Saline — A lot has happened since Erik Jones made his last appearance at Michigan International Speedway in the Monster Energy NASCAR series race this past June.
Jones, a 22-year-old native of Byron, earned his first win at Daytona in early July, then went on to collect consecutive fifth-place spots the last two weeks, at Pocono and Watkins Glen.
Jones returns to MIS — the two-mile superspeedway known as NASCAR’s fastest track — for Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 with a playoff spot already locked up with the win and filled with confidence, knowing he is running consistently up front in his No. 20 Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing heading into the run for the championship — the final 10 races — which gets underway Sept. 16 in Las Vegas.
Jones is one of the young guns in the series, joining drivers like 22-year-old Chase Elliott, who got his first career win at Watkins Glen last Sunday.
Jones, who is in his second full season in the series and first with JGR, was on hand at the Toyota Research and Development headquarters in Saline Thursday afternoon, getting an opportunity to watch a crash test at the site.
Jones enjoyed his two-plus hours at Toyota R&D headquarters and now has his focus set on continuing his momentum, which has him finishing seventh or higher in six of the last seven races.
“It’s always fun to see kind of the other side of the world,” Jones said of his visit. “Obviously, Toyota does a lot for us on the racing side and to see the transition between the two, between the R&D Center here and racing is always kind of neat for me. It’s fun to see what they do and what they put not only into the street product, which is obviously their main goal, but also with how they are benefiting us in the racing world.”
Jones was on the bubble to earn one of the 16 playoff spots heading into MIS in June, then finished 15th in the Firekeepers 400 race.
So, how has Jones been able to enjoy so much success during the last couple of months? He is teammates with Kyle Busch, who has won six races to share the series lead with Kevin Harvick, with defending series champion Martin Truex — Jones’ teammate of a year ago — owning four wins.
“Well, I think we were improving week by week before our win at Daytona,” Jones said. “We had some struggles at the start of the year since they had changed a lot of rules behind the scenes on the race cars NASCAR-wise. Once we started to figure that out and get that package better we really started running better and better each week.
“I think for us Daytona gave us some momentum, but it was also at the same time when we were really getting our cars and our package where we wanted it, so we’ve been able to just ride on that and carry that through. And, really with the win there, it’s taken a lot of pressure off us for trying to point our way into the playoffs. Now, we’ve been able to work hard on our stuff to get it a little bit better and a little bit faster and take more chances set-up wise to help us as well.”
Jones feels there are more wins on the horizon off the heels of that first win at Daytona.
“It’s a confidence boost, a weight lifted off of you,” Jones said. “As a driver you always want to win, and you want to be competitive, and obviously the Cup series is the top level in NASCAR and you want to be a winner there. Just to get that first win kind of out of the way is a good feeling, feels like it opens the door for more wins and more opportunity since you’ve been there once. We’re working to get that next win and keeping that momentum has been fun.”
Jones knows he will be an underdog to Busch, Harvick and Truex once the fight for the championship gets underway, but likes how he has been running.
“We’ve had some great consistency and the first round of the playoffs is all about that,” he said. “You have three races and if you can run in the top 10 and in the top five you’re probably going to advance to the next round.
“This streak has been some really good tracks for us, places we’ve run well at last year. I hope we can run well at these next four and carry that momentum with us into the playoffs.”
After MIS, the series will move on to Bristol, Darlington and the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the playoffs start at Las Vegas.
Consumers Energy 400
When: 2:30 Sunday
Where: Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Mich.
Support race: Trucks, Corrigan Oil 200, 1 p.m. Saturday