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Mentally tougher, Brandon Jones aims for rebound season at JR Motorsports

Fresh off a year in which Brandon Jones missed the playoffs for the first time since 2017, he returns to JR Motorsports confident he will be a championship contender in the No. 9 Chevrolet.

“I’m getting this feeling that I just haven’t had in a long time,” Jones told NBC Sports ahead of the season. “… I think you’re going to see a whole different year pop up.”

It took time for Jones to reach this level of confidence, as well as extensive work with professionals around him after a season of struggles and frustration.

Jones came to JR Motorsports last season after five seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing (2018-22). He won five races and made the playoffs five times during that time.

Jones replaced Noah Gragson in the No. 9 Chevrolet, a car that won eight races in 2022. Jones then set out with the goal of putting the No. 9 back in victory lane and reaching the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.

“I didn’t have Noah, 9 car expectations,” Jones said. “Come over and win (eight) races. I didn’t think that was going to be the fix. … It was a little bit more of a transition just the way that the company operated compared to where I’d been in the past.”

Jones went winless and failed to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, teammates Justin Allgaier, Sam Mayer and Josh Berry all made the playoffs. Allgaier and Mayer both reached the Championship 4.

“It was difficult because I’d come off a season where I just ran — these cars that I’m driving now — I just ran all over them all year,” Jones said. “If they won, I was third or second or fifth. I was right there just waiting for them to make a mistake.

“And then you come over and you’re just like, ‘Oh my gosh, what happened? I’m not even close now anymore.’”

Qualifying was a pain point for Jones and the No. 9 team. His average starting was position 15.7, his worst since 2017. Another issue was the inability to avoid wrecks ahead of Jones.

Whether it was a multi-car crash at Daytona in August where Anthony Alfredo slid up to him in the pack and started a chain reaction or being unable to avoid wrecking teammates at Bristol in September, Jones just could not keep himself in races.

“Even when I first started (racing) at 13, I was so good at looking ahead and missing wrecks,” Jones said. “Just having that ability to kind of see where the car’s going and then get out of the way or get around it. And I just couldn’t find my way around them last year.

“It just seemed like somebody would spin in front of us and I just couldn’t get the car checked up or slow down enough and I’d run right into them. And I’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is crazy. Like I don’t know what’s going on with some of these things.’”

The difficult season led to changes in Jones’ life. He began to be more vocal with the team about what he needed in the car, whether it was his seat, the layout of his gauges or the handling setup.

This was not an easy adjustment. He acknowledges that he dislikes confrontation and tries to avoid it, though he realizes there is a difference between having open, honest conversations with the team about how to improve and just pointing fingers after a rough outing.

The changes continued as Jones worked with a sports psychologist. Every Sunday or Monday after the race, Jones would sit down and debrief about what he was thinking in the car, what he saw in specific moments and how it affected him.

Jones did an assessment each week and moved on. He wasn’t dwelling on the past race. Jones was able to enjoy his life at home with his wife Ashley, their cat Pepperoni and goats Calico and Juniper.

“I think some of that stuff’s good — you want some passion, some care in there,” Jones said. “I think that it’s good to be frustrated and upset with those results, but you just can’t hold on to them for too long, man.”

Mental strength has been a point of emphasis for Jones. He draws inspiration from retired Navy SEAL-turned-endurance athlete David Goggins and bowhunter/ultrarunner Cameron Hanes. Jones has learned that true growth comes from pushing himself instead of trying to be someone else.

The result is that Jones has continued to change his habits.

Jones takes time every day to sit in the cold plunge. He further pushes the intensity level of his workouts in his gym, sometimes hitting 1,000 reps of upper body work in a single session. He goes on long runs when he doesn’t have to, occasionally accompanied by his goats.

Jones recently launched a clothing brand, Defiant, that focuses on unlocking potential and building mental strength.

When the Xfinity race at Charlotte was delayed due to rain last May, Jones did not let it disrupt his workout schedule. A few hours before the race, he completed Murph. This workout features a 1-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats and another 1-mile run, all done while wearing a weight vest.

Later that night, Jones finished ninth in the Xfinity race at NASCAR’s home track.

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“Everything I do is just to – I just wanted to try to separate myself from the competition now,” Jones said. “Doing a cold plunge, doing insanely hard workouts is not gonna make me win a race, probably not. That’s not the key to winning a race, but if I can come into the weekend just that little bit up even if it’s just in my own head.”

Pushing in the gym and working with a sports psychologist is only part of the journey for Jones. He also had to figure out how to make progress behind the wheel, something that was a collaborative effort with JR Motorsports.

The organization made a move to support Jones by bringing in Phillip Bell, a former engineer on the No. 9 team, as the team’s crew chief. Bell takes over for Jason Burdett while getting his first opportunity to be a NASCAR crew chief.

Bell and Jones have already put in time working together ahead of the season. They ran a Late Model race in Georgia and gained some crucial experience through adversity.

They struggled early in the 150-lap race and fell back through the field. Instead of arguing, they continued communicating and ultimately ended the event within 50 milliseconds of the leaders despite being on old tires.

Bell and Jones didn’t win the race but learned things about each other. They saw the fight inside of each, as well as how to provide better feedback in the heat of the moment, something Jones says will be crucial this season.

The other big change took place in early January. Jones reunited with former NASCAR driver Blake Koch, who had spent time as his driver development coach at JGR. Jones had success in the past while working with Koch, and he wanted to be part of a small driver group that includes Trevor Bayne and Harrison Burton.

The reunion with Koch is fresh but work is already being done ahead of the 2024 season. Film study is key, especially as it relates to the wrecks that Jones could not avoid last season and the sudden dip in his qualifying efforts.

The work with Koch will only expand. Jones anticipates using virtual reality and other technology to track where his eyes are at any particular moment, which he believes could help him dial in on the causes behind some of his struggles.

“I came back to Blake, I mean that’s who I had the most success with, I thought,” Jones said. “... That right there, I just feel like I’ve got so many people right now that’s just in my corner wanting me to do good.”

The pieces are in place. Now it’s time for Jones to deliver.