A season of potential finally came to fruition for Erik Jones in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, and what a relief it was.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Jones said in the media center just after 2 a.m. Monday morning. “We want to win more, and there’s races throughout the year I thought we could have won. We probably could have won at Bristol two weeks ago, and I made a mistake there. But I guess we made up for it all right tonight.”
For those who haven’t given much thought to Jones and his No. 20 team recently, let’s recap. Two months ago, Jones and company were the other Joe Gibbs Racing group. The only one who hadn’t yet won a NASCAR Cup Series race or made much noise in general, his results resembling the lines on a heart rate monitor. In fact, Jones wasn’t in even in a playoff position as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series made its return visit to Daytona in early July.
Daytona was where Jones declared he’s driving the fastest cars he’s had in his brief Cup Series career. It was also Daytona where he laid out the team’s goal to make the postseason. But Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle haven’t just talked the talk, they’ve been walking in the walk.
In the seven races leading into Darlington, Jones took himself from 18th to 14th in the standings, earning a total of 230 points. So, it wasn’t necessarily surprising that Jones was in the position he was at Darlington. No fluke he was in contention to accomplish the only thing left on the checklist.
When put in a position to contend for the lead, Jones took it. He fought for it when challengers arose, such as back-and-forth swapping of the race lead with Kyle Larson off the final restart. In Darlington, Jones added another 79 laps led to season’s tally and the victory gave him his fifth top-five finish in the last seven races (dating back to Daytona).
“It’s just a tough series,” continued Jones. “We’re in the most challenging motorsports there are in the USA, and racing these guys every week is not an easy feat, and Kyle (Busch) and my teammates are some of the best guys in the sport, not only Kyle but Denny (Hamlin), Martin (Truex). They’re tough to beat, and they have the same stuff I have, and vice versa, I have the same stuff they have, but they have a wealth of experience on me. So, I’m trying to do everything I can and apply everything I’ve learned in three years, and it took every ounce tonight; I was pedaling hard at the end doing what I could trying to get a gap and keep them behind me.
“It was fun. I felt really calm, honestly, the majority of the race, and especially the last 80 laps. I felt like I was really in control and really knew what I was doing, and there was a couple points down the backstretch it was like, ‘Well, why can’t we win it? There’s no reason we can’t, so just close it out and do it.’”
It’s been a bit frustrating for Jones, no doubt. All three of his teammates have four wins each and are veterans of the series. Jones, who easily found success in Trucks where he won a championship in his first season and in Xfinity where he won six races in two years, is still finding his way in Cup, trying to be a consistent presence in the series.
“I was really fortunate to race with really good teams and have really good cars all the way from when I was 16 until I was 20 years old and got in the Cup Series and won a lot of races in a short amount of time,” he said. “It’s not bragging by any means, it’s just I was really fortunate. I had good stuff. You get to the Cup Series and you think you’re Superman, it’s going to be really easy, and I never necessarily put the work in growing up through the ranks — just kind of did it and took advantage of the good cars.
“You get to this level, and it’s not like that — it’s the biggest challenge I’ve had in life, probably. Trying to get to the same level that Martin and Denny and Kyle are at is not easy. It takes a lot of time. You want to expedite that process, but sometimes there’s no other lesson than the hard knocks. You have them along the way, and I feel like tonight that last 80 laps was a synopsis of three years. Everything I had learned in three years was used in that 80 laps, as far as the aero and trying to run lanes and hold them up and watching where they were going and being patient, knowing when to go hard. Just so many things you’re thinking about and processing.
“It’s interesting to look back; for me, the last 80 laps are kind of blurry. I can’t remember a lot of it just because you’re focused, you’re doing what you’re trained to do. I’ve been trained since I was seven years old to drive a race car left, and when you’re that locked in, sometimes things just happen, and that’s how I felt.”
If there’s such a thing as peaking at the right time, Jones is on position to do so. Win in hand, Jones knows, for sure, that he is playoff-bound and his summer momentum has yet to let up. His potential might not have been seen early in the year, but don’t be caught off guard if the relief Jones feels now turns into confidence that carries him deep into the postseason.