There’s pressure building for Erik Jones this season — fairly or unfairly.
On one hand, Jones starts his fourth season as a NASCAR Cup Series driver with two wins and two playoff appearances to his name. He’s a former Gander Outdoors Truck Series champion (2015), and he scored nine wins in the Xfinity Series. This May, he’ll reach his 24th birthday — an age that suggests that Jones’ best years as a driver remain ahead.
But on the other hand, Jones drives for Joe Gibbs Racing at an exceptionally dominant moment in its history. His teammates (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.) combined to win 18 races and claimed three of the four spots for the highest-finisher-take-all final round of the playoffs — and Busch, of course, won the 2019 title. They did all of that while Jones languished, finishing dead last in the playoffs with a DNQ at Richmond Raceway to boot.
And there’s another issue. Just two seasons ago, it was Jones’ success that forced the hand of JGR and Toyota officials when it came to finding the young Michigan native an open seat in the Cup Series. They had managed to open a second seat at Furniture Row Racing in 2017 to give Jones a Cup opportunity, but the financials of that didn’t work for the 2018 season. That reality left longtime veteran Matt Kenseth on the sidelines and mostly retired as Jones filled his spot.
Now, Christopher Bell is the new Jones. Impressive success in Xfinity and Truck equipment pushed Toyota to find a seat for Bell this season with its new technical partner Leavine Family Racing. Much like Jones in 2017, it’s hard to see how that’s more than just a temporary solution, provided Bell acclimates well to the Cup Series. And it’s tough to see how any one of Busch, Hamlin or Truex would be easily displaced for the 2021 season.
Jones, though, isn’t showing signs of stress — just like he wasn’t when the announcement of his contract extension for this season failed to materialize until the first week of September. Jones signed a one-year extension and appears to enjoy robust sponsor support.
It certainly didn’t hurt Jones to score a major win in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway last season. He won that race five days before the official announcement of his one-year extension to cap a summer stretch during which Jones collected seven top-5 finishes in 14 races. But what followed the Darlington win — four straight finishes of 36th or worse (including the Richmond penalty that erased a fourth-place finish) — is an example of the inconsistency he and the No. 20 team have shown so far in Cup.
“I don’t think we have huge leaps to make to get where we want to be,” Jones says. “We just have to do a little bit of everything a little bit better. And that stems to every part of the team. There are things I can do better, things [crew chief] Chris [Gayle] can do better, things the pit crew can do better. Everybody has to be on the same page.”
Part of that certainly is luck, especially in the first round of the playoffs. Jones suffered a transmission issue in the opener at Las Vegas and was knocked out in a crash on the Charlotte road course.
“The last two years in the playoffs, just the Round of 16, it’s been our Achilles heel in a way,” Jones says. “So [this] year making the playoffs again obviously is the goal and then making it out of that round. I feel like we could be just fine once we get past [the first round].”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 18/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)