The Calm Before the Storm: Off-Weekend Sets Stage for Championship Push

Ron Lemasters | 10/12/2018

Brandt BurgerFi Elliott Sadler Justin Allgaier Michael Annett News OneMain Pilot Flying J Playoffs Tyler Reddick XFINITY Series

It's the first off-weekend for the Xfinity Series since June, but JRM drivers and crews already are looking ahead to the final four-race stretch of 2018.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Oct. 11, 2018) – Twenty-nine down, four to go.

That’s the situation the JR Motorsports teams find themselves in this week, and the four remaining races—especially the last one—are the most important they’ll have all season. Since it’s an off-week for the NASCAR Xfinity Series while the Cup Series heads to Talladega, there’s a chance to take a quick breath before crunch time returns in force.

The off-week is the first in the last 15 for JRM’s four-car squad, and just the second since the middle of May. Like most weeks off, it comes at a good time, because men and machines both get tired after so long in action.

The Nos. 1, 7 and 9 teams are all in the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Playoffs, and as such, need to regroup before contesting the three-race burst that will determine who goes to Homestead-Miami Speedway next month to race for the championship. JRM was in the same position last year, and rookie William Byron took home the trophy from South Florida.

Can it happen for JRM again?

Heading into the first off-week in quite some time, each of the JRM teams has a focus.

No. 7 BRANDT Professional Agriculture team

For Allgaier and crew chief Jason Burdett, the off-weekend represents a chance to take a breath before the four most important races of the season. Sitting second in the points and just five out of the lead, the time off is a chance to regain the momentum the team had heading into the first round.

“Our momentum was broken at Richmond and Charlotte, but we were able to regroup and have a solid day at Dover,” Burdett said. “If it (the 16-race slog toward the Playoffs) would have been four or five weeks, and you had four or five really good weeks and you were heading into only four to go, maybe you could say, ‘yeah, I wish we could just keep going,’ but after 16 in a row, I don’t know that it’s about momentum.

“Everybody just needs a weekend to do their own thing. People are still going to go do things. We were laughing about it earlier. You’re probably going to work harder catching up on things around the house than you would if you were at the track. You’re not just going to sit around and sleep or go on vacation, but it is kind of a welcome mental break. You think about something different.”

Having a moment to stop riding the merry-go-round and take stock in what you have done and still need to do is important, even if the No. 7 team has been in the championship race the past two seasons, Burdett said.

“Every year is new, every year is different and everything is a different challenge,” Burdett noted. “On the Xfinity side, you have new faces coming in and out. First year (of the winner-take-all event at Homestead-Miami Speedway) it was Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones that you were racing, and last year it was Daniel Hemric and William Byron and Justin and Elliott, the two that have made both years.

“This year it’s a whole new group of people, with Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer and a bunch of new guys that are looking for their opportunity, as well as Elliott and Hemric and Justin...it’s a new challenge every year. We’ll just have to wait and see how the next three weekends play out and see if opportunity comes our way.”

No. 1 OneMain Financial team

For Kevin Meendering, crew chief for Elliott Sadler’s No. 1 machine, there is one over-riding goal over the next five weeks: get a championship for Sadler, who is stepping away from full-time competition after this season.

“All of us want to end the year on a high note and send Elliott out on top, get that championship for him,” Meendering said. “The off-weekend is good for our team. They’ve worked hard and they deserve a little time off. At the same time, it’s also good to get caught up on your stuff and try to improve on the cars. We’re in that stretch of the Playoffs where these next three are going to be very important and we have to make sure we’re good for that.”

After taking his driver to Homestead the past two seasons with a shot to win a title, Meendering knows how hard it is to do. Getting there, by being one of the top four in points, is harder than it might look. Sadler is currently fifth in points after the first round, 33 points off the lead.

“I think these next three races are important as far as trying to build momentum going into Homestead, but I think this is going to be the toughest route to get to Homestead that we’ve had to go through,” Meendering noted. “The competition is pretty tough this year, and it’s not going to be quite as easy as it has been the previous two years.”

Falling a combined seven points short in the past two Playoffs is ample motivation to seal the deal in 2018, and Meendering said his team was primed for the battle. “Everybody is in good spirits and ready to go after this championship.”

No. 9 BurgerFi team

The off-weekend arrived at a precipitous moment for Dave Elenz and his No. 9 squad after a somewhat bumpy road to the Round of 8.

“It’s a very good time for us,” Elenz said. “We didn’t have a very strong showing at Dover and we need to regroup and get better. The off-weekend means you have enough time to get back ahead and get a game plan for the final four races. It’s definitely welcomed. It’s a chance to make the cars better, make better decisions.”

Elenz guided William Byron to the championship last season, so he knows what it takes to earn one. There are some similarities to last season, he said, despite the fact that Tyler Reddick is in the seat instead of Byron.

“It’s a chance for us to breathe and get a better game plan because we weren’t necessarily heading in the right direction,” Elenz said of the first three Playoff races. “Even last year we weren’t heading in the right direction through that first round with the speed we had and the way we were executing races. For us, it’s a better break than say, the 7 car, which is continuing to roll through good finishes and has a lot of things going right for them.”

Elenz said the time away from the weekly grind will be beneficial to his group, too.

“Everyone is going to enjoy the break, have a weekend with their family,” he said. “I think that’s really good for all of them, but I think the majority of them are still really pumped up and believe in what Tyler is going to be capable of the next few races and they want to get to them.”

No. 5 Pilot Flying J team

Despite narrowly missing the Round of 12, the No. 5 team with driver Michael Annett is approaching the off-week with a can-do attitude according to crew chief Travis Mack.

“This definitely helps, gives us more time to look over the Kansas stuff, look at every detail and really get ready for the final four races,” Mack said. “We’ve had some good weeks, and we’ve had some bad ones, so we’re trying to figure out what we can do better. Overall, we’ve had some really smooth weekends, and Dover should really be our standard for how it went. At Dover, we had speed off the truck and Michael was really happy with the car, so we make that our standard and we’ll start showing improvement for sure.”

Despite coming off a solid weekend (a 12th-place run with speed in the car) at Dover with some momentum, Mack doesn’t mind the time away.

“I don’t think an off-weekend ever hurts,” he said. “It gets everybody recharged and ready to go and you can really work on your car. It gives you a lot more time to make sure everything is right, and it lets us overthink some of the setups and make sure our car is ready.”

Without a shot at a championship, the No. 5 team is on its own program these final four races, getting a jump-start on 2019.

“We’re just trying to make us better,” he said. “We’ll be experimenting with some new stuff for next year in the last couple of races and trying to focus on our team getting better as well as help our teammates get better too. We might try a little different setup here or there, be more willing to try different parts the rest of the year. It’s kind of tricky.”

Tricky or not, the final push for the winner-take-all finale in Florida is upon us. JRM teams are using this calm before the storm to make sure all is right for those critical weekends.

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XFINITY Series Schedule

  • November 3 04:30 PM ET
    O’Reilly Auto Parts 300*Texas Motor Speedway
  • November 10 03:30 PM ET
    Whelen Trusted to Perform 200*ISM Raceway
  • November 17 03:30 PM ET
    Ford EcoBoost 300*Homestead-Miami Speedway

XFINITY Series Standings

After Kansas Lottery 300*

Kansas Speedway | 10/20/2018
RankDriverPointsBehind
1Daniel Hemric (P)30670
2Elliott Sadler (P)3058-9
3Tyler Reddick # (P)3055-12
4Christopher Bell # (P)3045-22
5Matt Tifft (P)3044-23
6Justin Allgaier (P)3040-27
7Cole Custer (P)3022-45
13Michael Annett562-2505