Legacy Motor Club got a much-needed boost Saturday at Circuit of The Americas when both its drivers advanced into the final round of NASCAR Cup Series qualifying.
Erik Jones will start eighth in the No. 43 Chevrolet, while rookie Noah Gragson rolls off from 10th in the No. 42 Chevrolet. Not only was it the first time both cars made the final round, but is the best starting position for each in the first six races.
It’s perhaps the only thing that has gone according to plan in a season that is only a month old.
“We’re trying not to overreact to the first couple of races and performances,” team co-owner Jimmie Johnson said. “You go to Daytona and we all feel like we had good cars and were competitive. California is after that (and) we had some weird stuff with the splitter and all that dirt and rock and all the debris that was at the track that the splitters delaminated on our cars. It’s really easy to look at that and say that’s the reason why our performance wasn’t where it needed to be.
“Las Vegas, Atlanta, Phoenix — we’re at a point now where we have enough styles of tracks that we can better evaluate where we’re to start the year. We’re not where we want to be, but there’s endless work going on in the shop.”
Jones echoed the boss’s assessment and said while his top-10 finish last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway was great, that was a superspeedway-style race. The intermediate tracks need work and COTA, the first road course race of the season, will be a good test of where the organization is making left and right turns.
“We’ve been fortunate that everybody has had up and down weeks, so we’re not too far out in points from where we want to be, which is in that top 16,” Jones said. “One good week gets you pretty good in there. But as far as our performance, I don’t think we’ve been happy with it.
“Las Vegas and California, neither were great. Phoenix wasn’t that great for us. So we’ve got to get better, and I think we all know that. Dave (Elenz, crew chief) and I are working hard, and all the guys are working hard to get faster. I’m doing what I can to get quicker, especially at a place like this where you’ve got to be on your game as a driver more than ever. We want to get better. It’s going to take time, but I think we’re trending the right way.”
Speed will help those efforts. Jones has three top-20 finishes in five races, and before his eighth-place result a week ago at Atlanta, he’d finished no better than 19th.
It’s been frustrating for Jones to feel one thing with the car while it’s doing another. He’s felt good behind the wheel of his Chevrolet, but it hasn’t been fast enough.
“Vegas is one that has really stuck out for me because I felt like our cars drove really good in practice, qualifying and even the race. I told Dave a lot of the day, ‘It’s driving pretty good, we’re just not where we want to be in the field.’ So a lot of it is speed. California was kind of the same. I could get it driving good, but it wasn’t really going anywhere. Phoenix was a little different because I felt like we had speed and qualified well, and then didn’t race as well. It’s back and forth, but the speed, especially on the mile-and-a-half’s, has been kind of our hang-up.”
Gragson, who has just one top-20 finish, certainly wants more speed. Although he’s new to the Legacy M.C. team and understands the resources are not as deep as some other organizations, Gragson said Johnson, Gallagher, and Richard Petty aren’t going to be content with how they are performing.
Between the two, Gragson and Jones have combined for 15 laps led and sit outside the top 20 in points. Asked where the organization stacks up in the Cup Series field, Gragson took a long pause before responding.
“That’s tough to answer,” he said. “We’re a C or D team, realistically. We’ve got great help from Richard Childress Racing, but even then, we don’t have all the tools and resources some of the other teams (do). It’s a building year. It’s a building couple of years, probably.”
Legacy M.C. has teammates on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Whereas seventh-year driver Jones, who is in his third year with Petty and second under Gallagher, understands the building process, Gragson is experiencing it for the first time. The Las Vegas native graduated into the Cup Series after four years and 13 wins in the Xfinity Series.
Gragson became used to sitting in fast cars that he could contend with every week. Now he’s humbled every week in the Cup Series and doesn’t deny the challenge of keeping his head up after a tough race.
“I think having some of those guys come over from JR Motorsports that were with me the past several years allows me a little bit of comfort,” Gragson said. “I know they believe in me, and if you get with a bunch of new guys that you’re trying to build relationships with, you don’t know how realistically they’ve bought into you. We have a great team.
“But it’s definitely challenging from – I don’t want to say it being easy; we worked really hard – but we had a lot of success (in the Xfinity Series) to driving your a## off just to run like 27th at some of these places. It’s like, ‘All right, what’s the problem here?’
“Just trying to keep the confidence is key, and little building steps like being fast on pit road, having good pit stops, good restarts, having a good qualifying effort like we did today. Those little things are what we need to do this year and maybe into next year. But just trying to take it day by day right now.”
Said Johnson, “We’re digging along. We haven’t hit our peak for the season yet, and I think we now have an idea of where our short-track cars are and what we need to work on – mile-and-half stuff and certainly the restrictor-plate tracks.”