Erik Jones could – and should – have won a race before last Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Winning in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series just isn’t as easy as some make it out to be: something Jones found out during his 2017 rookie campaign.
“It was a real big letdown leaving Bristol last year. It’s all Bristol,” crew chief Chris Gayle said. “That’s the one where we led the most laps, thought we had a shot to win it, and then Kyle [Busch] nipped us there at the end. That was the one we thought, OK, this one just got away from us.
“He was down for a little bit, but you’ve kind of got to… this racing thing, you’ve got to move on really quickly, have a short term memory. Move on.”
A win did not happen for Jones last year despite how well he performed, especially through the second half of the season. His overall numbers were decent, though. Jones earned 14 top-10 finishes, five top-five finishes, one pole and led a total of 310 laps. But he also failed to make the playoffs on points.
So, ahead of their sophomore season, Jones and Gayle sat down to address what went wrong last year.
“Some of it was about just maximizing our finishes,” Gayle said of the offseason meetings. “When we’ve got a 10th-place car, let’s bring that thing home 10th place. Don’t try to do more than is necessary and wind up bringing it home 25th because we tried to do more than what the car could do. And I think he’s done a great job at that [this year].”
During those conversations Gayle took responsibility for where he had led the team astray, an example being qualifying inspection. Aggressiveness on Gayle’s end resulted in the team failing to get on track a few times; a setback that Jones often felt compelled to try to overcome.
And on the flipside, things that Jones needed to do to grow, and ultimately win races, were also laid out.
“Coming into the year, my work ethic has been quite a bit higher overall,” said Jones. “I’ve really put myself to the task and went on a grind to figure out what it’s going to take to win these races from a lot of different angles.
“I think a year in the Cup Series you grow a lot. You learn so much. I never learned as much in any other series in any other year [of] racing as I did last year, and things that I learned last year are things that I’ll take with me probably for the rest of my career in NASCAR.”
Jones started off this season hot with four top-10 finishes in the first seven races and 75 laps led. Things had cooled off the last month or so; Jones admitting the team went through a rough stretch. But he still was sitting comfortably within the playoff grid inside the top 15 in points in the weeks leading up to Daytona.
Those weeks were when Gayle began to see a change in his driver. The team finished seventh at Sonoma after a terrible start to the day, when Jones suffered damage from contact then slid way down the leaderboard after going wide in Turn 11. Jones followed that up with a sixth at Chicago after qualifying ninth.
“Sonoma was a turning point for us,” Gayle recalled. “We went to Sonoma, and we were just awful last year at Sonoma. It was terrible. He didn’t feel like he knew what he needed to do, I didn’t feel like I could help him. He went to work. We did some racing school stuff there for Sonoma [this year]. We went into that weekend knowing it was going to be tough and we were going to have to battle, and the first 10 laps of that race were pretty tough.
“It could have gone either way. I thought we were going to slip back and have a bad weekend, and he kind of dug a little deeper, found something different, stopped kind of complaining, focused more on what he could do better, and we get a seventh place finish out of that. And I think that confidence carried over to Chicago.”
Jones dug just as deep in Daytona. The No. 20 arrived in victory lane bruised and battered, having fought through multiple wrecks. When it mattered most, Jones took the fight to his former teammate and defending series champion, battling Martin Truex Jr. on two late restarts before finally getting the push he needed from Chris Buescher down the backstretch to seal the win.
Jones led one lap – the most important lap of the night – to get his first career win.
“It’s definitely been a journey, but Chris has done a good job of helping me out with that,” Jones said. “I’m still only 22 years old, but definitely I would say a slightly calmer 22-year-old than I was 21-year-old. We’re still working to sand the edges a little bit, but we’re definitely getting there.”