Long Pond, Pa. — Erik Jones started the season on the hot seat for Joe Gibbs Racing. Now, 21 races into the season, he is on a hot streak for the best team in NASCAR and making an easy case for a new contract.
With five races left before NASCAR sets the playoff field, Jones is close to clinching a spot in the 16-driver lineup on points, though he is still looking for a win that would guarantee him a shot at a championship.
Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Sunday’s Pocono Raceway winner, Denny Hamlin, are the elite stars that make JGR the class of NASCAR. The 23-year-old Jones, could wiggle his way into the conversation should he find his way into victory lane.
Jones, who hails from Byron, Michigan, was runner-up in the No. 20 Toyota to Hamlin at Pocono, and finished third each of the previous two races at Kentucky and New Hampshire. Jones has scored eight of his 11 top-10 finishes since early May to move up to 13th in the standings. Nine drivers have clinched a playoff spot with wins and Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney and William Byron would need disastrous finishes to miss the playoffs. Jones, Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman hold the final spots, with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson on the outside nipping at the fringe contenders.
Jones plans to make it a four-driver class for JGR in the playoffs.
“We’re doing great building points, but it would be great to knock a win out,” he said. “We’re just so close, it stings a little bit more when you get close to it.”
His seven top-five finishes so far are three shy of last year’s total, though he won his only career Cup race in July 2018 at Daytona. He failed to advance out of the first round of the playoffs and finished 15th.
Jones opened this season with a third-place finish in the Daytona 500 before falling into a funk: four straight races where he failed to finish better than 13th. He ended that skid with a fourth at Texas, only to finish 14th or worse over the next three races.
The pressure for better results was mounting — JGR has prized prospect Christopher Bell stashed in the second-tier Xfinity Series, thirsty for an open seat. Gibbs has no mercy when it comes to dumping drivers (including Joey Logano, Daniel Suarez, Matt Kesenth) when the next big thing comes along.
Gibbs said the organization is working on a new deal for Jones.
“I just say this, there’s sponsors involved, so many relationships involved, you’re trying to get through all that and work it all out,” Gibbs said. “I think honestly that’s part of Erik’s world. It doesn’t go easy sometimes. He knows. I keep him updated, we do. He knows we’re working as hard as we can. Hopefully, it will be one of those things will get put in place here pretty quick.”
JGR has since formed an alliance with Leavine Family Racing and could Bell in the No. 95 Toyota next season. A deal could be worked to get Bell in a second Leavine car, but expansion might stretch the small team too much. Bell could also just replace driver Matt DiBenedetto, who has three top-10s in his last six races.
Jones raced his rookie season in 2017 on a one-year loaner contract to Gibbs’ sister team, the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing. He and crew chief Chris Gayle have since hit on a formula that has pushed them close to a checkered flag. Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman had three straight runner-up finishes in one stretch this season before he finally broke through and won at Chicagoland. Sometimes in racing, getting so close is a sure sign a win is on the horizon.
“We all know with young guys, Denny has been there, drivers have been there, once they get it, it can be something special for them,” Gibbs said. “I think Erik is right on the verge. I know for everybody at that race team, we’re all excited about Erik and his future, doing everything we can to kind of get everything in place to make sure we have him taken care of.”
A new chief
Out of a playoff spot, seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is moving on to another new crew chief.
Hendrick Motorsports on Monday replaced Kevin Meendering, who is from Grand Rapids, with Cliff Daniels, will be atop the pit box for Sunday’s road course race at Watkins Glen International in New York.
Johnson won seven championships with crew chief Chad Knaus over 17 years before they were split up after last season. Meendering failed to steer Johnson into victory lane, and the former champ is 12 points out of the 16-driver playoff field with five races left before the cutoff.
Johnson, 43, has 83 career wins but none since June 2017 at Dover and is mired in the longest losing streak of his career. Johnson finished 15th in the No. 48 Chevrolet on Sunday at Pocono Raceway. He has just three top-five finishes this season and eight top 10s.
“We have great confidence in Cliff’s ability to win races with Jimmie and the team,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “He’s a natural leader and tremendously talented from both a technical and communication standpoint. Cliff’s familiarity with Jimmie and the No. 48 team culture will benefit us a ton. He will bring the spark that’s been our missing ingredient.”
The 31-year-old Daniels was Johnson’s race engineer on the 2016 championship team. He moved into Hendrick Motorsports’ competition systems group following the 2018 season and rejoined the No. 48 team as race engineer last month at Sonoma Raceway, a sign that a shakeup could be looming.
“Cliff has really shined since he came back to the 48,’” Johnson said. “When he returned, there was an immediate change in the team dynamic that all of us felt. We’ve worked together for a long time, have a ton of mutual respect and a shared vision. I have no doubt the strong connection and working relationship is going to pay dividends right away.”
Meendering will remain with Hendrick Motorsports in a senior competition role.
Johnson and Knaus won their record-tying seventh championship in 2016. Johnson hasn’t been much of a factor over the last three seasons and was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in 2018. Johnson and Knaus were partnered in 2002 when Knaus built the No. 48 team as part of a Hendrick expansion and made the playoffs in all 15 years of its existence.
Knaus is the crew chief for Hendrick driver William Byron this season.
Consumers Energy 400
When: 3 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 11
Where: Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn
Support race: NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Corrigan Oil 200, Saturday, Aug. 10, 1 p.m.