The Daytona 500 is done, and now it’s time to go racing at Atlanta. And Erik Jones is ready. Coming off a third place finish in Joe Gibbs Racing’s battered No. 20 Camry at NASCAR’s biggest race last Sunday night, will look to the abrasive Georgia circuit as an opportunity to reach for a higher gear.
Beginning his third year in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup ranks, the Michigan-born NASCAR Truck and Xfinity champion hopes to begin a quest that will see him up racing at the sharp end of the stock car field all the way through to Homestead-Miami in November.
Q: From the hype and madness of Daytona, to round two at Atlanta. Something of an emotional hangover for you?
ERIK JONES: It’s a big change, for sure. You know, we go from by far our biggest race of the year there at the 500, and then we go to Atlanta. It’s a big swing of things, but it’s kind of a signal – at least that’s how I look at it – of being in the new season. For some reason, and I don’t know if everybody feels this way, but when I’m at Daytona I don’t really feel like we’re in the season yet. It’s kind of its own race, even though it’s a points-paying race. Even though it’s the first race of the season, it sort of feels like its own deal. Getting to Atlanta, at least for me, I finally feel like we’re getting the season rolling.
Q: The Daytona 500 was eventful for the No. 20 team, but it worked out pretty well for you, huh?
EJ: Yeah, it worked out great at the end. We had a really fast car all through Speedweeks. Our Clash car was really good, and our 500 car was fast and drove really well, but it’s always tough to stay out of trouble there. Unfortunately, we had a fuel pressure issue while we were up front with 35 to go and that kind of put us behind. Ultimately, we ended up getting back on the lead lap and eventually got our damaged repaired from the first big crash, and I avoided the others and ended up with a third place finish. It was a great way to start the season. You don’t want to be in a deficit after Daytona, and we’ve been there the last two years, so it’s nice to start out the way we have this year.
Q: To your way of seeing things did everything become more aggressive during the last 50-something laps?
EJ: It definitely got dicey in the last 30 laps. That race always does. Everybody starts to really push and go for it, and the draft gets more aggressive, and people are making aggressive moves and trying to get up to the front. My car, it drove really well, but it was challenging to make a move. It was tougher to get big runs than it had been in the past. We were stuck a little bit in single file, but everybody was aggressive the whole race. I felt like we were all able to race pretty well and have two really solid lines, and keep it exciting throughout the day.
Q: What an amazing performance by Joe Gibbs Racing to sweep the top three positions. Was there a lot of emotion amongst the team after you guys got out of the cars?
EJ: Yeah, there was. I really couldn’t have worked out better, really. Obviously the only thing better would have been to have Martin [Truex] up there with us as well. It was pretty awesome to knock out a win for Coach Gibbs after everything he’s been through the last couple of months. And not just Coach, but the entire Gibbs family. What better way to honor J.D. than to see his team go to Victory Lane.
Q: What do you make of Atlanta Motor Speedway? Old, fast rough and the place hasn’t been paved in 22 years…
EJ: I like Atlanta. I think it’s close to being the oldest surface we go to on the schedule. That makes it tough, you know? It’s trying to find the balance of being fast at the front side of a run, and the car being there 20 to 25 laps in when you really need to make time with the tires worn out. It’s hard to find that balance; it’s ,hard to get your car to drive good on each side of the run. It seems like you either have to give something up on the backside to be good, or you have to give something up on the front side to be good the other way around. It’s been a learning experience each time we’ve been there, but it’s going to be changed up pretty good here with this new rules package. I think you’re going to see a pretty different Atlanta than what we’ve seen from the last five or 10 years now. We’ll see how it goes. I was fortunate to get to test there with the new rules package a few months back and see how everything played out.
Q: NASCAR has choked down the horsepower and spooled up the downforce and drag. Do you expect the car to be radically different?
EJ: I was able to test the car and package two times. I went to Atlanta and I went to Charlotte, and it’s a lot different. We’ve seen the last few years with the low downforce package, a lot of off-throttle time and a lot of tire wear and the pace slowing down over the course of a run. I think with less downforce, we’re probably going to see [something] more similar to a Truck race. I think the field is going to be very, very tight for probably 10 laps, and then we’ll see guys spread out a little bit more as the run goes on, and you’ll see when handling will come into play. You’ll be able to see the guys with the really good cars be able to kind of stretch it and make a difference.
Q: Compared to some of the other NASCAR circuits, do you get a real sensation of speed at Atlanta?
EJ: I do. I don’t know what it is about it, but it is really fast. Even with as old as the surface is, it’s amazing the speed we can still carry around that track on fresh tires. It’s fun as a driver. You want to feel like you’re out there really getting all you can, and Atlanta is definitely a place where it feels like you’re moving pretty good. It’s fun, and it’s neat to see how fast that place still is. It’s nice to still have that old surface. It’s been fun the last few years to run on it.
Q: You’re now into your third year of the Cup series. You’re in a top car with a top team, and the results have really been there. Can you make a genuine run at the title in 2019?
EJ: I really think we can. We’ve made some good changes on our team from the personnel standpoint and the pit crew standpoint, and have gotten things pretty much where we want them to be. I feel really confident coming into this year. I feel like I know what I need to do at each track. I’ve been everywhere on the Cup schedule at least a couple of times and feel comfortable racing with the Cup guys, you know? It takes a while to learn how to race those guys, and how these races play out, and how to manage a much longer race. I feel really good about the year. I feel like this rules package is going to benefit myself, and I feel like it’s going to benefit Joe Gibbs Racing. I’m really excited to see kind of how it’s all going to play out, and think this weekend is going to be a good signal of where our year is going to go. JGR is definitely on a roll here after the 500, and I think we can keep this going all year.
Q: Can you win on Sunday?
EJ: Yeah, I mean I don’t see why not. I think we’re going to have a big adjustment with the car. I think we’re going to learn a lot. It’s going to be a big change. We’re going to have to figure out just how far we can trim these cars out to get them fast, and we’re also going to have to figure out how to build downforce in them and make the drive well over the long runs. Nobody really knows exactly where that balance needs to be. think have a good idea of where I want to go with the car and how I want to go about the weekend. I think Chris [Gayle, crew chief] has a good idea as well, so I think we’ll have a good shot at it come Sunday.