By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Joe Gibbs Racing’s NASCAR Xfinity Series program are certainly glad July is over with all three of its drivers gaining positive grounds in Saturday’s Kansas Lottery 250 at Kansas Speedway.
Brandon Jones led the way with the strongest two laps of his racing career as he went from seventh on the second overtime restart to pass Austin Cindric on the last lap for his third career Xfinity Series win and the second straight at the 1.5-mile circuit.
Jones described his road to victory as a group effort because they’ve made tremendous adjustments to improve on the aerodynamics of his No. 19 Menards/Swiffer Toyota Supra.
“It was a group effort there, it wasn’t just me right there. It was an adjustment made and I think it really shows that we continue to make speed and keep our heads in the game,” said Jones.
“You get behind a guy and you really lose a lot of momentum. Really just put grip in the car and that was the main thing. We were really sliding around all day and when we got some grip in the thing, we took off pretty good.”
Jones’ luck has been horrid dating back to the end of June when he didn’t even complete a lap at Pocono because of an accident an hour after winning his first career Truck Series race. That same fate happened again in the first race at Kentucky where he failed to complete a lap. A night later, Jones appeared to have a strong top-five result until crashing out late in the race.
Fortunately, the nightmare ended last Saturday at Texas with Jones finishing seventh, showing good signs that his Supra has promising speed. It becomes vibrant when it’s go-time as shown at Phoenix when Jones outright beat Kyle Busch and now with Saturday’s amazing rally.
When asked how gratifying was to win under those circumstances, Jones found it funny how fans are still surprised he won because he’s never given up on his team, especially this past month.
“It kind of makes me laugh when people are so shocked that we win the race,” said Jones. “We’ve had speed every single race this year. To be honest, in the past we’ve had so much speed too. It’s closing these things out and optimizing the little things.”
“The cool thing about winning with this group is we’re not just work colleagues, we’re best friends. This whole team is a brotherhood. We all have each other’s back and no one questions anything that anybody does. I feel like when one person isn’t able to do something, the next guy steps up automatically and no one questions it. We’re a really strong group and a really strong team. I kind of praise my guys on that and that’s what I like to do.”
Two spots behind Jones was Harrison Burton, who had the race lead when the caution came out on Lap 165 for Joe Graf, Jr. The incident forced the race into overtime and Burton went to pit road for fresh tires.
A slow right rear tire change cost Burton the race lead as Austin Cindric’s clean stop dropped the 19-year-old down to second and later third due to Ryan Sieg staying out. Burton would never regain the lead as rough restarts kept him away from the front, leaving him very frustrated at the outcome of his day.
“It’s frustrating. I feel like our team did everything right. I learned a lot listening to Denny Hamlin about what he tries to do mentally and try on the radio and I learned a lot from him,” said Burton. “(I) tried to use some of that on Austin (Cindric) and showed him the fast line, I thought. I knew it was going to wear out our tires so I got rolling and passed him and then I just messed up on the last restart.
“We were in a bad situation behind the 39 (Ryan Sieg), but I need to do better to be able to take advantage of that situation and still go and win. We saw Brandon (Jones) come from a few rows back. That’s something I have to work on I guess. Really proud of our speed, but just not enough.”
Like Jones, Burton has had a rough series of races after starting the year with 10 straight top-10 finishes.
The downward spiral began with a late-race pileup at Talladega last month. Burton wouldn’t finish in the top-10 for the next five straight races until scoring a fourth at Texas and now a third at Kansas.
Burton said his confidence level are mixed because he knows his No. 20 DEX Imaging Supra can produce outstanding results, but with that rough stretch he’s had, it’s created some difficult moments.
“Even the races where we haven’t finished good, pretty much all of them we have run well,” said Burton. “Even Indy, which I thought was going to be one of my weak spots. We were running fifth, and had to pit with a mechanical deal. It was just a bunch of things that kind of stacked up on us that kind of snowballed. We lost that momentum, but I knew we had the speed.
“At Pocono when we crashed in oil, I think we were one of the best cars there. Texas, I thought we were the second-best car, here, I thought we were the best car.
“So, we have had speed. That’s the hardest thing to get in racing – raw speed. Once you get that, it’s about execution. In those weeks where it didn’t happen, I never lost hope that we were going to be in situation where we would be good because I knew we had speed.”
Riley Herbst had a quiet, but noble ninth-place finish to end his up-and-down July that was highlighted with a runner-up finish at the first Kentucky race.
But like his two teammates, he’s had finishes outside the top-30 with his Texas exit due to contact from Noah Gragson being the low point.
Herbst said that a times his No. 18 Monster Energy Supra had a car capable of running third, but overtime ended any plans of finishing where he’d wanted.
“We ran sixth-to-eighth all-day. Just didn’t capitalize on green-white-checkered there,” said Herbst. “I just got used up a little bit by experience and fell back to ninth. I’m pretty disappointed. But all-in-all, we had a pretty fast Monster Supra. Just didn’t capitalize.”
Going forward, the 21-year-old knows patience is key if he wants to be up there and eventually fight for race wins on a frequent basis.
“(I) just kind of study some more, try to get better. Relax a little bit, we have been going pretty hard,” said Herbst. “It will be nice to have a week off, but I will be ready to get back at it in Road America.”
Now that the dust have settled, JGR’s trio can now take a breather and enjoy the week off after a wild couple of weeks where a strong weekend at Kansas can outweigh the recent negatives.