The odds were against Erik Jones making the finish at Pocono Raceway.
He was told he needed to save two laps of fuel — at a 2.5-mile track. Then the Gander RV 400 went into overtime. Oh, also, saving fuel is not something Jones has ever considered himself good at doing.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I’ve been running out of fuel since I was in trucks.”
But Jones did get his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota across the finish line, finishing right behind teammate Denny Hamlin as the race runnerup for a season-best result as well as a third-straight top-three finish.
“I told them I can’t save two laps; but then you start to save, and we all know how to do it, it’s just a matter of — it’s frustrating as a driver,” said Jones. “You’re losing spots, and you’re slowing down, and people are running you down. You know you have a fast car, but you’re trying to save all that fuel.
“It’s hard to really know from my view. I can’t see the whole race, how things are playing out, how much fuel everyone else has; so that’s the tough part about saving fuel: keeping up with everything that’s going on, keeping pace with what’s happening around you.”
When Kyle Busch pitted, it gave Jones — who was saving fuel already — the lead with 17 laps to go. But knowing they were short, crew chief Chris Gayle and the team said it couldn’t hurt to get behind Hamlin and draft for as long as possible. Then Jones fell to third behind another teammate, Martin Truex Jr., before losing yet another spot to Kevin Harvick.
After a caution with eight laps to go, Jones charged back to the runner-up spot. Then the caution flew with four laps to go to set up overtime. Making it to the white flag, Jones said the gloves were off at that point in trying to get the win.
“When it was still green, I was hoping they would all run out, and that was my only opportunity with having to save as much as I was,” he said. “Then the caution came out. Looking back on it, it’s like, man, wish we would have just run hard because if we ran hard we weren’t going give up the lead and we would have been in the lead on the restart — probably wouldn’t have given up the lead there, either.
“It’s easy to look back and say I would do that different, but at the time that was our best opportunity.”
Not making the finish would have been disastrous for Jones. Fighting to make the playoffs, he entered the weekend 28 points above the cutline and bagged points in both stages early in the day.
In the last four races, Jones has earned 143 points (including scoring an exact 43 points in each of the last three races at Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Pocono). The points grab jumps him from 18th to 13th in the standings.
“If we have a day where we run out of fuel because we’re trying to push and get a win and we don’t make it, that’s a pretty bad day,” Jones said the Pocono strategy “We finish 25th coming down to get fuel and lose all these points we’ve gained here the last month. We’re in a spot now we’re almost a race up on the cutoff line which is a good feeling, and it took a long time to get there, so we don’t really want to give it up all at once.”
All that’s left to do is win, and Jones feels confident that can happy anytime between now and the end of the season.
“Bristol is an easy one to say, but I feel good about all of them really,” he said. “I feel good about Watkins Glen, Michigan — all these places we’ve run good at. I know we can win any of them. It’s just a matter of doing it. Even Indianapolis — we finished second there last year. Just got to do it, that’s all.
“We’ve come and done everything we can but win a race here the last month, so we just got to close it out and get one done.”