Monday, July 9, 2018

Right Sides Only: Notes from the Coke Zero Sugar 400 Winning Crew Chief, Chris Gayle

by Stacey Owens

Sometimes all it takes for a driver to win a race is a little maturity and a little confidence. Erik Jones has been building up both of those traits for a while, and it all paid off big at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night.

Crew chief Chris Gayle talked about how Jones has grown as a driver.

"It was a real big letdown leaving Bristol last year. It's all Bristol. That's the one where we led the most laps, thought we had a shot to win it, and then Kyle nipped up there at the end. That was the one we thought, okay, this one just got away from us.
"He was down for a little bit, but you've kind of got to -- this racing thing you've got to move on really quickly, have a short-term memory, move on. We talked about it a lot in the off-season about the things he needs to do to grow and to win races. I mean, it's tough to win races. It is at this level.  He's got immense talent, but there are 15 other people, 20 other people with his same story at some point in time in their career, and they have experience on him.
"So you know, he's just got to move past that. He's done a good job of really focusing on the things he needs to do better. I would tell you the last three weeks I've really noticed a change in him. Sonoma was a turning point for us. We went to Sonoma, and we were just awful last year at Sonoma. It was terrible. He didn't feel like he knew what he needed to do, I didn't feel like I could help him. He went to work. We did some racing school stuff there for Sonoma. We went into that weekend knowing it was going to be tough and we were going to have to battle, and the first 10 laps of that race were pretty tough. It could have gone either way. I thought we were going to slip back and have a bad weekend, and he kind of dug a little deeper, found something different, stopped kind of complaining, focused more on what he could do better, and we get a seventh-place finish out of that, and I think that confidence carried over to Chicago.
"So I'm really expecting even bigger things from him. You get a little confidence in him, we all know we can do it at this level; it just kind of helps you once you kind of get the first win. Everyone in the entire team knows that. So I'm looking for big things," Gayle explained.
Photo credit: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
Driver and crew chief spent time during the off-season talking about what went well and what didn't in 2017 and how they could strengthen their team this year.
"Last year was odd, right, because you had a lot of winners behind us in points. Like at one point during last year we thought we were going to points our way into it and you may not have to win a race, and then you have so many winners that are behind you in points kind of sneak in to where we kind of got clipped and didn't have a shot to get in that way. Some of it was about just maximizing our finishes. When we've got a 10th place car, let's bring that thing home 10th place. Don't try to do more than is necessary and wind up bringing it home 25th because we tried to do more than what the car could do. And I think he's done a great job at that.
"Some of that was on me, too, though. There were four races last year where we didn't qualify. That's me being too aggressive, so I've got to take some of my same advice that I gave him about just doing what we can do and getting out there and qualifying and not necessarily pushing so hard that I don't get to qualify and put him behind and then he feels like he needs to work hard to overcome that mistake," Gayle said.
Some fans may still find it difficult to see anyone other than Matt Kenseth behind the wheel of that No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Gayle recognizes that. He also contends that Jones isn't trying to replace or even compare himself to Kenseth.
"We've never had conversations about him following in Matt's shadow and replacing the car. I think he's more a guy of knowing what his capabilities are, knowing what he thinks he should be capable of doing and measuring into what he thinks he should be doing and not necessarily measuring to the guy before. I think there have been plenty of conversations we've had where he's been upset with how he ran and just thought he was better than that, but nothing that we've ever had comparing to previous drivers or anything," Gayle explained.
If anything, Jones is actually much more like current teammate Kyle Busch.
"You know, he's similar to Kyle, being aggressive. He's similar to a young Kyle being aggressive. I was around when Kyle first came to JGR and Toyota, so I was a part of a lot of seeing how aggressive Kyle was, how even he'd over drive a little bit at that point. Erik has a lot of those tendencies. But Erik I think has a little more patience than Kyle did at that point in his career.
"He's most similar to Kyle in just about everything. Denny is way different, except I would say their personalities away from the track, away from the race car are totally different. Erik is as laid-back as you will be around, but behind the wheel, very aggressive.
"And for me, just to talk about the first interaction I had with Erik was 2015. When Kyle was hurt, got injured here at Daytona in the beginning of the season, I was the crew chief on the 54 then. Erik got to sub for seven races for me that year, and I can vividly remember it was the second Chicago race, he didn't get to practice because he was running trucks somewhere and we had Drew Herring practice for us. Erik showed up, qualified that car, and we had the car too loose, we had it set up for Drew, it was too loose, so he qualified 11th and he was bummed about it, down. He got over that really quickly. He drove that car from 11th to the lead and led the rest of the race, and that was what solidified it for me was like, he can not practice this thing, get here, show up and run with everybody.  That's kind of where I knew he had the ability to do it. It's just a matter of continued learning and progressing," Gayle said. 
All that learning and progressing paid off with Jones's first Cup win and a potential trip to the playoffs this fall.
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  Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream every single weekend.
   The sole NASCAR enthusiast in her home, she's hopeful that one of her three daughters might also harbor an appreciation for NASCAR, but it isn't looking good so far. 
   This self-admitted grammar nerd also loves country music, though she can't carry a tune; Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life; and her husband who's supportive of her NASCAR obsession... as long as she allows him to obsess over college football every fall.

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