Playoff Preview: Will 2019 Be Three Times Lucky for Elenz, Gragson and the No. 9 Team?

Ron Lemasters | 9/19/2019

Dave Elenz News Noah Gragson Playoffs Switch XFINITY Series

The No. 9 team has brought home the Xfinity Series championship the last two years and Noah Gragson and team are ready to go for another in 2019.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Sept. 19, 2018) – The last two times that crew chief Dave Elenz and car chief Cory Shea began a playoff run, they emerged with championship rings, a big dry-cleaning bill from the post-race celebration at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the knowledge that they had taken a rookie driver to the promised land in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

This year, the same circumstances present themselves.

Rookie driver Noah Gragson is the latest candidate, and his numbers stack up very well with those of William Byron (2017) and Tyler Reddick (2018). There’s a reason that Elenz has been dubbed “The Rookie Whisperer.”

In 2017, Byron had won three races over the first 26, all of them in a five-race stretch from the first Iowa race to the annual trip to Indianapolis, and it could have been four in six weeks had Denny Hamlin not pipped the young Charlotte driver at the line at Michigan. That seemed to light a fire under Byron, one he kept lit all the way to the end of the season and the championship. Byron’s totals for the season were four victories, 12 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes for an average of 10.4, along with 262 laps led. He failed to finish four times in the 33 races.

The following year, Reddick won at Daytona by the barest of margins over teammate Elliott Sadler to become the first driver in the playoffs. Faced with the prospect of waiting 25 races to get his playoff run going, Reddick had spurts of greatness mixed with some wandering in the wilderness. Overall, Reddick won twice, the first race at Daytona and the last race at Homestead, logging seven top-five and 20 top-10 finishes along the way. He did not finish five races and averaged 12.9 per finish over the season.

Gragson’s numbers through 26 races are not only in the ballpark, they are better in some respects than the two rookies who preceded him in the No. 9.

Through the first 26 races, Gragson has seven top-five and 17 top-10 finishes, with 62 laps led, and has finished every race, completing all but 10 laps so far. Could that lead to a similar performance over the final seven races and wind up with more rings, more dry-cleaning bills and a three-peat for Elenz and the No. 9 team?

If it does, then it will be a new experience for Elenz, despite having it done it the last two seasons.

COMMON THEME: “The only common theme (from 2017 and 2018) is to continue what you were doing before,” Elenz said. “We go to the track every week and we try to win. It doesn’t change because it’s the end of the year. It may change because of how many points you’re trying to score, but it doesn’t change what we do. It doesn’t change the amount of effort we put in here at the shop. I think that’s our approach; we just continue to do what we’ve been doing. The best we can do is just be ourselves. We’re not going to do any better than that.”

The fact that the three drivers are very different people on the outside lends credence to the process Elenz has followed these past three seasons. Byron was calm and cool on the outside, while Reddick and Gragson are more outgoing, more flamboyant. In the race car, however, each had his own strengths and weaknesses, which it is Elenz’ job to manage.

“All three of them are completely different individuals,” he said. “I think William and Noah probably have some similar driving tendencies. They know the line they want to go and what they want to do and how they’re going to do it, but personality-wise, they’re completely different. Personality-wise, Noah and Tyler are probably a little closer and driving-wise, William and Noah are probably a little closer, so it’s a mix of all three. It’s been interesting.”

Of Gragson, the 21-year-old Nevadan, Elenz said that despite a larger-than-life personal presence, in the race car and at the track, it’s a different story. “Noah is a bit wild on the outside, but when he gets focused on the driving side, he focuses and tries to come up with a plan for it,” Elenz said.

LUCK BE A LADY: One of the factors that has played a part in two straight titles for the No. 9 team is the absence of a truly disabling event. In other words, the vagaries of motorsports at a high level have not cost the team their shot at glory.

“It’s a long road to get there (to Homestead for the finale) and a lot of things have to happen right,” Elenz said. “We’ve been very fortunate that we haven’t had bad luck in recent years. I think Justin (Allgaier) has probably run into some luck issues along the way and not made it. We’ve been fortunate and lucky enough to get down there (to Homestead) and try to go after it. You have to be prepared and have fast cars, but you also have to have a little luck to get down there.”

That said, there’s a reason for that: consistency. For a young driver, Gragson has shown an ability to make mistakes—as should be expected—but be able to mitigate them and recover, Elenz said.

“We’ve done a pretty good job finishing races off and learning throughout them and getting better by the end of them,” Elenz remarked. “We probably haven’t put together the cleanest of races. We tend to have a mistake somewhere, whether it be crashing in qualifying (Las Vegas) or a pit-road violation, whatever the circumstances of the weekend were, and that kind of sets us behind, but we tend to overcome it. Noah seems to be faster at the end of the race than when he started.”

One aspect of this year’s team being different than the previous two—besides the obvious one of having a new driver each time—is the timing of qualifying for the playoffs. In 2018, Reddick won the closest finish in NASCAR history (0.0004 seconds) at Daytona to open the season (over Sadler). Byron went on his mid-season tear of three wins in five races. Gragson hasn’t won, but he’s been steady, and that counts for a lot, Elenz said.

“I don’t think there’s a difference (on when you clinch a playoff spot),” he said. “We’ve done a pretty good job all year and we weren’t ever really fighting for a playoff spot. He’s (Gragson) done a good enough job all year that we were pretty much guaranteed in. Our whole season has been prepping for these seven races and trying to figure out how we’re going to get through them, on how to make our cars faster and make sure we had something to get us down to Homestead. If we would have won Daytona, I don’t know that it would have changed our mindset; it might have been a little less stressful toward the beginning.”

NEW FACES ABOUND: One of the more amazing things about this year’s run for the No. 9 team is the number of new faces in team meetings. The only personnel in the same position from each of the past two seasons are Elenz and Shea, along with engine tuner Jereme Jackson. Reloading doesn’t seem to be a strong enough term for what the team has done, but Elenz was very positive about the group he has this year. “Our team is excellent. This is the best team I’ve had, this group of guys,” Elenz said. That’s saying something right there.

PLAYOFF PLAN: To make it to Homestead with a chance to win the title, a lot has to happen. From the minefield that is the Round of 12 to the pressure-cooker of the Round of 8, one little slip can mean the difference. Elenz is aware of that and has planned accordingly.

In the first round, races at Richmond, the Roval and Dover can bite you, and the second round of Kansas, Texas and Phoenix can be a meat-grinder too. That’s six chances to make the mistake that sinks your title hopes, but Elenz says it can be any one of them.

“I think you can screw it up at any race,” he said. “You saw it last year when all the heavyweight contenders that were expected to do well all took themselves out on one restart at a race that really shouldn’t be that difficult to get through. You never know when that is going to happen. It could happen at Richmond. Everybody expects that to happen at the Roval, but there’ve been restarts at Richmond where we’ve cleaned out four or five cars before we get through Turns 1-2. That could happen this weekend very easily, and if we’re not in it, it definitely changes the approach for the next few weeks because that is going to give us a little jump on the points deal.”

The key, Elenz said, is scoring the maximum number of points at each stop.

“You definitely have to score stage points,” he said. “Up to this week, we really haven’t had to worry about stage points because we weren’t really chasing that playoff spot. Only having three races to do it, you have to score all the stage points you can to get yourself a cushion if there ever is an issue at some point. The top three guys right now have a lot of points, so we need everything we can get to get as far up as we can.”

Speaking of the top guys (Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer), Elenz is putting his faith in his team and his driver.

“I don’t really worry too much about them,” he said. “I know what my team is capable of and I know what Noah’s capable of, and I believe that we are capable of winning. It doesn’t really matter what they’re doing. We haven’t done enough to win yet, but I believe we’re capable of it. Once we figure out how to do it, we should be fine. I don’t think their success changes where we are. We beat them last year.”

THE ROAD TO HOMESTEAD: Getting to Homestead is the ultimate goal. If you’re in it, you can win it, Elenz said. “Once you get there, it’s fun,” he quipped. “You’re either going to win or you’re not, and you’re going to finish in the top four no matter what.”

That said, there are some things to look at to make it the former and avoid the latter.

“We’ve been working really hard on trying to get more speed into our cars,” he said. “I don’t know that we really have seen it yet, but we feel like we’ve made them better and haven’t been able to show it yet. The objective is to have clean races like we’ve been having, but hopefully have a little more speed than we’ve had.

“Richmond should be good for us,” Elenz mused. “He’s done a good job there. He got wrecked by the 21 in the spring, but last year he had a lot of speed. Dover is always a good track for JRM and he does a pretty good job there as well. I’m pretty excited about those two, and Kansas and Texas, we’re ready to go. We feel good about our program there and want to show people what we have there.”

What it boils down to is doing what you need to get to the final race. To do that, Elenz has a specific plan.

“Eighth place,” he said. “Eighth in every stage and eighth in every race. If the opportunity presents itself, to be better than that, obviously we’re going try to do that, but we don’t have to be any better than that. Once you get to Homestead, it’s fun.”

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XFINITY Series Schedule

  • November 2 08:30 PM ET
    O'Reilly Auto Parts 300Texas Motor Speedway
  • November 9 03:30 PM ET
    Desert Diamond West Valley Casino 200ISM Raceway
  • November 16 03:30 PM ET
    Ford EcoBoost 300Homestead-Miami Speedway

XFINITY Series Standings

After Kansas Lottery 300

Kansas Speedway | 10/19/2019
RankDriverPointsBehind
1Christopher Bell (P)31060
2Cole Custer (P)3095-11
3Tyler Reddick (P)3094-12
4Justin Allgaier (P)3059-47
5Chase Briscoe # (P)3057-49
6Michael Annett (P)3047-59
7Noah Gragson # (P)3042-64
8Austin Cindric (P)3029-77