Last weekend, JR Motorsports was on top of the world with Regan Smith’s win at Daytona in the DRIVE4COPD 300. Everybody wondered whether the organization would keep the momentum going this weekend out west and the answer was an easy yes as all three cars came home inside the top 10.
While Kyle Busch went on to take the eventual victory, Kevin Harvick brought his No. 88 Great Clips Chevrolet home solidly in the second position behind him after running inside the top five all-day.
“We could kind of maintain (with Kyle Busch) but you never know how hard he was running his car and once he gets to a certain point,” Harvick said. “His car was really fast on restarts and our car was really, really loose on restarts so we’d lose two or three seconds and then kind of maintain from there. We had a good car.”
The race at Phoenix marked his first race with JR Motorsports, however he was working with long-time crew chief Ernie Cope, whom he started a relationship with at Richard Childress Racing. Cope made the move from RCR to JRM in the off-season.
“We just need to work on a few things on the restarts,” Harvick added. “Basically, week one here, so I feel really good about where we started.”
Smith would bring his No. 7 TaxSlayer Chevrolet home in eighth to keep the points lead heading to Las Vegas after running inside the top 10 all day.
“You can’t win the championship in the first five races of the year, but with our points’ system, you surely can lose it. We struggled from start to finish,” Smith commented. “We were real happy with our TaxSlayer.com Chevy at the end of practice yesterday and we really didn’t change anything. Right from the drop of the green flag, we just didn’t go forward like we typically do. Not sure why. But we’re going to work hard to figure it out.”
Rookie Chase Elliott capped off the day with a ninth place finish after running inside the top five mid-race.
“I was really proud of my NAPA AUTO PARTS team for the effort they showed today,” Elliott said. “It was unfortunate that we couldn’t get the entire race in, but being able to run in the top five for a good portion of the day, amongst a few Cup regular’s, shows where this team is headed. All in all, it was a great day and I’m happy about the performance across the board.”
The success for JR Motorsports is welcome after the changes that they made within the organization in the off-season. JRM partnered Smith with competition director Ryan Pemberton, putting Smith’s old crew chief Greg Ives with Elliott. Smith said that he’s excited to have Pemberton’s veteran leadership on the pit box as he feels that will help him personally.
“There were times last year that I let my head out of the game and didn’t keep my focus on what I need to,” Smith commented. “I know he is going to keep that focus in me all the time.”
The success is also welcome, especially for Elliott, with the spotlight being on the famous son of Bill Elliott. Everybody is expecting big things out of Elliott with him signed to a Hendrick development contract and expected to be in Sprint Cup by 2016.
“It’s easy to look at everybody and listen to what everybody says and get caught up in that, but for me I try to look past it,” Elliott said last month. “I don’t really foresee any more pressure on me than there’s ever been. I try to, like I said, try to look past that and just focus on the task at hand and try to get the job done.”
Rick Hendrick stated on Saturday that Elliott has tested a Sprint Cup car and he likes everything about the 18-year-old so far.
“He’s been fast, smooth, and he drives like he’s got a ton of experience,” Hendrick commented. “He’s also won in everything that he’s been in.”
Smith has also the maturity of his young teammate so far and wishes that he was like that at the age of 18.
“He picks up a lot of things real fast,” Smith added on Friday. “It seems like he’s always asking questions, always observing stuff. One of my regrets when I was younger was not asking more questions. Instead, I was a little more hard-headed and tried to learn things my way.”
Coming into the weekend, there were a lot of questions – even from Smith’s perspective – in whether the off-season changes and work that was put in was going to pay off. Based on results so far, things are looking good for JR Motorsports.
“We got three teams that we truly believe week in and week out are going to go out there and challenge for wins. It might not be the 7 car one week, it might be the 9 car. It might be the 88 car. It will be the 5 occasionally,” Smith commented after the win last weekend. “But we know what we have for equipment going into this season and what’s been built and the foundation that’s been laid. That’s a testament to the hard work.
“Like I said, these guys’ vision throughout the course of last year, the year prior to that. We truly believe as a company this is a year we can step up and challenge the Penske and Gibbs cars week in, week out, stamp our name right beside them if not ahead of them.”
They started off last year strong and Smith had a solid points lead mid-season when things went downhill. Smith will have to keep things solid this year all year if he wants to win the championship, especially with having Ty Dillon, Elliott Sadler and Trevor Bayne as competition against him.