Erik Jones was looking forward to boarding a plane Monday afternoon to head back to his home state of Michigan to have a few days to relax before this weekend’s NASCAR series race at MIS.
Jones, 22, is one of the young guns in the series and a shot of youth is needed with the departure during the last few years of such stars as Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Jones, from Byron, Michigan, is in his second season as a full-time driver in NASCAR’s ultimate series. He competed for Furniture Row last season, a teammate with Martin Truex Jr. who won the series championship.
Now, Jones is with the powerhouse team of Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Toyota while becoming teammates of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez.
“It’s been a couple of months since I’ve been home, since back in March after the race at Martinsville,” pointed out Jones who graduated from Swartz Creek High School near Flint. “I have Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday off. I have a friend of mine who has a boat on Silver Lake in Fenton and will go out there, then we’re heading to Kalitta Air on Wednesday, a drag racing team, going to check that out so it will be a full week.”
Jones just missed out on a playoff spot last year and his goal this season is to earn a spot for the right to battle for the series championship.
“There were a few new tracks I had to learn about last year and even the tracks that I had been to before in the trucks and Xfinity series was kind of a new learning experience, had to relearn how to drive at all those places and figure out how to be fast in a Cup car there so it was a big learning year for sure and this year I’m still learning obviously, you don’t have it all figured out in one year,” Jones said.
“I definitely feel a lot more comfortable going to these tracks and knowing a little bit better about what to expect from the car and how it’s going to drive and how you need to drive in the race so it’s definitely been a lot more comfortable going back this year.”
Jones finished 19th in the points last year. He is sitting 15th and would be in the 16-car field if the season ended today, but knows a win will lock him in. He has gained valuable experience while driving alongside Truex, who won Sunday at Pocono, and now the JGR crew.
“Furniture Row gave me a great opportunity last year with the new group (adding second car), but moving over to JGR has been a good experience,” explained Jones who has five top-10 finishes this season, including a season’s best finish of fourth at Texas.
“It definitely different than Furniture Row, just the way they go about things makes it a little different. Obviously, it’s a lot bigger organization. Furniture Row was a one-car team for a long time and is now back to a one car team. JGR has four cars and there’s around six or seven hundred employees so you kind of go through a different process of getting to the race track each week and it’s been fun to see all the resources at my disposal.
“All these people are obviously working to make the cars faster, but there’s also people there working to make the drivers faster and giving us what we need so that’s been fun for me to experience.”
Busch owns four wins this season and sits atop the points standings. Jones won the Camping World Truck series championship in 2015 while driving one of Busch’s trucks.
Kevin Harvick has a series-high five wins in a Ford while driving for Stewart-Haas Racing. Ford drivers have seven wins, Toyota, six and Chevrolet, one.
“I feel like Kyle is one of my better friends in the Cup series,” Jones said. “We still have a very strong relationship, still talk a lot, see him every week in the competition meetings that we have at JGR. He still helps me, still helps me grow as a driver, learn and figure things out. He shares information, things that needs learning, and figuring out the things that are making him go fast week in and week out.”
Jones is proud to be one of the young guns and his goal is to win his first career race this season which he hopes will follow with many more celebrations in Victory Lane.
“Obviously, there are a lot of talented guys that have come into this series and it’s fun to be a part of that,” Jones said. “There’s big shoes to fill with guys who have left the past few years, Carl Edwards, Gordon, Earnhardt and Stewart and we want to work hard to fill that gap.
“We have great veterans in the series now with guys like Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Denny, but we still want to come in and make a name for ourselves and hopefully carry NASCAR into the next generation.
Obviously, it’s big shoes to fill, but it’s exciting for sure to be a part of the group, and not only a part of that group but to be with a great team that has great equipment and has equipment that can win races, and that’s fun and as a driver, really all you can ask for.
“This year our goals are to make the playoffs and get that first win. We just missed on getting into the playoffs last year. We want to get that first win out of our way. I think if we get one I think there’s going to be a lot more behind it. Hopefully we can do that soon.”
Jones expects a strong run at MIS in Sunday’s Firekeepers 400. He said he had speed last year, including a podium finish (third) in the August race.
“We had a lot of speed there last year in both races, even in the June race, just had a loose wheel which derailed our day,” recalled Jones. “We were very, very fast when we came back in that second race so we’re just hoping to carry that speed again.”
NASCAR at MIS
FireKeepers Casino 400
When: 2 p.m., Sunday
Support races: ARCA Series, 5:30 p.m., Friday; NASCAR Xfinity Series LTi Printing 250, 1:30 p.m., Saturday