Erik Jones knows what it’s like to be a playoff contender in NASCAR, having done so in all three series. But it’s been a few years (2019) and one organization ago (Joe Gibbs Racing) since Jones has been included on the graphic, invited to media day, and mentioned as part of the postseason.
The 25-year-old is eager to get back into the club.
The good news is that Jones thinks there is a strong possibility it happens this season for the No. 43 Petty GMS Motorsports team — a team that’s gone even longer (2014) than its driver in not experiencing a playoff berth.
“It’s definitely been a few years, and so getting those guys in that mindset I think is going to be big,” Jones said. “But they’re in right now. They feel like we’re competitive, and I feel like we’re competitive.
“I’m content — definitely more content than I’ve been in a few years with where we are. I’m excited to see where it goes. A lot of season left, but I’m happy with where we’re going.”
Jones understands the team needs to have more clean days to show what they are really capable of in the NASCAR Cup Series. He and crew chief Dave Elenz have shown they can run inside the top 10 with the best of the series on those clean days.
“If we hit the day right, we can contend,” Jones said. “Look at Fontana — we contended. Vegas, we had a car that could have contended but made too many mistakes, went to the back too much. On days where we struggle, top 15s would be great.
“So, I look at the points and where we’re at, and I think we have a good shot at making the playoffs if we can have a good clean run and get some good races in here. We want to win races. That’s my goal, Maury’s [Gallagher] goal, Richard’s [Petty] goal — everybody’s goal. We’re building to get to that point and just trying to stay up on things and keep getting the Next Gen car where we want it.”
Execution is key. Speed hasn’t been the problem for Jones, who came out strong in the first few weeks and had some believing he might pull off a win.
Jones finished third in Fontana after leading 18 laps and was running eighth a week later at Las Vegas when the car broke away from him and hit the wall off Turn 4 with three laps to go. Another late-race crash followed at Phoenix when Jones was running 15th.
Atlanta and Circuit of The Americas went much better with a top-15 and top-10 finish. Jones was quiet in Richmond but then rebounded with another top-15 finish at Martinsville.
“Starting the year, we started off strong,” Jones said. “We struggled at some tracks and excelled at others. The short tracks have been a struggle for us, for whatever reason. I just don’t think we’ve hit on things there. But the mile-and-a-half stuff has been really good.
“It’s just been a lot of self-inflicted issues probably that’s held us back, from stuff I’ve done to stuff the team’s had go wrong, and we stuff we could have done better. Honestly, I look at a lot of races that, if we could have just had clean days, could have been in contention to win a couple probably, and had better days on the days we struggled. It’s a learning process, but overall, I’ve been happy with it.”
Jones didn’t know what to expect on the dirt at Bristol. He finished 24th after being involved in a lap 170 caution after contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
“Talladega, that’s a shot for us to run really well and win,” he said. “Dover and Kansas coming up soon are going to be, I think, really good races for us. So just having good clean days (is important). And everybody’s improving, getting better. Those are the things that will show we’re pretty strong.”
A rough night at Bristol dropped Jones from 17th to 19th in the standings, but he is still in sight of his postseason push.
“It’s just a rewarding feeling for yourself and for your team,” Jones said of what it’s like to be in the playoffs. “You get to that point in the season, and you want to say not all is lost when those 10 races start and you’re not in it, but it definitely is a deflating feeling, and you’re definitely out of reach more with those guys than before.
“For me, I look at the times I was in the playoffs, and we just had some horrible luck. We got taken out one year right in the first race. Then we got DQ’d one year and wrecked the next. So, it was like every time I was in it, it never went as smooth as I would have hoped and it could have.
“2019 was a great season for us, but as soon as the playoffs started, it just collapsed, and we went downhill and fell out in the first round. I just want to have an opportunity to get back in it and try to advance and have a shot.”