Erik Jones may not be the most visible of NASCAR’s youth movement but this 22-year-old driver certainly has the talent, the personality, and the fan support to be a star and be the future of the sport.
The Michigan native began his NASCAR career in 2013 after tearing it up on local short tracks throughout the country. After defeating Kyle Busch in the Snowball Derby, Busch got Jones to drive for him and enter Toyota’s driver development program. Once in, Jones proved what he could do and steadily climbed up the ranks, winning a Camping World Truck Series championship in his first full season in 2015, becoming an Xfinity Series championship contender in 2016 and then entering his first full season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017.
Despite not qualifying for the NASCAR Playoffs last season, Jones put in a summer performance to close out his regular season as best as anyone in the field. Jones finished off his regular season with six consecutive top 10 finishes with three consecutive top 5’s and a runner-up finish at Bristol.
This year, Jones built on his solid rookie season to become a Playoff contender. Moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, Jones had some trouble in the Daytona 500, despite leading for some of the race. After that, Jones clicked off solid finishes and really put together a run where a win would come at some point. Then came his return to Daytona. And in a test of survival, Jones outlasted a bunch of crashes and a bunch of junked up race cars to pass Martin Truex Jr. to get his first career MENCS win in July.
We talked to Erik Jones before he set off to race at Kentucky Speedway this past weekend. We discussed getting that first win, what it has meant to his family, his work on Fox’s Drivers Only broadcasts and his NASCAR Playoff chances, especially after seeing Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. dominating so far.
Phillip Bupp: First off, congrats on the win. First win, locked into the Playoffs, that must be a huge weight lifted off your shoulders.
Erik Jones: Yeah we’re glad to get that first win and get in the Playoffs and kind of relax a little for the next nine weeks so I’m definitely excited about that and I think the whole team is as well. We weren’t really necessarily feeling the pressure of trying to make the Playoffs on points; I felt like we were in a pretty good spot but definitely feels a lot better not having to worry about that for the next few weeks.
For the first time, @erik_jones’ name goes on the Wall of Wins at the shop!
We celebrated JGR’s 300th @NASCAR victory, the big win by the No.20 #Camry team at Daytona, with a banner raising!#TEAMDEWALT #DEWALTTough @DEWALTtough @ToyotaRacing @Resers @SportClips pic.twitter.com/hk5OAS8ImW
— Joe Gibbs Racing (@JoeGibbsRacing) July 16, 2018
PB: What’s the atmosphere been like in the shop?
Jones: It’s been good. I actually haven’t spent a lot of time there so far; I was traveling all over after running up in Wisconsin and I came back Wednesday and had to come right to Kentucky. But I got to talk a little bit to [Crew Chief] Chris Gayle and some of the guys and they’re all really excited obviously getting that first win knocked out and hopefully working toward another one here in the coming weeks.
PB: Your family has been a big part of your path to get here. Your parents made sacrifices for you to further your racing career and the story of your father selling his Corvette and you finding it and buying it back is very moving and emotional. What has this win meant?
Jones: It’s been a big part of it for sure. Looking back and all the work that we did to get to this point. My mom really kind of got us started in racing and got us going on the path of working towards it. And then my dad and I kinda took it to the next level and kept working at it and trying to advance through my racing career and get farther and farther.
So it was a pretty neat journey to get there and really kind of a different way than most guys in NASCAR have taken so that’s special to me. Being a first generation guy in my family to make it to the top level is pretty neat. You don’t see a ton of first generation drivers anymore and especially drivers without any racing history in their family at all so that’s something kinda neat for me and a lot of hard work from my whole family to work on getting to that point.
PB: And I know you said your mother wasn’t at [Daytona], do you think that brings more motivation to you to win while she’s there?
Jones: Yeah, I mean for sure [laughter]. She’s going to be here this weekend [at Kentucky] so it is a little bit extra motivation. You want her to be a part of it at some point and hopefully, we can get one here soon in the next few weeks and get that second win knocked out, hopefully have her here to be able to enjoy it. I know she was really excited and a little disappointed she missed out so hopefully, we can get her here for one in the near future.
PB: Switching gears, you have been a part of Fox’s Drivers Only broadcast and have been a pit reporter the past couple years. What was that experience like and how much of a learning curve was there to go from your day job of driving to doing something completely different in pit reporting?
Jones: It was a pretty good change. You look at what those guys do from the outside and it doesn’t seem all that complicated. But once you get down in there in the trenches and try to figure it out, and as many different people are trying to talk at one time it’s kinda hard to figure out what you’re supposed to do and find things to talk about and keeping up with what all the teams are doing because you’re covering large sections of pit road, you know, 10 to 12 cars. It’s hard to manage all that at one time.
I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my help. My first year, I had Matt Yocum and this year, I had Regan Smith helping me so those guys really made it a lot easier on me. They kinda threw me a bunch of stuff to talk about and kept me focused on what was going on in the race and what we could be doing different. So that was a big help and I don’t think I probably could have done it without them helping me out.
PB: Were you able to pick up and learn some things while on the broadcast that you were able to use on Sunday?
Jones: Yeah, I was able to learn some stuff on the broadcast. I mean, you always kind of pick things up along the way. Unfortunately, it was at Talladega so there wasn’t a ton to pick up strategy wise or anything like that. But you definitely kind of watch the trends of the race and how things happen and how the race flow is and you learn a little bit from that.
PB: Is that something you would want to do more of, either pit reporting or maybe going up into the booth to do a race?
Jones: I do enjoy it, it’s something to do for fun. I don’t know if I would really ever want to do it all the time but as a one-off deal every once in a while, I do think it’s pretty fun to get up there and do the booth stuff, do the pit road stuff, the Drivers Only broadcast is fun and hopefully we can do that again next year. But overall, I think I’m liking my day job right now so one-offs are pretty good for me.
PB: So now that you know you’re in the Playoffs, does your strategy change the rest of this regular season and is it now more about getting wins and playoff points?
Jones: Yeah it is a little bit. I think our strategy is always to try to win but we definitely have to maximize stage and playoff points at this point in the season. We want to get as many built up as we can for the first round of the Playoffs, have ourselves a cushion to make it through to round two and on from there.
Obviously, we want to be competitive in the Playoffs. We don’t just want to be guys that are in there and fall out in the first round. We want to be able to advance and move on and make a run for it. So these next nine races are going to be pretty important just to learn more about what we need to do better and hopefully earn as many playoff points as we can to get a good spot and get going.
PB: Do you think you would be more willing to switch up the strategy if it presents itself? Like if teams are doing “this,” at the end, you’re going to do the opposite to try and get track position to get up to the front?
Jones: Yeah, I mean at times, you’re going to change things around to try and get more track position. We’re able to take a little more risk and at times, maybe take a gamble here or there so yeah, I say at times we’ll take a few more risks than not being locked in.
PB: Looking forward to the rest of this season, what are some tracks coming up where you feel especially confident that a second win can happen?
Jones: I think these next few racetracks are going to be pretty good for us. Kentucky is a good one, Bristol’s a good one, New Hampshire has been good to me. So there’s a lot of tracks actually coming up that I feel really good about and tracks that I ran really well last year so there’s a lot of opportunities for us to go up and get that second win. I think with the first win out of the way, we have a pretty big string of momentum right now and hopefully going to be able to carry that here in the next few races.
PB: I saw it last year, you had a pretty good stretch in the summer. You had solid top 5, top 10 finishes, I kinda think the best is yet to come.
Jones: Yeah, I think so too. Honestly, the last month of racing were all tracks where they aren’t really top tracks for me and now we’re coming into a stretch of tracks where I feel really comfortable at and really enjoy it throughout the summer stretch and into the Playoffs. So that gets me excited to go back to a lot of these places I enjoy going and trying to go out and win more races so hopefully we can have another really solid summer stretch and click off some more really good finishes.
PB: Final question, you’re in the Playoffs but it’s been a season largely dominated by the “Big Three” (Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr.). Do you feel you have something for them once the Playoffs start?
Jones: I think you never know how it’s going to go, you never know what your team is going to find and how you’re going to get better and better. We still have a lot of time to catch up; we have a little over two months to really close that gap and figure out how to contend with them.
I think the chance and the opportunity is definitely there to do it. They’ve obviously been the strongest guys all year but we have all the same resources as what Kyle does and Martin does to try and figure out how to get there. And we’re going to work hard to figure out how to do it.
PB: That’s what I was going to say, it’s gotta help to have two Toyota partners with you there, that helps it a little bit.
Jones: Yeah for sure, it makes it a lot easier to have some of the same information as those guys.