the best of my ability. I really want to go to the track this year and not have to ask my team any questions. I want to have my preparation down, and not in a cocky way…I don’t want to be the weakest link and I want to prepare to the best of my ability. Once I go back for the second time, it will be a lot better.”
Luckily, Gragson has the benefit of JRM drivers Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett, who have been everywhere and then some in the series.
“They’re both good drivers and they know how to compete, and you can learn anything from them,” Gragson said. “I hope I can help them learn something, but I’m really going to go into it just picking their brains as much as I can, talking to them, the other crew chiefs, my crew chief. I’m just hoping to be a sponge during this whole process. It’s going to be a challenge at first, but they can hopefully expedite that process.”
If it is expedited enough, and the process works its charm for the third year in a row, Gragson could see himself doing donuts on the track in Homestead. For Elenz, it would be vindication of his methods and possibly result in a change of nicknames, from “Rookie Whisperer” to “Three-Time Champion.”