The No. 9 team at JR Motorsports is, essentially, the No. 88 team that competed the last two seasons as a full-time team with rotating drivers. All those nine drivers did was win two races and log 11 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes. That’s big sauce for crew chief Dave Elenz and driver William Byron, who will fill the iconic seat full-time in 2017.
The No. 9 team, with its primary backing from Liberty University and a youngster in the seat, has big shoes to fill in terms of production, but the long-term upside of the combination has a lot of people talking. Elenz is a star in the making in his own right, having been atop the pit box for four of JRM’s 10 victories the past two seasons. How the combination performs over the 33-race season will depend largely on how the team gels with Byron, an up-and-coming driver signed to a development deal with Hendrick Motorsports.
Things to watch for 2017 include how that process goes, how quickly Byron adjusts to the rigors of the NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule and as always, how the chips fall when the green flag waves. The last time the No. 9 raced with a rookie driver, the result was the lone NXS championship for JR Motorsports.
ONE IS THE BEST NUMBER: You can’t blame Elenz if it takes him a hot second to realize that he’s got just one driver for a full season. In his two years as crew chief at JRM, no less than 14 drivers have driven his cars, and that means setting up the Chevrolet Camaro for a ton of different driving styles. With so many drivers in the “All Star” car, it precluded being able to run for the series driver title and instead focused on the owner crown. That made a difference from the beginning of the season to the end, Elenz said.
“We’ve had so many drivers in this car that we probably didn’t do as good a job of being consistent as we needed to do,” Elenz said. “We’d start off strong and then get to the summer and we’re not as strong. We’d kind of lose our way because we changed so many things and so many drivers.”
That said, working with Byron will be nothing that Elenz hasn’t done before.
“I’ve worked with a lot of rookies, for multiple races in a season, and I don’t think my approach will be that different for the first handful of races,” Elenz said. “But as we get into the season, our approach will end up being more like everyone else’s. We’re running for the championship, trying to get as many points every week and get as many wins as we can.”
START TO FINISH: Elenz has always produced fast cars for his All Star drivers, and now he can focus on fielding them for Byron, with the end goal being hoisting the NXS Trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
“We are very excited to have one driver and to be able to race for the championship this year. It brings some consistency to our program, helps us grow and get better throughout the season so we can be ready to race at the end of the year,” Elenz said. “The whole series is about the Xfinity championship, so having one guy that you actually get to race with like everybody else makes it way more exciting. When you get down to the last set of races and you’re not really racing for anything that people really care about, you kind of wish you were over there where they are. Now we’re there.”
ON THE JOB TRAINING: One good thing about the new aero rules, at least from the No. 9 team’s perspective, is that Byron won’t have to adjust his driving style to suit it any more than he already had to after moving up from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Plus, Elenz said, the new rules suit JRM as a whole.
“I’m looking forward to the changes,” he remarked. “Our program, being the 9 car and being JR Motorsports, we make cars that go fast on long runs, have a lot of grip and downforce in them. I’m excited about the rule changes because I think it’s going to cater to our group more than others.”
Still, there is the fact that the 19-year-old Byron has never done this before. There will be a learning curve, especially since the NCWTS only races once a year on a road course.
“Learning the different tracks and the race car will be one of my biggest challenges this season,” Byron said. “The road courses, in particular, will also be a challenge.”
ROSTER MOVES: No major changes took place for the team over the winter, and Elenz is happy with the combined group.
“Brandon (McSwain) is coming on as our lead engineer, along with Phillip Bell, and those guys are doing a good job getting used to what we do and learning their new roles,” Elenz said. “Those are our biggest changes and they’ll be ready when the season starts. The rest of our group has stayed the same, so I feel pretty good about it.”
McSwain steps up to lead engineer for Elenz after the departure of Richard Boswell late last season, and Bell comes over to the No. 9 after engineering for JRM’s NCWTS entry last season.
EXPECTATIONS: The definition of a successful season, at least before it begins, is always to win races, make the playoffs and have a shot at the trophy when the final race of the season arrives. That’s pretty much Byron’s definition, anyway.
“My definition of a successful season would be winning a few races and being competitive every week at the track,” he said. “I know this year there will be a lot to learn in the beginning of the season, but our goal is to be competitive in the playoffs and make it to Homestead.”
Elenz, who has been there and done that in the Xfinity Series, has a slightly different take.
“The key to the season would be to win the championship, but with a first-time full-time driver, it’s going to take being consistent throughout the season,” he said. “I think our key is being as consistent throughout the season, even when you get into the summer season and road courses and keeping good finishes going throughout.”
It’s a subtle difference, but Elenz is confident in his team’s ability to reach the playoffs and the final winner-take-all race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
ALL EYES ON 9: It’s not like a lot of eyeballs weren’t on Elenz’s teams the past two seasons, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne, among others, in the driver’s seat. This year will be intensified, in a way, because of Byron. It’s easy to draw parallels between Byron and Elliott, who took the No. 9 to the 2014 NXS championship, and that will be done quite a few times beginning at Daytona.
“It’s pressure, yeah, but we had Kevin Harvick, Dale Jr. at Richmond. I don’t think it’s going to be any different,” Elenz said.
One thing Elenz would like to do is win a race late in the season.
“I think we’ve won all our races the past two years before May,” he said. “I’d like to win one in July. That would be good.”
At the end of it, Elenz said he didn’t have to tell his crew anything about inspiration for 2017.
“I don’t really do inspiration,” he said. “Everybody on our team knows what it is. They’ve been looking for this opportunity for a while, and they’re excited about the idea of being with one guy and having a chance at the championship.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!