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March 9, 2024

Xfinity rookie Jesse Love savors career day at Phoenix


Jesse Love smiles by his No. 2 RCR Chevrolet after a runner-up finish at Phoenix Raceway
Alejandro Alvarez
NASCAR.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Four races into a rookie campaign should come with its learning moments and an abundance of room for growth and improvement.

At just 19 years old, it only took a month into the 2024 Xfinity Series season for Jesse Love to score his first top-five finish: a runner-up Saturday afternoon at Phoenix Raceway.

Love nearly ran all 200 miles inside the top 10, making a beeline for his first milestone result. But then two golden opportunities sprouted for him to turn an almost guaranteed top 10 into an even better finish.

RELATED: Phoenix results | At-track photos

With 57 laps to go, a multicar wreck down the backstretch collected heavy hitters such as John Hunter Nemechek, Sam Mayer and Riley Herbst. Love was able to squeak by the melee and found himself immediately inside the top five.

As the race wound down, Love was in a hotly contested tilt for third place with Sheldon Creed, Love’s predecessor in the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.

With Love and Creed going 12 rounds for a podium spot, then-leader Justin Allgaier cut a left-rear tire, flipping the script of the race.

Starting on the second row behind Creed, Love said he had a race win in sight, but by the time the field entered Turn 1 on the overtime restart, Chandler Smith set sail for the eventual race victory.

“I thought I had it 100 percent. I have a lot of confidence on restarts and when that caution came out I was like ‘it’s mine,’ ” Love said. “I just got a little hitched up into [Turns] one and two there. I just didn’t have the real estate I needed to get to the 18 (Creed) or 81 (Smith). And yeah, we were able to get by the 18 there, which was good for our guys and morale, but I wanted that one pretty bad. So I’m trying to be genuine about it and express some of my frustration, right? But at the same time I’m, I’m pumped to be here and I’m pumped to have had a good run. It’s something to build off.”

Love’s first month has been a whirlwind and he’s been thrown into the fire immediately in dealing with multiple scenarios. He put the No. 2 on the pole in his first two career Xfinity starts at Daytona and Atlanta, and led a whopping 157 of 169 laps in the Peach State.

However, those races only amassed a best finish of 12th after Love ran out of fuel in the closing laps at Atlanta.

After pit-road mistakes at Las Vegas last weekend resulted in a pedestrian 17th-place result, Love took a more conservative approach for Phoenix.

“I think that’s that my 90 percent’s enough,” Love said. “I try to just race that 90 percent today and have a good day and maybe if I was rambunctious, I probably could have had a better shot to win, but we needed to have a good run and have a drama-free day.”

At such a young age where growing pains are bound to happen racing at a high level, Love kept his poise all afternoon around the 1-mile Arizona oval and was awarded with the second-place result over Creed on the final lap.

“I think it’s pretty obvious to say I wanted to get that position,” Love said. “I thought my car was better than his. “I just could not pass and he’s hard to pass. Sheldon is really good at being a race-car driver, as everybody knows, right? He’s hard to pass and he puts his car in good spots that are bad for me. So it took me a while and I knew that restart came out that I was at least going to be second, I just. … I wanted to win it.”

MORE: Xfinity Series standings

Love’s rapid maturity can be credited partly to his crew chief Danny Stockman. A longtime veteran atop the box for many drivers who have come through the ranks at RCR, Stockman said he’s been impressed by what Love has been able to do with just four races under his belt.

“He’s incredible. I like the way he races these guys,” Stockman told NASCAR.com. “He could’ve moved Sheldon out of the way a few times, and he didn’t. He chose to race and clean, and those are the guys I want to be surrounded by. Such a hell of a race-car driver, and he’s got a bright future for sure.”

Since rolling off the hauler at Daytona, Stockman knew how fast the No. 2 was going to be with Love behind the wheel but understood the natural adversity that came with developing a teenage driver and getting them in the right mindset.

“Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve had speed capable to run in the top five,” Stockman said. “Last week, we had a really good car. We just had some pit road issues that we fixed this last week, and we came here this weekend and executed and it all worked out. We’re having a lot of fun right now. I got a heck of a team behind me and a lot of guys that know the talent that we have sitting in this race car. So I think we hold our expectations within ourselves really high, and when you can do that you have a team that believes in what we got going on, the sky’s the limit.”

In his long tenure as a crew chief, Stockman has created separate categories for drivers and puts Love in one where he sees him making it to NASCAR’s highest level.

“There’s guys that can do this and there’s guys that are going to do this, and he’s one of the guys that are going to do this,” Stockman said. “He’ll be racing on Sundays someday, and in my career, I’ve been fortunate to work with some really talented kids, but this one’s pretty high up on my stature for sure. We’re having a lot of fun right now. I mean, last week at Vegas, we had a few pit road issues and we’re learning from it, right? We’re not keeping up making the same mistakes and today we had a flawless day. We had great pit stops. We had good execution. We made good adjustments, and the driver drove his ass off, so that’s all you want these days.”

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