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With JGR chapter closing, Michigan's Erik Jones faces win-and-in race in regular-season finale

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Erik Jones knows he’s auditioning for a seat in NASCAR’s 2021 season which he hopes is far different than this season has been, with the COVID-19 pandemic playing a big role.

There has been no practice, no qualifying, no fans. And, more importantly, no wins for Jones, the 24-year-old native of Byron, Michigan, which has made Saturday night’s running of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway possibly the biggest race of his short career, needing a win to make the playoffs in the Cup Series’ final regular-season event.

Car owner Joe Gibbs, the legendary former head coach of Washington's NFL team, told Jones earlier this month that his contract would not be extended, leaving him a free agent.

Erik Jones

Jones had won a race in each of the previous two seasons with JGR, putting him in the playoffs. He sits 50 points out of the final playoff spot and needs a win to get in.

Ten drivers have already won races this season and automatically earned a spot in the 16-driver field to compete for the Cup Series championship in the final 10 races, including Kevin Harvick (series-high seven wins), Jones’ JGR teammate Denny Hamlin (six) and Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski (three), who signed a contract extension with Team Penske earlier this summer.

The rest of the playoff field is made up by the drivers with the most points. Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson trails his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron by four points for the final spot.

Daytona has been a wild card race, leaving the door open for any driver to win with the restrictor plate rules in play.

Jones won the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona in 2018 and the Busch Clash this year, an exhibition race a week before the Daytona 500.

Jones also fared well at the restrictor plate race this summer at Talladega, fighting for first on the final lap when Ryan Blaney — the race winner — knocked Jones into the outside wall as the cars approached the finish line.

“I just kind of blocked, just trying to block the best we could,” Blaney said after Talladega. “Ride the top, ride the bottom. The 20 (Jones) got to my outside, and I tried to go up there to slow him down and… I’m not sure, I don’t know… three-wide, I hate that I hit him, but just kind of trying to beat and bang to the line and things like that.”

Expect the same from Jones to return the favor if he is in the same position this weekend.

“The mentality is that we have to win the race and I think, for me, we’re going to have to race for most of the day. Whether we get up in a wreck or not, sometimes you can’t prevent that. I hope that we’re there at the end to challenge for it,” Jones said. “We’ve done it before. We’ve won this race a couple of years ago. I think I know how to win on superspeedways. We had a shot to win at Talladega this year, so hopefully we get to the end of the race and have a shot to win it.”

So, how does Jones think the regular-season finale at Daytona will play out?

“I’ve actually noticed that the last few superspeedway races the guys have been more tamed for the first three-quarters of the race," Jones said. "Then the last 20 to 30 laps start to get really wild and seem to really feel like a normal superspeedway race there. 

“I feel like definitely towards the end of the race, the last 20 or 30 laps guys will start getting pretty wild, making big moves and making aggressive moves. If somebody throws a block, they’re probably not going to let that happen, probably going to start a pretty large wreck, so it will be interesting to see but I know there’s going to be a lot of aggression.”

Where is Jones’ mindset heading into a win-at-all-cost race and his final 10 races with JGR?

“I’ve obviously wanted to win this year and I feel like we’ve just not been where we need to be the last month or so, but your season is not over if you don’t make the playoffs,” Jones said. “I think we’re still capable of winning races in the playoffs even if we’re not part of it. Obviously, that’s the goal — to win and get in Saturday night, then hopefully go advance through some rounds and have strong playoffs. But I think we’re capable of winning some races if we’re in it or not. There are some great tracks to start the playoffs for us, at Darlington, Bristol and even Richmond, places we’ve been strong at the last few years.”

Jones has enjoyed success at those tracks, earning a win at Darlington last season and  finishing second at Bristol in 2017.

So, does Jones feel like he’s auditioning for a seat?

“I think you feel that pressure a little bit. You want to continue to show that you deserve to be in a top-tier ride,” Jones said. “Obviously, we’ve shown that we can win the last couple of years and make the playoffs. We’ve done that. We just need the right pieces in place and we just don’t have that right now. We haven’t been up front contending for wins at this moment. We’ve had some strong runs this year.

“I think over the last couple of years I feel like I’ve shown what I’m capable of and what I can do in the Cup Series. There’s a lot of things that I want to do still in the Cup Series and things that I want to be in a top-tier ride to do, so obviously winning would help that. Toward the end of the year here we’d love to win a couple of races and kind of raise that stock up a little bit more here. There are still rides out there and opportunities out there that I want to go and meet about and have opportunities to be in, so any time you can win a race it doesn’t hurt that.”

No doubt, there will be quality seats available for Jones.

First, there is the No. 48 Chevrolet that will be open with Johnson retiring after this season.

Then there’s the No. 42 Chevrolet that was left open after Kyle Larson’s racial slur during an iRacing event during the spring, which put 48-year-old Matt Kenseth as his replacement. Car owner Chip Ganassi more than likely will replace Kenseth, who has just two top-10 finishes in 21 starts. Larson had won six races in four years (2016-19) with Ganassi and had a career-best finish of sixth in the points last season.

And don’t forget that only Harvick has been signed after the 2020 season at Stewart-Haas Racing, which has made a change after each of the last four seasons. In addition to Harvick, Aric Almirola has also enjoyed a strong season — 14 top-10 finishes and five top-fives — with 22-year-old rookie Cole Custer also in the playoffs with a win at Kentucky.

With that in mind, 41-year-old Clint Bowyer would be the lone Stewart-Haas driver in jeopardy of not getting an extension. He has finished no higher than ninth in points in his four years since replacing car owner Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Ford and owns just two wins in 133 races with the organization. Bowyer has clinched a playoff spot but has just seven top-10 finishes in 25 starts.

Erik Jones has eight top-10 finishes, including five top-fives, in 25 NASCAR Cup Series races this season.

Sure, Jones would like to just be concentrating on winning races, but his focus has also been on seeing what’s available for his future.

“I’ve been burning up the phone more in the last two or three weeks since I found out that I wasn’t going to be back with JGR. I'm just trying to work on opportunities and find out what’s out there for next year because I didn’t have really an inkling that I was going to be in that spot,” Jones said. “I guess that’s probably more what I’ve been focused on right now, which is unfortunate because I want to be focused on racing 100% and be able to do what I need to do there to go and be competitive each and every week. I’ve been putting in the time as well, but it definitely seems like it’s been split more to the side of me working on opportunities for next year.”

Jones got an unexpected text from Joey Logano earlier this month. Logano was fired by Gibbs at a similar age, then went on to have tremendous success with Team Penske.

After his four-year career with JGR expired in 2012, the 30-year-old Logano has competed for Team Penske the last eight years, winning a Cup championship in 2018 and finishing second in 2016.

“It was actually really cool. I never had really talked to Joey too much over the last few years and really didn’t know him,” Jones said. “He reached out after the Michigan race weekend (Aug. 8-9) and just shot a quick text and said, ‘Hey, I kind of know what you’re going through,’ and I asked him if we could go grab lunch. In this situation for me I’m just talking to as many people as I can, just trying to get different sides of it and see what they know and what they went through and how they would do it and just getting a lot of different opinions.

“Joey and I met that week and it was a good chat. We sat there for an hour and kind of talked about what he went through at JGR. Obviously he got moved on from JGR as well at around the same age that I was and had to find a different opportunity, so it was really interesting to hear kind of what he went through and what changed for him. Obviously, he went from not being 100% competitive where he wanted to be at JGR to being obviously a champion after he left. I kind of wanted to know what switched for him and what really clicked for him after he left. It was an enlightening conversation. I thought I learned a lot from him and what he went through and thought I can apply a lot of things and learned a lot from him in just that short amount of time. It was a lot of support.”

Jones is not bitter with his departure with JGR, but it will more than likely put an end to his eight-year relationship with Toyota since Hendrick and Ganassi compete in Chevrolets and Stewart-Haas in Fords.

“I’m not bitter because it’s racing, it’s business and racing is kind of a funny sport and I’ve been in it long enough to understand how it works,” Jones said. “I started racing in NASCAR in 2013 in the truck series and had a great opportunity with Kyle (Busch), came up to JGR in 2014, '15 part-time and then ’16 full-time Xfinity, and then in the Cup Series with Furniture Row and then JGR, so I’ve had a lot of great years and they have done a lot for me.

“I don’t really bring much with me. I don’t bring money to the Cup Series or sponsorship to the Cup Series. I’ve been fortunate for the last four years to race in the Cup Series with them and to be able to do that. It’s a great foundation. You can’t look back and be bitter about it. It’s somebody that gave you an opportunity like that. I’m not bitter at all. It is like it is at this point, just a chapter in the book and hopefully we can start writing another one."

NASCAR Cup Series

COKE ZERO SUGAR 400

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Daytona International Speedway, 160 laps, 400 miles

TV: NBC

Last year's winner: Justin Haley (Spire Motorsports)

david.goricki@detroitnews.com