By Rick Minter
Whenever the subject of future NASCAR stars comes up, Erik Jones’ name is one that is frequently mentioned, along with Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
Jones, who will turn 21 on May 30, first came to the attention of the NASCAR world thanks to Kyle Busch, who lost the 2012 Snowball Derby to a then-16-year-old Jones. Busch then helped Jones get hooked up with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. (The Derby, run at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, each December, is considered the most prestigious asphalt short-track race in America.)
Jones responded by winning seven races and the 2015 title in the Camping World Truck Series — and seven more races in the Xfinity Series, including one at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago. This fast start to his career earned him a ride in the Cup Series in a second car fielded by Furniture Row Racing, the Denver-based Toyota team that has an alliance with Gibbs.
Seven races into his rookie Cup team, Jones, who drives the No. 77 Toyota Camry, has one top-10 finish and is 14th in the standings. His teammate, Martin Truex Jr., has a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, three other top-10s and sits third in the standings.
So far, the Furniture Row team appears to be sailing along, even as the four drivers from the parent team, Joe Gibbs Racing, are winless for the season. Kyle Busch, in seventh place, is the only Gibbs driver in the top 10 in the points standings. The other three drivers are all behind Jones in the standings, with Denny Hamlin in 15th, Matt Kenseth at 22nd and Daniel Suarez at 23rd.
While most Cup Series drivers enjoyed the week off prior to Easter, Jones and four others — Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick, Alex Bowman and Joey Logano — were testing at Daytona International Speedway.
While in Daytona, Jones spoke with reporters about his season to date, saying he’s learning a lot and is pretty pleased with the speed his team has shown.
“I would say, performance-wise, other than last week at Texas [he finished 22nd], I’ve been really happy with where we’ve run,” Jones said. “We’ve run consistently in the top 10 at Phoenix, Fontana, Atlanta, but we just didn’t get the finishes we deserved.
“I think at Fontana and Phoenix we really had top-five cars, but things just didn’t play out at the end. Either way I look at it, we’ve done as good a job as we can, and we brought fast race cars to the track. We’re just learning more about how to execute, how to close these races out, and how to get the finishes we feel like we are capable of.”
Jones said being fast hasn’t been a problem for him and rookie crew chief, Chris Gayle. The challenge, he said, is in putting together a complete race without making rookie mistakes along the way.
“Driving the cars and getting the speed out of the cars hasn’t been too big of a deal,” he said. “It’s been more of a matter of everything else: the execution of getting on and off pit road, pit stops, strategy, everything that plays into these races.
“We’re learning more about that as a team. … We have a lot of guys on the team that are first-year Cup guys, so we’re all learning together and trying to figure it out more and more as we go.”
Jones said he’s looking forward to several of the upcoming races on the schedule, including this weekend’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee.
“Bristol is a track I feel pretty good about, as well as when we get to Charlotte next month,” he said. “There are a lot of tracks I really enjoy. Dover is one I really enjoy going to, and it’s coming up here next month, as well.
“There are a few tracks I have marked off that we’ve always been fast in the Xfinity Series, and tracks I’ve always felt pretty comfortable on.”
Jones said that despite the fact that he, Elliott and Blaney are often mentioned together as young guns of the sport, he really hasn’t communicated much with either of them, both of whom are now in their sophomore years in NASCAR’s elite divisions.
“I have to be honest with you, I don’t hang out with the other drivers too much,” he said. “I kind of do my own thing. I show up at the race track to do my job, and that’s kind of always how it’s been.
“I’ve always lived by the mentality that you bring your friends to the race track with you.”