Eight years ago at this time, JR Motorsports was in the midst of what would become its greatest season to date.
Chase Elliott, Regan Smith and Kevin Harvick had each won a race in the first 11 events of the season (comprising 34 starts) to go along with 16 top-five and 28 top-10 finishes. As of last Saturday, after 11 races, the 2022 squad at JRM had surpassed that 2014 group in all but one category.
Noah Gragson (Phoenix, Talladega), Josh Berry (Dover) and Justin Allgaier (Darlington) matched the four victories in 11 races (in 46 total starts), bettered the top-five total by five (21) and fell just two top-10 finishes short of the 2014 pace of 28 in its first 34 starts.
Of course, JRM ran three cars weekly for much of that stretch in 2014 as opposed to the four- and sometimes-five-car lineups in 2022. The drivers in that 11-race stretch included eventual 2014 series champion Elliott, 2014 runner-up Smith, Harvick, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne.
By the end of the 33-race schedule in 2014, Elliott was the series champion, 42 points up on Smith in a 1-2 team sweep, with JRM earning nine total victories along the way.
The momentum of the blazing ’22 start has begun to take hold, but its roots lie in a process that began in 2014, according to Mike Bumgarner, Berry’s crew chief this season and crew chief for two of Earnhardt Jr.’s starts in 2014. Bumgarner is a 20-plus-year veteran of Hendrick Motorsports and JRM in a variety of roles.
“I think the biggest thing is, we worked hard through the winter at building newer cars, newer chassis,” Bumgarner said. “Hendrick Motorsports has done a good job as far as the engine and chassis shops contributing to everything we are doing. The driver lineup, too…I think we’re as strong as we’ve ever been, with Josh and Sam (Mayer) learning and getting better every week. They lean on Noah and Justin, our senior leaders, and those guys have been very open to helping them progress. All of the above has contributed to the performance side.”
The 2014 season was one of great change for JRM, as the team focus had taken on a new direction and pushed some competition issues into successful resolution.
The drivers, led by veterans in Allgaier and Gragson and leavened by the enthusiasm of Berry and the 18-year-old Mayer, have made a huge difference as well.
“At any moment on Saturday, you put either one of those cars (Berry and Mayer) ahead of the other guys and they’re going to win the race,” Bumgarner said. “They’re driving the same cars, and it gets harder and harder to beat your own teammates. That’s great, because if one of us fails, the other guys are going to pick it up and manage to get a win for the company.”
That point was made with great clarity at Dover on April 29, when Berry led Allgaier to the finish line for the win with Gragson fourth and Mayer fifth. It was the first time in team history that all four JRM cars had finished in the top five and stands as the best four-car finish in team history.
In the fall race at Las Vegas last year, JRM finished 1-2-3 with Berry, Allgaier and Gragson (Mayer was eliminated in a crash). Bumgarner pointed to that race as a precursor to the hot start in 2022.
“It’s been building and we’ve come a long way in the last six months thanks to everybody’s hard work,” he said. “The company gives us and the drivers all the tools we need to go out and perform.”
Gragson’s strong finish to 2021 has continued into 2022, meshing with new crew chief Luke Lambert and making the Bass Pro Shops/TrueTimber/Black Rifle Coffee Chevrolet one of the cars to watch every time out. Gragson won at Phoenix and Talladega, and has had chances to win in nearly every race so far this season.
Lambert, who came in at the start of the season, echoed Bumgarner’s thoughts.
“The things I see that are encouraging, and there are many of them as an organization, are that we have all the pieces to perform,” Lambert said. “What we’re doing at this stage of the season is really just focusing on improving our execution and putting ourselves where we need to be late in the season, so we can accomplish those when it comes time.
“To run strong at the end of the year, it requires constant refinement of the process and preparation, how we execute for the weekend. We’re in the process of trying to get better every week. We have really good race cars right now, and everybody in the company is doing their job to put really fast race cars on the track.”
Ironically, the next race on the NXS schedule is May 21 at Texas Motor Speedway, where the run to the 2014 NXS championship truly began.
— JR Motorsports —