JRM’s No. 9 Team Builds for the Future with Solid Campaign

Ron Lemasters | 11/27/2019

Dave Elenz News Noah Gragson XFINITY Series

Noah Gragson turned in a strong rookie campaign in 2019, joining a long list of first-year drivers who found success in JRM's No. 9 Chevrolet with crew chief Dave Elenz in command.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Nov. 27, 2019) – When Noah Gragson stepped into the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports in 2019, he must have felt the weight of it all. The last two drivers—William Byron and Tyler Reddick—had raced to NASCAR Xfinity Series championships in that car, with crew chief Dave Elenz as the shot-caller.

Ten months and 33 starts later, Gragson’s first season in the No. 9 Switch Chevrolet ended with numbers that stacked up quite well against his two title-winning predecessors.

The 21-year-old Las Vegan posted nine top-five and 22 top-10 finishes, a runner-up result at Michigan (in which he passed teammate Michael Annett in the final corners) his best finish. The young driver made his way to the Round of 8 in the playoffs and had but one DNF, a crash in the second Texas race, on the way to an eighth-place finish in the season point standings.

Byron, the 2017 champion, won four times and posted 12 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes in his lone season in the No. 9, and Reddick, last year’s champ, won twice, had seven top-five and 20 top-10 finishes. Gragson's numbers, victories aside, fit squarely between the two and his average finish of 9.3 for the season was better than either Byron (10.4) or Reddick (12.9).

Elenz, who will get a second season with Gragson in 2020, said that the novel experience of having the same driver for another 33-race blast is appreciated.

“All the work we’ve put into the guys before, they’ve moved on,” the Michigan native said. “It will be good to get to work with Noah for a second year, after he’s been through his rookie season, I think we’re all excited for that. We’ll have higher expectations than we have had before.”

Elenz has developed a reputation as a good man to guide a rookie through the NXS, and he’s high on Gragson’s potential. Learning is the key, he said.

“I think in the last few races, we definitely took another step to get to the next level in communication among ourselves and what he is doing on the race track,” Elenz said. “Continuing what he’s doing right now and having a greater understanding of the race weekend and how the balance is going to change from practice to qualifying to the race, understanding that more and adjusting the car for that...he’s gaining that now and I think he’s going to excel with that next year.”

Gragson showed a lot of speed all season, but as with most young drivers, there were hiccups. His consistency made itself evident early, as the youngster posted six straight top-six finishes from Charlotte in May to Chicago at the end of June. Those kinds of finishes propelled him to the playoff hunt before the season was half-over and he stayed there until the crash at Texas, which was too much to overcome.

Gragson got better as the season went on, Elenz said, and the last 10 races were emblematic of that improvement.

“We felt good about it,” Elenz said. “We made gains in the last 10, had a couple of bad races that kind of set us back from getting to where we wanted to be. We’re happy with the direction we’re going and the gains we made in getting speed into the cars. I think Homestead went well for us and so did Kansas. We’ve got to get our short-track stuff running a little better. We feel good about where we’re heading.”

While Elenz has handled many drivers in his time at JRM—nine alone in 2016 with the No. 88 and 14 overall—he’s had very little turnover among his crew members...until 2019. Car chief Cory Shea remained a constant, but race engineer Brandon McSwain left after 2018 to go to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 car for Byron. Phillip Bell stepped in as the race engineer, and Aedan McHugh came on to replace Josh Graham as the second engineer after Graham switched teams within JRM. Ryan Dextraze and Jerad Hewitt took over as mechanics as well.

After a season with the new group, Elenz is happy with the team and its direction.

“The whole group I’ve got, I’m excited to have them all,” he said. “They’ve done a really good job, especially the two we hired after the halfway point of the season. They’ve done a good job learning our system and adding to it. I’m looking forward to having the same team for two years in a row...and the same driver.”

Figuring out how the new drivers work has been Elenz’ life in the five seasons he’s been at JRM, so having a second season with the same driver is important going forward. There’s no feeling-out period to navigate, just building on the successes of 2019.

“The last few years, we’ve been trying to figure out what to do with the new drivers coming in and trying to learn people, kind of wait and see where they’re at and what we can do to make them better,” Elenz said. “We’re already talking to Noah about next season, so it’s a matter of taking the next step from there and figuring out how to make the whole group better. We’re starting way farther ahead than we ever have in that regard.

“The rules are pretty much all the same (for 2020), just minor tweaks. We are preparing to compete at a much higher level right off the bat. We expect top-five finishes pretty much right away, and we’re working on the details to make that happen.”

XFINITY Series Schedule

XFINITY Series Standings

After Ford EcoBoost 300

Homestead-Miami Speedway | 11/16/2019
RankDriverPointsBehind
1Tyler Reddick (P)40400
2Cole Custer (P)4035-5
3Christopher Bell (P)4032-8
4Justin Allgaier (P)4023-17
5Chase Briscoe #2302-1738
6Austin Cindric2294-1746
7John Hunter Nemechek #2253-1787
8Noah Gragson #2246-1794
9Michael Annett2239-1801