By Dustin Albino

Brandon Jones‘ first season with JR Motorsports was a bit of a roller coaster. He was the lone JRM driver to miss the playoffs, with two of his teammates qualifying for the Championship 4.

There were flashes of speed at times when Jones was in contention to win multiple races at tracks like  Michigan and Kansas. Most of the season, however, was an utter struggle. His three top-five finishes were the fewest he‘s had in a single season in five years.

“It was tough, but you need one of those years at some point in your life,” Jones said. “Most people don‘t have the time to have a year like that, but if you‘re going to, I learned a bunch about it. I learned a bunch about myself, what I need to be doing during the week to prepare for races a lot better. All of that stuff was a good eye opener.”

Change was needed.

Jason Burdett, who moved over to crew chief Jones‘ No. 9 team after spending the previous seven seasons with Justin Allgaier, departed JRM for Legacy Motor Club over the offseason. Other core members of the team had left over the offseason as well.

“There were a lot of weekends last year where we had good cars; we had a lot of things happen,” Burdett said. “He’s still battling that a little bit, just finishing out the days seems to be a struggle. It was hard going from what we built with Justin and the consistency over the years.”

Phillip Bell was given the nod as crew chief after spending the 2016 to 2022 seasons with JRM, reaching the lead engineer role for the No. 9 car. This was his first opportunity to be a crew chief at the national level.

“I met Phillip, and I thought, ‘I think that‘s exactly the type of personality that I want for the race team,‘” Jones said. “I didn‘t know how well he was going to do in this scenario. He‘s worked alongside great crew chiefs and has been the head engineer for a lot of these race teams and at the Cup level, so he‘s seen what the pinnacle has looked like. You just never know how someone is going to do when they get thrown into it and have to start being the one to make the decisions. He‘s done a great job.”

Jones reverted back to using former NASCAR driver Blake Koch as his driving coach instead of being cycled inside of the well-known Josh Wise and Chevrolet program. The pairing previously worked together in 2020, when the Georgia native won three of his five career races. In the three years apart, Jones won once.

Race preparation has changed drastically for Jones this season. With Wise‘s program blowing up in popularity, he can get more one-on-one time with Koch. Every week, the duo studies together by watching on-board cameras and reviewing SMT data. Koch also accompanies Jones to all of his simulator sessions while also attending the pre-race meeting at JRM.

“[Koch] does a good job of looking at just me and things that I can do better and then examples of things I‘ve been doing good at,” Jones added. “We are working solely on me and my race craft, not necessarily how much to go around the track. I‘ve been to these places for 10-plus years now, so I know how to make speed in these cars around these tracks.

“It‘s more about how you restart, make passes, keep your track position. That‘s where going from good to great is where the transition is. That‘s where we‘ve shifted our focus on and what Blake has been helping me out with.”

Koch became a driver coach during the 2018 season when working with Matt Tifft at Richard Childress Racing. Jeff Burton saw Koch coaching Tifft, and wanted to see if he would link up with Harrison Burton. Through that pairing at Joe Gibbs Racing, he began working with Jones.

In their three years apart, Koch, admittedly, didn‘t pay much attention to Jones. He knew that Jones was coming off a trying season, and reflected on what worked in the past. Much of the success, Koch believes, boils down to having a fresh mindset from the opening lap the drivers hit the track each weekend. It also helps having the correct core group surrounding the driver.

“It was an easy decision for me to work with Brandon because I love Brandon,” Koch stated. “I believe in him, think he‘s extremely talented and enjoyed working with him.

“It‘s all about being around people that believe in you, build confidence in you and that trust you. When you can create that environment around the driver with the spotter, crew chief and coach, you‘re going to see a difference. You are going to see that driver show up and believe in themselves and get after it.”

Though Jones‘ results have yet to reflect the speed of the No. 9 car, he believes the start to 2024 has been a step forward. The No. 9 team has won two pole awards in the opening 10 races, but had a cracked rotor at Martinsville and dropped to the rear. He also blew an engine while running towards the front at Richmond and finished 37th.

Entering Darlington, Jones has gone six consecutive races without a top-10 finish. He failed to crack the top 15 in five of those six races. He understands that dropping to 13th on the playoff grid, 15 points below the elimination line, isn‘t ideal. On the positive side, it could be far worse with how the last two months have gone.

“We‘re a lot closer than I think it appears on the outside,” Jones noted. “The thing I‘ve been wanting to do in this series is be a contender throughout the whole day. Don‘t be the guy that runs 12th to 15th and then misses some wrecks and now you‘re fifth at the end. That‘s not the way to win. The way to win is capitalizing on stage points, staying in the top five for the first two stages and then you maintain track position and have a shot to win at the end. That‘s how I want to be viewed in the sport.

“We‘re doing a really good job right now of being in the mix. Now, we‘ve got to close them out and finish them.”

Being a driver coach is fulfilling for Koch. He knows that he is helping make a difference in Jones‘ career. It also allows him to live through the driver he‘s working with.

“When Brandon gets the pole, I run around the house with my hands up like I got the pole,” Koch described. “I‘m in a good mood the rest of the day, like I got the pole.”

Jones has both a pole and victory at Darlington. His victory came in 2020, his most recent win with Koch as his coach.

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