Michigan native Erik Jones couldn’t find a better place for him to return to racing when the NASCAR Cup Series gets back to competition Sunday at Darlington Raceway after being pushed to the sidelines for more than two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After all, the 23-year-old Jones had enjoyed tremendous success at Darlington, where he won last season to secure a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs last season. He also finished fifth at the speedway during his rookie season in 2017 while driving for Furniture Row Racing and eighth during his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018.
And Jones will definitely be ahead of the competition for Sunday’s race at Darlington, which is nicknamed "The Track Too Tough to Tame," since there will be no practice or qualifying prior to the race. The 400-mile race will be televised live by Fox at 3:30 p.m. and run without fans on site.
NASCAR will be center stage with the rest of the sports world still on the sidelines due to the pandemic.
“I’m ready to go and glad that it’s finally happening this weekend,” Jones said from his home outside of Charlotte, North Carolina on Tuesday afternoon. “Darlington has been a really good track for us my whole Cup career. Since '17 we’ve run really well there, and finally capped it off with a win there last year. I feel good about it.
“There’s not many other places I would pick to go racing at, so it worked out really well and it gives you a lot of confidence. It’s an interesting situation since we don’t have any practice or qualifying this weekend, so at least going to a track where you have really strong notes and have good confidence in your ability there makes you feel that much better going into the race weekend.”
The drivers will have a second race at the 1.33-mile oval track on May 20 (7:30 p.m., FS1). They will then move on to Charlotte Motor Speedway where they will compete in the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 (6 p.m., Fox) before staying on at the 1.5-mile quad oval track to battle in the 500 km race on May 27 (8 p.m., FS1).
“There’s going to be some sore race car drivers,” Jones said of the four races in 11 days. “As much as you want to stay in shape there’s some muscles that you really can’t work out that when you get in the race car get used. So getting back after two months, that’s a long time and you’re going to be feeling it the next day.
“You’ll get conditioned pretty quick with all these races we’re going to be doing coming up. I think we’re all going to get back into good racing shape pretty fast. It’s going to be tough physically, mentally. It’s tough for the drivers and it’s tough for the crews, too. Getting the race cars ready to go in that short amount of time in between races is not an easy task. It’s going to be tough, but I think we all know it will be worth it in the end.”
The Cup Series held four races before being halted by the virus with Team Penske driver Joey Logano owning wins at Las Vegas and Phoenix in his Ford Mustang and trailing points leader Kevin Harvick (Ford) of Stewart-Haas Racing by a point. Harvick is the lone driver to have top-10 finishes in all four races.
Denny Hamlin — Jones’ JGR teammate — won the season-opening Daytona 500 in a Toyota with Alex Bowman (Chevrolet) winning at Fontana, California. Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski — Logano’s teammate — sits 10th in the points and owns a win at Darlington back in 2018.
Jones has one top-10 finish and sits 21st in points, but he hopes to change all that this weekend where things could get interesting with Ryan Newman making his return after missing three races following his horrific crash at Daytona. Matt Kenseth also returns to the series after last racing in 2018, taking over the No. 42 Chevrolet Camaro left open when Kyle Larson lost his seat with Ganassi Racing after a racial slur during an iRacing event last month.
“It’s great to see Ryan back,” Jones said. “We were all really worried at Daytona and thinking the worse when that wreck happened. To see him pull through that and walk out of the hospital just a few days later and now be able to race after only missing three races is incredible. I’m going to be happy to just have him back on the track. I know he was really wanting to get back in the race car again so that’s cool to see.
“And, Matt, yes that’s going to be interesting coming out of retirement. I don’t think that any of us saw any of that situation unfolding and Matt coming out and getting back in the race car. It will be interesting since Matt has never run this package, so he’ll have a learning curve kind of at the start of Darlington with no practice. It will be interesting for him to get a feel for things.”
Jones actually replaced Kenseth, who won the Cup championship in 2003 for Roush Racing, in the No. 20 for JGR following the 2017 season.
So does Jones have any worries with the series returning?
“I feel good about it. I don’t think we would have went back racing unless we really felt like we had a good plan in place and NASCAR had a good plan in place," Jones said. "They really over the last two months have been working to put this plan in place to get us back to the race track, and I feel like we’re finally at a spot now where we can safely do it.
“There’s a lot of protocols at the track that will be going on to keep us safe between pre-screening, post-event screening. The drivers are going to be really isolated, the crew members are going to be very limited (16-member teams, including driver, owner and crew chief), so everything we can do to be safe we’re going to be doing. I don’t have any questions as far as our safety going to the race track at this point.”
The series was supposed to make its first of two stops at Michigan International Speedway on June 7, but NASCAR has yet to talk about its schedule past Charlotte.
“They’ve really only given us the schedule for the next two weeks, Darlington and Charlotte,” Jones said. “I think they are putting a plan together right now for what we’re going to do after. It’s a state-by-state basis and kind of what their rules and regulations are. I haven’t heard anything from Michigan yet. Obviously, I hope we get the chance to go up there and race if we can do it safely. We’re all waiting to hear, but I think we’re all focused on these four coming up.”
When asked what he did to keep busy while the series was suspended, Jones replied: “I actually moved right before our season got suspended, so I had a ton of landscaping projects to do around the house here and obviously just moving and unpacking stuff in the house. It gave me a lot of time to do that. I was kind of stressing that I was going to have to get that done during the season and how I was going to manage that time, so I had plenty of time to be able to get that all done and make it look nice around here.”
NASCAR Cup Series
What: NASCAR Cup Series Race at Darlington Raceway 1
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Darlington Raceway; Darlington, South Carolina