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Las Vegas Cup takeaways: Erik Jones, Petty team take step in right direction

Kyle Larson wins the NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Hendrick Motorsports, his first victory since his return to the series.

One of the better drives in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway came from Erik Jones, who started 29th and finished 10th for Richard Petty Motorsports.

It was Jones’ first top 10 with his new team. But just as important, it was the organization’s first top 10 since Bubba Wallace (now with 23XI Racing) finished fifth in last August’s regular-season finale on the oval at Daytona International Speedway.

Jones’ crew chief, Jerry Baxter, told NBC Sports on Monday that the result has lifted the team’s morale after an up-and-down start to the season.

“I think they were just a little let down that they weren’t able to get a top 10 at (the Daytona 500),” Baxter said. “We finished eighth in the Clash and then Daytona, getting wiped out on Lap 13, was very disheartening because we were really fast.

“We thought we’d have a couple (top 10s) by now. But right now, everybody’s pretty excited about it. They’re happy. I’m happy. Erik’s happy. He just wants to get better.”

Jones quickly moved forward from the green flag on Sunday. He drove into the top 15 during Stage 1 before finishing the stage in 17th.

Early in Stage 2, Jones avoided disaster on Lap 94. Running 16th, he got loose off Turn 2 in front of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but maintained the slide and continued on with just a light graze off the outside wall. He went on to finish the stage in 18th.

Following a pit stop during the stage break, Jones was among those who stayed out on track during the Lap 180 caution for Aric Almirola’s crash.

With the older tires, Jones kept the No. 43 within reach of the top 10 leading into the final stops of the day with over 40 laps to go. Then, with under 20 laps to go, Jones made his move back into the top 10 for good.

“I think our car was pretty dang fast from the get-go,” Baxter said about the race. “It was a challenge during the event to try and get any kind of track position, and with the tire fall-off that we had, it was not a deal where I could gamble and take two tires or something and be successful at it.

“That was the challenge and it did take us the whole race to get up to there. I believe if we had started up there, we would’ve been much better than we actually ended up, for sure. But overall, we just had a good car.”

Jones joined RPM after spending the past four seasons under the Joe Gibbs Racing umbrella (now-defunct Furniture Row Racing in 2017; JGR from 2018-2020). When JGR informed him last August that he would not return to the organization, he admitted to being “blindsided a little bit” by the decision.

But while Jones was motivated to make a fresh start with RPM, something else about the 24-year-old has jumped out to Baxter through four races together.

“His maturity, for his age, is really surprising to me,” Baxter said. “But then I look at it the other way. He’s got a ton of laps under his belt, a lot of years. You think about his age and, most of the time, drivers (that age) react to the moment like it’s the end of the world. He doesn’t. He’s calm, thinks about things, and that’s what makes you go.

“That’s what makes you successful. The ones that lose their mind are in trouble.”

Daniels, No. 5 team seize new opportunity

Hendrick Motorsports’ second consecutive win also meant another crew chief for the organization earned his first Cup victory.

Last week in Miami, it was Rudy Fugle with William Byron and the No. 24 team. Sunday in Las Vegas, it was Cliff Daniels, who guided Kyle Larson to the win.

Daniels had been crew chief for the No. 48 team and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (who has since moved to IndyCar) since July 2019. The No. 48 team became the current No. 5 team over this offseason to coincide with Larson’s arrival.

Following Sunday’s race, Daniels admitted to being “maybe a little” surprised that the No. 5 is in Victory Lane so soon. But after he and his crewmates’ hard-fought efforts to give Johnson one final NASCAR win fell short, Larson has provided an opportunity to turn the page.

“We knew when Kyle and I first connected over the winter, we knew there was going to be a path to get us here,” Daniels said. “We knew we had to make sure our cars were well-prepared. Just with the schedule, race format, there’s no practice, there’s no qualifying. We don’t have a big opportunity to go build our notebook together. You have to be right when you unload for the race.

“We knew it was going to take a lot of prep work to get here. We’ve done that every week. Kyle is in the shop three days a week just poring through notes with us, looking at video, looking at data. Our guys have done a nice job to help get him prepared, and likewise, he’s done a nice job of just giving us sensations he needs to feel, things he’s felt in the past and how he would like to car to respond in certain situations.”

Along with diligent study, Daniels noted Larson’s “demeanor,” which has led him and spotter Tyler Monn to focus on relaying gaps to his competitors instead of pumping him up.

“Kyle is so good and so confident in himself that he doesn’t need a lot of cheerleading,” Daniels said. “We’re just trying to make sure we have all the pieces around him set up the right way so he can go get the job done.”

Setting up the pieces included making a contingency plan in case Larson’s march was interrupted by a late-race caution. Daniels said that came from a valuable lesson learned during his No. 48 days: Always think ahead.

“We know with this 550 (horsepower) package, the late-race restarts can get crazy,” Daniels said. “You’re going to have mixed strategies, guys that are going to throw a Hail Mary, stay out on old tires, some guys will take two, some four. We worked up two different contingency plans if we needed them.

“If the caution came out at any point, we already knew what our call was going to be, we knew which way we were going to go. That may sound a little bit idealistic, but we had to be thinking ahead in case we had been in that situation.”

“Kyle had been doing a good job on restarts all day when we were on offense. We wanted to make sure to put him in that situation if we needed it.”

Gibbs gang getting closer

Echoing Kyle Busch’s thoughts with the No. 18 team, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. noted after Sunday’s race that there’s still some speed for the organization to find on 1.5-mile tracks.

“These tracks are really tough - it’s a real big guessing game on what cars to bring and what kind of approach to take,” Truex said after his sixth-place finish. “You kind of get guessing on a lot of different things – the weather, the wind and all this kind of stuff.

“Overall, I think our cars were decent. ... I would say for (the No. 19 team), we were probably a little bit off from where we were last weekend. Definitely some stuff to build on for all of us across the board. We’ll obviously talk about it all and figure out what we need to do to be better.”

But unlike last week at Miami, where Truex was the only JGR driver in the mix for a win, the organization was stronger as a whole at Las Vegas.

Busch’s third-place finish was his first top five of the year. Denny Hamlin’s fourth-place finish gave him consecutive top fives at Las Vegas for the first time in his career. Truex claimed his sixth consecutive top 10 on a 1.5-mile track, which is the longest active streak in Cup. Christopher Bell, already in the playoffs with his Daytona road course win, was seventh.

“I’m really happy with the turnaround from last week at Homestead,” Bell said. "... We were significantly better this time. It’s something to build on for sure. I felt like my Craftsman Camry drove really well. We just need to dial a little bit of speed in it.”

Rabbit’s foot, anyone?

While Matt DiBenedetto’s 16th-place finish on Sunday was a season-best, it also represents the latest stroke of bad luck to befall him and Wood Brothers Racing.

Entering his final pit stop with a little over 40 laps to go, DiBenedetto was running ninth. He had come from 30th on the starting grid to finish eighth in Stage 1 (earning his first stage points of the season), then rose into the top five in Stage 2 prior to a green-flag stop. After finishing Stage 2 in 12th, DiBenedetto moved back into the top 10 and looked to stay there.

But on his last stop, an air gun failed as his crew was about to change the left-front tire. Instead of losing time replacing the air gun, crew chief Greg Erwin sent DiBenedetto back out on three new tires and one with 50 laps of wear to finish the race.

Coming off his first playoff berth in 2020 and now in his final year with the Wood Brothers, DiBenedetto has been hindered repeatedly in the opening races of 2021.

He finished 33rd in the season-opening Daytona 500, where he was eliminated following a major crash early in the race. The next week on the Daytona road course, a cut right-front tire and a brake line failure relegated him to 37th. Things weren’t much better last week at Miami. He finished 28th due to handling problems and a lack of long-run speed.

Sunday’s air gun failure at Las Vegas adds to the list of setbacks. But team co-owner Eddie Wood was still optimistic, thanks to the team’s overall pace.

“I’ll take it,” Wood said in a team release. “I think we’ll be all right going forward. If we can run that good at Vegas, we can run good at places like Texas and other intermediate tracks too.

“And I want to hand it to Goodyear. That was a job well done to build a tire that would run 90 laps and still be running respectable lap times in the last few laps.”