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'Up and down' season has Michigan's Erik Jones hungry for a better 2020

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season was a bumpy ride for Erik Jones.

The 23-year-old Byron, Michigan, native experienced the highs of winning the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and stringing together four consecutive top-five finishes.

Erik Jones

But he had his share of lows, with a rough stretch in the spring and a frustrating early exit in the playoffs, which included a fourth-place finish being wiped out after a post-race inspection penalty.

It all culminated with Jones placing 16th in the Cup Series standings and failing to make it out of the Round of 16 for the second straight year as a member of the high-flying Joe Gibbs Racing team.

“It was really up and down,” Jones said of his season before taking in a Michigan basketball game on Saturday. “We had some really good moments and we had some bad moments, but I think there were just too many down moments to make it a really good season. We need to have more of those up moments and more wins, more top fives, more top 10s to really make it a good season and make it really where we want to be.”

After earning Rookie of the Year honors in the Cup Series in 2017, Jones improved upon much of his final stats in 2018. He went from five top-five finishes to nine and 14 top-10s to 18. He also picked up his first Cup win in 2018 and saw his average finish improve from 17th to 14th.

Yet, much of his 2019 numbers were comparable to his 2018 totals. He had the one win at Darlington to go along with 10 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes. While his number of laps led nearly doubled compared to his first season with JGR  up to 172 from 99 — he failed to win a single pole and saw both his average starting position (14th) and finish (16th) dip four and two spots, respectively.

Still, Jones feels he is headed in the right direction with the start of 2020 season less than two months away.

“I feel like '17 to '18 to '19 we've had good improvement each year and you want to continue that trend,” said Jones, who made a "couple small personnel changes" but will have the same crew chief and engineers on his team.

“You don't want to ever slide back. I think we can continue to improve and win some more races and be in a little bit better spot. Keep that trend going and hopefully have a little bit more improvement next year.”

The 2020 season will be the third for Erik Jones with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Jones added there are plenty of lessons he can carry with him into his fourth full season in the Cup Series and third driving the No. 20 Toyota for JGR.

One of the biggest was adapting to the new rules package that was put in place last season that featured enhanced aerodynamic and engine configurations. The idea behind the changes was to bolster competition by reducing horsepower and slowing down cars on tracks larger than 1.2 miles.

“It was so much different than the one we had last year (in 2018),” Jones said. “We didn't really have a notebook for a lot of places we went to and had to really adjust. Coming back next year we'll have all those notes, so that's what's going to make it a lot easier for us is to have those notes to look back on.”

Then there’s also everything Jones was able to soak up as the overlooked member on a powerful and dominant JGR team that included Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

Busch won the Cup Series title while Truex placed second and Hamlin fourth in the final standings. The trio also combined for a staggering 18 wins and 51 top-five finishes. Each finished with at least five wins and 15 top-fives, a feat no other racer accomplished this past season.

For Jones, having Busch, Truex and Hamlin as teammates was more of a blessing than a curse.

“They're good in a way that obviously they're very successful and they're all veterans who have been doing it over 15 years,” Jones said. "They really know what's going on. There is pressure because they run so well. They all win a lot of races and they all had a shot to win the championship, but it's valuable.

“You learn from them each and every week, and not only at the race track but at the shop and how they debrief and how they go through the week. You learn every time you're hanging out around that. I think it's more valuable than it is pressure.”

But after signing a contract extension for 2020 with JGR, there’s going to be an expectation for Jones to smooth things out and take another step forward.

“The last two years we won one race each season, which is good, but we want to be a team that can go win three or four races a year,” Jones said. “I think that cements you a little more as being a top team and a top car in the (Cup) Series.

“If we go out next year and win three or four races, I think it'll be a really good season for us.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins