Jones hopes learning curve starts out on fast track

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Erik Jones’ rapid rise in NASCAR finds him set to reach his dream of competing in the Daytona 500 Sunday afternoon as a 20-year-old rookie.

Oh, and Jones will be in quality equipment, driving the No. 77 5-Hour Energy Toyota Camry for Furniture Row Racing, with which he is teammates with Martin Truex Jr., the runner-up in last year’s Daytona 500.

No doubt, Jones is passionate about racing and has taken advantage of every opportunity that has come his way, including driving in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for Kyle Busch, also subbing for Busch for three races in the Sprint Cup series in 2015 when Busch was sidelined with a broken leg before coming back to win the series championship.

In fact, Jones accepted his high school diploma from Swartz Creek High School — located 10 miles west of Flint — while at Texas Motor Speedway prior to competing in the Camping World Truck Series race on June 6, 2014.

Jones won the Camping World Truck Series championship in 2015 and has won six Xfinity Series races to earn his way into NASCAR’s premier series.

Now Jones will try to make a name for himself in the Cup series, the same way Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have before retiring the last couple of years.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, race in the Cup series, it’s been my goal since I’ve started racing when I was seven years old,” Jones said. “It’s definitely a great opportunity with a great group of people. It’s a team that’s been getting stronger and stronger over the last few years and to join a team that contended for wins here last year as a rookie is definitely a welcome experience.”

So, how much did Jones learn from Busch while with Joe Gibbs Racing?

“It’s been good,” Jones said. “Obviously, Furniture Row has an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and share a lot of information. We get cars from them, data and everything else so it helps all programs quite a bit. I’ve leaned on Kyle now for the last few years, when I was with his truck team and then when I was in the Xfinity series. I definitely leaned on him for a lot of information and tried to expand what I know about the sport.

“He’s been a big help, along with being able to see data from JGR and Furniture Row to apply to these races and apply to these tracks to figure things out a little quicker.”

Furniture Row has become a frontrunner the last couple of years in the Cup series, with Truex finishing fourth in points in 2015, then winning four races last year, including the Coca-Cola 600.

“We haven’t worked together at a race track yet and really at Daytona you don’t share a lot of information because there’s not really a lot to share,” Jones said of working with Truex. “I think we’ll work well together. Martin’s been super-fast the last couple of years and I’m looking forward to learning from him and sharing some information and learning things from him that he’s learned over his entire racing career and trying to get better and trying to improve.”

While Jones has competed at Daytona before, it was just in the Xfinity car and truck series. The Cup cars are now different than when he filled in for Busch in 2015.

“It’s challenging just because you don’t know, but still different so it’s exciting,” Jones said. “They’ve changed the Cup cars quite a bit. They’ve pulled a ton of downforce off of them during the past couple of years and that’s made them drive a lot different. When I went and tested at Kansas late last year and at Phoenix earlier this year, they do drive a lot different. They’re a lot more off throttle time, obviously a lot slower in the corners and just more challenging to drive overall.

“I’ve had to relearn some of the things I thought I knew about these cars, definitely really can’t take what I did experience in 2015 and apply it to this year. It’s going to be a pretty clean slate for every track you go to.”

Truex and two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip have high praise for Jones.

“Erik is a talented driver,” Truex said. “He’s been really fast in everything he’s been in. That’s a good thing. You know, I think bringing in some new people, I think they’ve really assembled a really good team over there, and really the more people, strong, smart people you have in an organization, the stronger you can hopefully be. We’ll see how it all works out, but I’m excited about working with Erik.”

Waltrip said, “I think Erik is going to be a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner this year.”

Jones will be working with crew chief Chris Gayle. They worked together for 12 races during the 2015 Xfinity Series while competing for JGR.

Jones is thrilled to be getting the chance to be competing full-time on NASCAR’s big stage.

“Yeah, for me I’m happy to be a part of it,” Jones said. “I remember 10 years ago I was racing quarter midgets back home in Michigan, and all of us wanted to be Cup drivers someday. We all had dreams of racing in NASCAR and racing at the top level.

“It’s neat to be part of that group of young guys (21-year-old Chase Elliott, 25-year-old Daniel Suarez), hopefully come in and fill that gap with some of the stars that have retired from the sport in the last couple of years. I think we’re all hoping we can make our mark and fill that hole there.”

And, come Sunday Jones hopes to stay out of trouble and be in contention for a top 10 finish.

“The main goal, No. 1 is to finish the race and that’s not always the easiest thing to do at Daytona,” Jones said. “As long as we can finish the race I think a top-10 would be a great day for us, a top-5 even better. We want to run well, want to run up front and we’re definitely capable of doing that. We saw that last year with Martin contending for the win and we’ll try for that same performance.

“Daytona is kind of a wild card for us. You never really know how things play out here at the end of the day. As long as you’re in it for the last 20 laps, you’ve got a great shot at a win so our goal is to make it there and give ourselves a chance.” DavidGoricki