Erik Jones, Chase Elliott looking to boost youth movement


BROOKLYN, Mich. — It was in 2011 that NASCAR last saw three first-time winners until this year as Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney have visited Victory Lane.

Now the new kids on the NASCAR winner’s block could make it even more notable with a fourth as they try to catch up to that 2011 year where five drivers — Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose and David Ragan — captured their first career victories.

For at least two of the new young drivers, earning their first Cup win Sunday at Michigan International Speedway would not come as a total surprise.

Chase Elliott nearly won at Michigan last year, finishing second in both Cup races. He led 35 laps in the June race and 31 laps in the August race. He led with less than 50 laps remaining in both.

Erik Jones doesn’t have such solid numbers at Michigan but, as a Michigan native, it’s one of the tracks where he likely would want to win the most.

Neither would be considered the favorite, but both could make arguments that they will be in the conversation when the race ends.

Elliott said the Hendrick No. 24 team, led by Alan Gustafson, has had Michigan success before he ever got in the seat.

“He has won races there,” Elliott said of Gustafson. “He has a good feel for the race track. We ran well there the first race and I really think because we ran well, we went back and worked harder to try to run better.

“A lot of times when you have a good run at a race track, especially with the way the Michigan dates are — they are so close together — you could think you could just go back with the same thing and run well. Where in reality, I think that is a good way to get behind and I think he did a good job of staying up on things and making sure we improved and didn’t just stay the same.”

Jones, frankly, has run better than Elliott of late. He is coming off his career-best finish of third at Pocono, where he led a career-high 20 laps.

“We probably had a fifth‑ or sixth‑place car, but this is the first race we’ve finished better than what our car was all year long, and that’s a relief,” said Jones, who is 17th in the standings with one top-5 and three top-10s in his rookie season. “It’s frustrating when you don’t those get breaks every once in a while, and we definitely haven’t got any this year.

“So it just feels good to run up there and get a good finish, kind of get some momentum going, get everybody’s confidence high, and hopefully this is something good to build on for really the rest of the year.”

Elliott hopes to build on his past two weeks, a fifth at Dover and an eighth at Pocono. He did not finish better than 24th the previous four points races, which included his getting caught up in some freak accidents. Despite the setbacks, he sits sixth in points and poised to make a return to the NASCAR playoffs.

As a driver, Elliott is no stranger to frustration. Especially at Michigan. Elliott missed a shift to give up the lead with 46 laps left at Michigan last June and then lost the lead on a restart with eight laps remaining at Michigan in August.

“[This] is different than what I went through last year,” Elliott said earlier this month about the frustration. “To me, I take a lot of pride in what I do and some of the stupid mistakes last year were on me and just 100 percent my fault.

“I feel like some of the misfortune we have had this month has been out of my hands in some ways.”

And while Michigan isn’t “home,” for Elliott, as a second-year Cup driver, the Hendrick Motorsports driver feels more comfortable in his car every week.

“I feel like we just all feel more at home,” Elliott said about his team’s mojo. “We just all feel more comfortable with what we are doing. Maybe that is good, maybe that is bad, I’m not sure. I think if you get too comfortable, that can be a bad thing — you need to have some discomfort as time goes in what you are doing to try to push yourself to do better.

“But I just think that year of experience and being with the same group of guys and there are only one or two guys that have changed from last year to this year. I just think our group has just probably come together a little more, I would say in the last year.”

Jones actually is home, and he left Tuesday for Michigan so he could spend time with friends and family. He is continuing to learn as a rookie, saying the bar to understand the competition level and knowledge of his opposition is probably even higher than he thought it would be.

The Furniture Row Racing driver doesn’t have much experience at Michigan with just one truck race and one Xfinity race. But don’t rule him out as a winner. He is home and has the motivation of seeing friend Ryan Blaney in Victory Lane a week ago.

“I’m usually not very happy to see other people win, but I was happy to see Ryan win,” Jones said. “It was really cool for him, and just really cool to see him get the win. … We took a big leap in that direction of getting closer to being able to do it [at Pocono], and I think once you kind of get up there and run in that position, hopefully it comes a little bit easier as time goes on.”

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