The first 30 laps of Brandon Jones’ 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series season got off to about as good of a start the No. 19 team could hope for. But since then, it’s been an uphill battle.
Jones, who’s now in his sixth season as a full-time Xfinity driver and in the midst of his fourth campaign for Joe Gibbs Racing, won the opening stage of the year at Daytona International Speedway. Come the end of Stage 2, the No. 19 Toyota was spinning backwards across the finish line, placing 38th in the event.
Over the next three weeks, Jones rebounded strongly with finishes of fourth (Daytona road course), second (Homestead-Miami Speedway) and third (Las Vegas Motor Speedway), roaring up to third in the championship standings. In the eight races since, he’s scored four additional top 10s, simultaneously piling up four finishes of 33rd or worse, including three DNFs.
Despite having the speed to run up front, the poor finishes have been a tough balance for the 24-year-old, now sitting 11th in points.
“We‘ve seen the ups and downs so far of my season, and I truthfully feel that every single week we show up and we‘re an easy top-five car,” Jones recently told Jayski.com. “We‘ve shown up with speed every week to compete; that‘s the important part about our season so far. We‘re running really [well]. I just don‘t know how to not get run over at times.
“When I was just coming into the series, I used to think I was about a 12th-place car at best and was thinking, ‘Once I get up to that top five, top three group, all of this stuff is going to stop happening.‘ And for whatever reason, the racing gets tighter and tougher.”
Two of Jones’ disappointing finishes have come from the nose of Kaulig Racing Chevrolets. At Phoenix Raceway, Jones, the defending winner of the event, was dumped by AJ Allmendinger while running inside the top 10 with less than 40 laps remaining because of a mistimed maneuver off Turn 2. At Darlington Raceway, he had more issues with the No. 16 team towards the end of the second stage, but rebounded to finish a steady third. The following week at Dover International Speedway, Jones was wrecked by Zane Smith, who was replacing Justin Haley due to COVID-19 protocols. Smith said his brakes went to the floor and he was just a passenger at that point.
Ultimately, Jones believes those issues have all been coincidences, and he doesn’t believe Allmendinger or Smith took him out intentionally. Either way, Jones is racing near the playoff bubble in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment. No bueno.
“I was like, ‘Kaulig is gunning for us; it‘s the only company that wants to get us,”” Jones said with a chuckle. “That‘s just something we add to our book.”
Jeff Meendering, crew chief of the No. 19 Toyota, is taking notes. He’s tired of being pushed around.
“They keep poking at the bear, and they‘ve definitely got our attention,” Meendering said.
It’s not all bad for the No. 19 team, though. This is the third year that the team has been entirely intact with no real changes. The chemistry has been established, which led to Jones’ breakout season last year, winning three races.
Jones, who considers his team a brotherhood, noted the No. 19 squad has raw speed. And that’s something you can’t replace and it can make up for upsetting finishes.
“There have been past seasons where we get in a rut like this, but we‘ve never had the speed during the race that offsets it,” Jones said. “In the past, when we‘ve had these kinds of instances, we‘re kind of in the back the entire day and that‘s what led to it and could never get up to the front group of cars.
“I feel like now, we show up and we‘re the winning car. I think that‘s the way you have to think in these events is that you‘re showing up to win the race and everybody else is going to be behind you. We‘ve been showing the speed to do that. I‘ve never had a season that I‘ve been so fast and gotten into so many incidents.”
Meendering agrees with his driver, believing once the No. 19 team tastes victory lane the floodgates will open. Since 2019, he’s seen Jones’ confidence only increase. And even though the first third of the 2021 season hasn’t been ideal, it hasn’t shaken him.
“I don‘t think it‘s taken any confidence away from him,” Meendering said. “In a couple of instances this year, it may have driven him to be a little more conservative and just trying to get to the end of a race and right the ship. It‘s just being at the wrong place at the wrong time around the wrong drivers.”
Admittedly so, expectations were much higher than sitting 23 points above the cutline, 12 races into the season. In fact, Jones set his goals to win five races, score 15 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes. At this point, it would take a miracle for the wins and top 10s to reach his hopes.
But not meeting those goals isn’t a worry.
“I‘m not too concerned about that because I left a little bit of room for my error, not everyone else‘s error,” he said. “You can‘t control what you can‘t.”
Over the next two months, Meendering believes the team could easily pull off four victories, finish inside the top five twice more and the other two races be contending for top 10s.
He’s not letting the opening 12 races dictate the No. 19 team’s season.
“Our entire team has the same beliefs,” Meendering added. “Nobody has lost confidence at all, and we realize that most of the stuff has been out of our control and had we not gotten wrecked, we‘d probably be sitting here with eight or nine top-five finishes easily and a pretty good chance we have a win.”
Jones stated he’s never been one to look at points, so he couldn’t even depict where he’s at in the playoff standings.
There’s one solution that solves everything, though.
Jones said, “I‘m not a bit worried. I know the easiest cure to what we‘re [going through] right now is to go win a race. We‘re definitely capable of doing it. In my opinion, it is getting close to just having to win a race with everything that‘s been going on.”
On the racetrack, Jones said he needs to get more cutthroat and race drivers like how they have raced him this season. Once the team starts racing to its potential, the sky‘s the limit.
“Definitely should make the final four,” Jones said of his envisions. “We should have made it last year as well and we got into this rut that we‘re in currently. We‘re going to keep moving forward with that idea and I know more now than I did last year. You just continue to build that notebook up a bunch and continue to get better.”
The Xfinity Series heads to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend, where Jones has a best finish of 10th in five starts.