Michigan's Erik Jones aims to complete 'ultimate goal' in return to MIS
Michigan native Erik Jones is in need of a win this weekend when he heads home to compete in the NASCAR Cup Series doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway, with six races left before the playoffs begin.
The FireKeepers Casino 400 is Saturday and the Consumers Energy 400 is set for Sunday. The races will be run without fans in the stands or watching from the infield due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jones, who is in the final year of his contract while driving the No. 20 Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing, sits 18th in points. He would be on the outside looking in at the playoffs — the final 10 races of the season — if the season ended today.
Ten drivers have won races this season to lock themselves in one of the 16 playoff spots, including Austin Dillon and rookie Cole Custer, who were outside the top 16 when they won their race. Custer is currently 19th in the standings and Dillon is 16th.
Jones, 24, has 453 points and is 31 points behind William Byron, who holds the final playoff spot.
“It’s always fun to come back to Michigan and race,” said Jones, who became the first driver to win Rookie of the Year honors in all three NASCAR national series — the Camping World Truck Series in 2015, Xfinity Series in 2016 and Cup Series in 2017.
“I look forward to that every time. Michigan has been a good track for us overall. We’ve had some good runs and some bad runs like any place, but I always look forward to going there. Being home and having a shot to win at the home track is always cool. I’d love to go there and obviously be able to win one would be the ultimate goal.
“It’s a tough place to win at. I think it’s kind of a different story every time you go there, but you have to have a really fast car. It’s a fast track, a tough track. Michigan is starting to widen out finally, so you can start to move around a little more which is fun, gives you different options. Hopefully we’ll have a fast car, get out front and get ourselves a win.”
Jones’ best finish at MIS in the Cup Series was his rookie year while driving for Furniture Row Racing, finishing third in the August race, his lone top-10 finish at the two-mile superspeedway.
No doubt, Jones wants to continue driving for Joe Gibbs.
“I’ve started to have some really, really good talks with JGR so it’s been going good so far. Nothing really to report yet, but I feel we’re moving in the right direction,” said Jones, who signed a one-year extension last year for the 2020 season.
“I’ll take what’s given, but I wouldn’t be opposed to a multi-year deal. I feel like I’ve had a good home with JGR for a few years and I think we’ve built really well around what we’ve got, and hopefully continue to build around that and get stronger and stronger. I want to stay at JGR for sure.”
Jones had a win in the July race at Daytona to earn a playoff spot in his first year with JGR in 2018, then won at Darlington, two races after the MIS race, in August last season to get in the playoffs.
Jones has finished sixth or better in four of the last nine races. He placed fifth at Talladega, where he was challenging Ryan Blaney for a win in the last lap, and third at Pocono.
In an interview with The News last week, Jones said he feels he can get in the playoffs and just needed to get strong finishes, preferably in the top five. But that was prior to last Sunday’s race at New Hampshire when he finished 24th. He was 18 points behind Byron before New Hampshire and fell 13 more points behind since Byron finished 11th.
It hasn’t helped that Jones and the rest of the drivers in the series haven’t had practice sessions or qualifying runs like in past years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s definitely tough. You have to work really hard in simulation, trying to get things right before you unload," Jones said. "Obviously the first laps on the race track are in the race so it’s unique, it’s definitely different than anything we’ve ever done before.
“I think we’ve done a good job as a group and as a team unloading really well and unloading really close, so we have to keep doing it. You have to unload the best you can and with no practice you don’t have any time to work on any errors or any bugs. That’s what makes it tough.”
So, Jones does feel he can make the playoffs without a win?
“I don’t know that we feel we have to have a win yet. I think with top-fives and if we can get good points we can get in, but if we have another mistake or a bad week we’ll definitely be in a position where we got to win which is not easy," Jones said before his 24th place finish at New Hampshire. "But I feel we have a couple of race tracks for us where we can win at.
“We’ve had 10 different winners. It's so competitive where you see a lot different drivers and teams be fast each and every week, which has not always the norm for NASCAR. It’s seems like right now you never really know who is going to be fast, so it’s been a lot different, kind of odd to see who has been up front and winning these races. You can’t really predict going into the weekend who is going to be fast.”
The NASCAR Cup Series got back to racing in mid-May after a 10-week break due to the pandemic. It has scheduled multiple race weeks at a single track, starting with a Sunday-Wednesday event at Darlington and continuing at Charlotte the following week.
“It’s not only tough on us as drivers, but it’s tough on the team, trying to get cars ready and not have any issues, running these races back-to-back and having a jammed pack schedule,” Jones said. “It’s hard on everybody trying to get stuff ready for back-to-back racing.
“I’ve enjoyed the doubleheader at Pocono and we have a couple coming up at Michigan and Dover, so I’m looking forward to those. I think we can do more going forward.”
Denny Hamlin joins defending series champion Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Jones to give JGR a chance to win every time the team takes the track.
Hamlin has a series-high five wins this season while Truex owns one and Busch finds himself in a rare position of still searching for his first win of the season. However, Busch is still sitting comfortably in the playoff race with 563 points due to his eight top-five finishes in the 20 races.
Busch had four wins in his first 14 races last season and five victories in his first 17 starts in 2018.
After finishing second to Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski at New Hampshire, Hamlin said in a post-race Zoom call: “I think everyone at JGR would say that we’ve got to get a little bit faster. I think we get our cars a little faster, you’ll see better results from all of our teammates.”
NASCAR Cup Series
FIREKEEPERS CASINO 400
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Michigan International Speedway, 156 laps, 312 miles
Last year's winner: Joey Logano (Team Penske)
CONSUMERS ENERGY 400
When: Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
Where: Michigan International Speedway, 156 laps, 312 miles
Last year's winner: Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing)