Erik Jones has one job Sunday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway: win.
In a 45-point deficit going into the postseason’s first elimination race, Jones, the last driver on the playoff grid, and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing group need to win the Bank of America Roval 400. Just win. Nothing else matters after his Camry failed post-race inspection following a fourth-place finish last weekend in Richmond, and he earned only one point for competing in the event.
“It won’t be easy; the only good thing for us is that stage points don’t matter,” Jones said of his position. “Stage points aren’t going to get us in, so we can play strategy whichever way we need to get ourselves up front. We’ve seen you can get up front and contend. The 12 (Ryan Blaney) last year got up there and put himself in a spot and had things work out.
“We just need to get into position, but we need some more speed. We’ll know more after (Saturday) in race trim, but definitely all-out speed we’re a little behind.”
Had his Richmond finish stood, Jones would have bagged 42 points for a night’s work. That would have put him just three points out of a transfer spot.
If you were to include the final race of the regular season at Indianapolis, it’s now been three weeks of Jones doing everything right before something out of his control cropped up. At Indianapolis, he crashed with Brad Keselowski in a tight racing incident that Keselowski admitted fault to crowding Jones. In Las Vegas, Jones had a fast car and was running top 10 when a mechanical gremlin struck. He finished 36th.
Unfortunately, summer momentum quickly disappearing when time for a title run is not a new position for Jones. His back was against the wall last year in the playoffs, and he failed to advance out of the first round.
In the inaugural Roval race last year, Jones finished 30th. Friday he was seventh in the pre-qualifying practice and then clocked in 15th on the starting lineup. Jones was 24th in the first of two Saturday practice sessions.
“I don’t know, I thought we had a little bit better car than that,” Jones said. “I didn’t expect us to qualify much better than eighth probably, but 15th is not where we wanted to be. We haven’t qualified well all year. It hurts pit stall [selection] more than anything and then you get some guys up in front that you’ve got to work through in the first stage, get them shuffled out.
“We just lacked a little bit of speed, obviously across the board, us, the 18 (Kyle Busch), the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) there squeezed in (to the next round). Definitely needed a little bit more speed to be with those guys in the top five, I mean, they’re a second faster than us almost. That’s a lot, but you never know how the race will play out.”