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Erik Jones: 2018 NASCAR Season Driver Preview

Erik Jones

Erik Jones

With last season’s Rookie of the Year honors in his pocket, Erik Jones officially moves to Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota for the 2018 NASCAR season with a strut in his step after thriving in 2017 at JGR-partner Furniture Row Racing as driver of the No. 77 Toyota. 

“We went from a team that was starting up and trying to run in the top 10 to a team that I felt like for a stretch was contending for wins week in and week out,” Jones says. “That was really big to us, that was really big for Furniture Row and that was really big for me.”

Jones came the closest to a win last season at Bristol Motor Speedway in August. He led a race-high 260 laps in the 500-lap night race but lost the lead when Kyle Busch passed him with 56 laps to go. It’s one of those what-could-have-been moments for Jones that he says will pop into his mind at random and leave him wondering what else he should have done to win the race.

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“You try to think back on obviously what you could’ve done different, but I also try to remember just how good of a weekend it was for us,” Jones says. “Getting our first pole in the Cup Series was a huge moment for us, then contending. I mean we led 200 and something laps — that was great.”

A win at Bristol would have given Jones a playoff berth last season. He now takes aim at his first postseason bid in the No. 20 Toyota after replacing veteran Matt Kenseth in a move motivated by sponsorship dollars. The odds of Jones making the playoffs look good: Just one full-time JGR driver (Daniel Suarez as a rookie last season) has missed the postseason over the last four years.

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“The 20 car has a history of running well and performing well,” Jones says. “Obviously Matt had a good season, was able to win a race at Phoenix late in (2017). I think there is some pressure going into that role, but at the end of the day I think you have to be your own driver and make your own legacy.”

The 21-year-old Jones arrives in the prime JGR ride with three seasons of national series work in NASCAR plus the trophy from the 2015 Camping World Truck Series championship. He says his season at Furniture Row — with less stress that allowed him to mature as a teammate to Martin Truex Jr. — helped him prepare for the No. 20 role.

“I think if you would’ve put me in (the No. 20) at the beginning of (last) year, it probably would’ve been a lot,” Jones says. “I honestly enjoyed my year over at Furniture Row, just kind of getting to know everything about the Cup Series and really with the new group it was kind of a ride for all of us.”

Jones says that last season changed him “quite a bit” as a driver. He started off the season driving too aggressively, he says, in a Cup car that featured an aerodynamic configuration that was new for him. Over time, he found a more conservative style. “Once I just settled in and let the car do the work, take what it’s giving me, I think the finishes really came along with that,” Jones says.

With that learning curve behind him, Jones is aiming to make the playoffs and win a couple of races this season. He looks most forward to Phoenix in the season’s fourth event as a spot where he can really shine early. Crew chief Chris Gayle is making the jump with Jones from Furniture Row to JGR.

“We were all learning and growing together,” Jones says. “Now I’m stepping into a team where I feel like we’re all a little bit more settled in and know what we need to do to be competitive in these races every week.”