The honeymoon phase of Erik Jones’ Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career is over. Lining up for his third full-time season in NASCAR’s top tier — and his second year as a bona fide Joe Gibbs Racing Cup driver after a rookie campaign in the Furniture Row Racing camp — Jones knows that his rookie stripes are long gone and that it’s time to shine.
“You look at what guys have done in their third year in the series, it seems like that’s the year where they hit their stride and really figure things out,” Jones says. “So, hopefully it can be the same for us.”
Jones goes back to work this season driving the No. 20 Toyota with crew chief Chris Gayle. Jones earned his first career Cup victory last summer at the restrictor plate event at Daytona International Speedway, but he’s longing for more. Much more.
“We want to win more races. I mean, we want to be a three- or four-win-a-year team,” Jones says. “We look at Kyle [Busch], eight wins last year. That’s a high goal for my third year in the Cup series. I’d love to win eight races, but if we could win two, three, four races next year, I think that’d be really solid. We want to make the playoffs again and advance. We don’t want to go out in the round of 16. We want to make it to the round of 12 and 8 and have a shot to go to Homestead.”
It’s clear that last season’s efforts still sting Jones a little bit. He says that the team changed its expectations after the Daytona win and believed that playoff advancement was more than feasible. But then Jones suffered a disastrous first round. After sitting on the pole at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the opener, Jones saw his race end when Kevin Harvick blew a tire and collected him in the crash. A modest 11th-place finish at Richmond Raceway proved worthless when Jones first destroyed his primary car in a practice crash and then got knocked around during the inaugural Roval race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He finished off the lead lap in 30th, abruptly ending his playoff bid. Jones then proceeded to score finishes of fourth, eighth and fourth in the second-round races — runs that likely would have moved him safely to the third of four playoff rounds.
“That part’s disappointing, but it is also encouraging to know that we’ve gotten our stuff better and our Camrys have been fast,” Jones says.
Of course, the garage area is filled with drivers who want just the season that Jones is describing this year. How’s that going to become a reality for the 22-year-old from Michigan? Jones is counting on a combination of his experience testing the new 2019 rules package that is making significant changes to Cup engine horsepower and car downforce along with his previous success in the similar-driving Camping World Truck Series vehicles.
“It’s gonna be really wide open and really about hustling and trying to get your cars as trimmed out as you can and taking advantage of big runs when you get ’em and making big moves on restarts,” Jones says. “I think Xfinity and Trucks, when we had a lot of downforce there, that’s where we were really able to be fast and take advantage at times. And, so I think that part will really work in my favor.”
Jones is also plotting changes to his own strategy, regardless of racing style.
“I just want to take more of what the car gives me, honestly,” Jones says. “I look at last year and I really think we probably had more speed in our cars the year before and didn’t really take advantage of it. Then we had a better season [last year] with less speed. So that’s encouraging in a way.”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 15/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)