By Kelly Crandall – After an off season of change, hires and moving personnel around, JR Motorsports hasn’t missed a beat.
Following a big weekend in Daytona where Regan Smith captured his fourth career win in the Nationwide Series season opener, followed by the boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning his second Daytona 500 a day later, the company rode the energy into Phoenix. All three cars finished in the top 10 after rain forced the race to be called 32 laps from the finish.
Kevin Harvick, a new acquisition for JRM, led the way. Harvick finished third after leading a few circuits late in the event.
“I just want to thank everybody at JR Motorsports first. There was a lot of new things that had been put together, new people, lot of cars cut up, lot of bodies cut off, and they’ve had a really long winter,” Harvick said.
“The first time I ever sat in a car was yesterday, so to show up and have everything work and everybody communicate and do all the things, really proud of them. We’re going to build a foundation of setups and things that we need to make improvements and it’s not like we need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to tweak on it and go from here.”
Harvick will run a partial schedule for JRM this season, his first race Saturday at Phoenix. An added veteran to the lineup as the company seeks their first NNS championship. Along with Harvick came sponsors like Hunt Brothers Pizza and Armour.
There’s also a familiar face atop the pit box. Ernie Cope now calls the shots, a crew chief Harvick worked with back when he owned his own teams in the both the Truck and Nationwide Series.
While Harvick led the way, teammates Regan Smith and Chase Elliott battled their way through the field. Using differing pit strategies, the three teams went from their starting positions to the rear of the field after choosing to make early stops under the race’s first caution. They eventually found themselves on par with the leaders and just as fast.
Smith finished eighth and retained his point lead heading into Las Vegas. Working with new crew chief Robin Pemberton, who was moved to his team before this season. Greg Ives, whom Smith won two races with last season and led the point standings until early summer, now works with JRM’s new rookie.
The rookie who finished the highest of the class on Saturday afternoon after the race was declared official. Chase Elliott earned the first top 10 of his career, an eighth, in just his second career start.
“I was really proud of our effort. To come here, kind of the first real racetrack we go to, all three cars ran well and Kevin finishing second today,” Elliott said. “We were inside the top five for a little while. Felt like our car was capable of being there, just needed a little help on those restarts and pit stops.”
Elliott was brought to the NNS after dominating the short track world. He also ran a limited schedule last year in the CWTS, capturing a win at the road course in Canada. A development driver for Hendrick Motorsports made the transition logical and when NAPA left the Sprint Cup Series, JRM brought them into the fold with the youngster.
“I learned I have a good group around me. I feel like our team and the folks I was put with this year, we all kind of mesh well together,” he said. “Communications been really good for the first two weeks anyway, cars have been fast. Regan getting the win last week and Kevin had a great run today.”
In his NNS debut last weekend, Elliott brought the car home in one piece with a top 15 finish. On Saturday, not only did Elliott improve both is starting and finishing positions, he had an average running spot inside the top 10.
After two races he too, sits inside the top 10 in points heading into Las Vegas, a track that he’s never seen before. The JRM lineup for the race – Harvick, Smith and Elliott – will remain intact.
“I felt like all three cars were capable of running inside the top seven, eight, somewhere right there,” Elliott said. “To come out of the box and have a top 10 this weekend, I feel like that’s something to be proud of and hopefully take that momentum to Las Vegas and try to improve upon that.”
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