2020 Vision: No. 9 JR Motorsports team

Ron Lemasters | 2/6/2020

2020 Dave Elenz News Noah Gragson Season Preview XFINITY Series

Noah Gragson returns for his sophomore season with JRM in 2020 alongside veteran crew chief Dave Elenz as the two look to build on momentum gained from a year ago.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Feb. 6, 2020) – The 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series season will be Dave Elenz’ sixth as a crew chief for JR Motorsports. It’s also his first with just one driver who is not a rookie.

Think about that for a minute. Tied with Jason Burdett for all-time honors in victories at JRM with 10, Elenz has done it with a multitude of drivers, the last three being in their first seasons as a NXS driver. Two of them ended up being champions.

Noah Gragson raced for Elenz and the No. 9 team as a rookie last year, putting together a solid season that ended up with an eighth-place finish in series points. The 21-year-old Nevadan earned nine top-five and 22 top-10 finishes for the season and reached the Round of 8 in his first trip to the NXS Playoffs.

Staying the Same: For the first time, Elenz will have that experience staying put in the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro SS, and Gragson has accelerated his development to handle the expectation. That left him tickled, to say the least.

“This is like a miracle, not having to replace the driver, and this is the first time I’ve ever not had to replace anyone,” Elenz said with a grin. “Hopefully, that will be really good. It’s definitely nice not having to get through the new-friendship phase and learning each other more than working on the car, so I think we’ll hit the ground a lot better than we did last year.”

When you win championships with first William Byron in 2017 and Tyler Reddick in 2018 despite having some fairly significant crew movement in between, it’s nice to have the same group. Many of his former crew members have advanced to the Cup level and are doing well, he said. “I somewhat like having new people, because that means the other ones are moving up, getting into better stuff. That is what’s fun about it.”

Car chief Cory Shea leads the way, with engineers Phillip Bell and Aedan McHugh, mechanics Jerad Hewitt and Ryan Dextrase, engine tuner Jereme Jackson, truck driver Chris Burton and spotter Earl Barban all set for another season.

Building for the Future: The end of the season last year, specifically the playoffs, was not the way Elenz wanted it to end given the solid performances he, Gragson and the team had put in during the regular season.

“I think between Noah and I, we were disappointed with the results we had last year, but we were happy with what we did and how we got there,” Elenz said. “We had a few things in the playoffs not go as well as we had hoped, they set us back and put us in a bad position, but I’ve been very fortunate to have nearly perfect playoff runs the past few years. It just didn’t happen for us this year. We got behind at Dover pretty early, and it’s tough to make it up from there.”

Elenz has noticed a change in his young driver heading to 2020.

“Going into this year, he’s definitely grown a lot as a driver, he’s more focused now than he was at any point last year,” he said. “When it’s time to talk about race cars, he’s all about it and ready to do whatever it takes to get better and start winning some races.”

Competition Still Strong: Despite wins being hard to come by for anyone other than Reddick, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell, Elenz does not feel their absence this year is anything to get excited about.

“Just within our own organization, we’ve got to race against Justin (Allgaier), Daniel Hemric, Jeb (Burton)...he did a good job in the races he had last year, and Michael (Annett), who probably had his best season last year. If they continue to improve, there’s still going to be a lot of competition,” Elenz said.

“You’ve still got a lot of guys...you’ve still got (Chase) Briscoe coming back, and he was pretty strong last year. (Ross) Chastain is going to be quick, and Gibbs has obviously had some of the best cars out there for a while. Once their group gets out there and figures out what they have, they’re going to be fast. While it’s easy to say we just lost three fast ones, there’s still going to be three more to take their place. It’s still going to be a high level of competition.”

That said, Elenz pointed out that it doesn’t change what the No. 9 team has to do to contend for the title in 2020.

“I don’t think it’s going to be any different than what it has been for us,” he said. “It’s going to be running in the top five and trying to create opportunities and capitalize when you have them. That’s last year for us; in the end, there were a handful of opportunities where we had the chance to win and just didn’t get it done for whatever reason. There’s a lot of races where we made the wrong decision or had an issue with whatever that took us away from the results we wanted. We just have to continue working down that path and fix the mistakes, the issues we had.”

Changes in Latitudes: The new road-course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an opportunity for the team, since Gragson is solid on the twisty bits, but it also takes a great opportunity away from JRM’s four-car effort, Elenz said.

“Indianapolis has been really good to JR Motorsports and we are disappointed to not be running on the configuration we had,” the Michigan native noted. “On the same hand, it’s going to be neat being on the road course up there, Noah obviously does a good job on them and we’re excited from that standpoint. Either way, Indy was going to be a good one for us, but the other way (on the oval), we knew for sure. This one we’ll have some learning to do to get it correct.”

Tires Will Tell: While there are no significant rules changes from 2019, tire compounds will likely be a constant negotiation in 2020, Elenz said.

“Last year, the hardest part was having to go to harder tires everywhere to be in line with the Cup stuff, because they had harder tires and bigger downforce,” he said. “That definitely hurt our program overall, because JRM does better with low-grip tracks rather than high-speed and wide open, but at the short tracks this year, we’re getting back to the tires we had in 2018, so I’m excited to see where our program is there. It was pretty good, because Justin won at Phoenix (at the end of the year).”

That will bring about an interesting scenario in the penultimate race of the season...at Martinsville.

“I’m interested to see how we run there,” Elenz said. “The Cup races are obviously very good there, they’re long enough to get rubber down and have different lanes that move around as the rubber stacks. They have a little more power so your exit is harder to do than what the Trucks do there. I think we’re going to be in the middle there somewhere. I wish the race was closer to the summertime. Temperature-wise, I don’t know how much rubber we are going to get down, so there’s going to be a lot of roughing people up, trying to get to Phoenix for the championship race. I think it’s going to be a pretty good show and I hope we’re on the right end of it.”

As an aside, Elenz worked three Martinsville races as an engineer in the Cup Series. His driver at the time was Jimmie Johnson, who earned an average finish of 1.3 in those events.

Never Give Up: Elenz, like all other crew chiefs, is competitive. No one likes to lose, least of all at this level, and his teams all have the same attitude. That includes Gragson, Elenz noted.

“Noah definitely has the attitude that you never give up,” he said. “Our whole team has that attitude. I don’t know that he (Gragson) learned that from last year, but he got a positive result from never giving up. That reiterates the fact that he has to continue doing everything he can to get better.”

If that happens, expanding on a season that included nine top-five and 22 top-10 finishes will be all but assured, and Gragson, Elenz and the rest of the No. 9 team from JRM could parlay that into another shot at a series championship in 2020.

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XFINITY Series Schedule

  • February 29 04:00 PM ET
    Production Alliance Group 300Auto Club Speedway
  • March 7 04:00 PM ET
    LS Tractor 200Phoenix Raceway
  • March 14 04:00 PM ET
    Atlanta 250Atlanta Motor Speedway
  • March 21 03:30 PM ET
    Miami 300Homestead-Miami Speedway
  • March 28 01:00 PM ET
    My Bariatric Solutions 300Texas Motor Speedway

XFINITY Series Standings

After Boyd Gaming 300

Las Vegas Motor Speedway | 2/22/2020
RankDriverPointsBehind
1Chase Briscoe920
2Noah Gragson85-7
3Harrison Burton #80-12
4Michael Annett77-15
5Brandon Jones76-16
6Austin Cindric75-17
7Ryan Sieg73-19
8Justin Haley73-19
9Justin Allgaier70-22