Erik Jones would have stuck on the bottom and not tried to block Kyle Larson — hindsight being 20/20 after time to digest the last lap of Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.
It was the wrong move — one Jones would have changed in order to not take himself out of contention in the GEICO 500. In that split second, Jones, the race leader, had to decide going through the tri-oval and facing the finish line hundreds of yards further down near Turn 1.
He followed Larson’s move to the outside. It left the bottom open for Ross Chastain to win the race. Jones finally crossed the line sixth.
“Defending the No. 5,” said Jones, when asked about what motivated his decision. “I probably would have just stayed on the bottom. I didn’t realize the bottom was coming with that much momentum. Rick [Carelli, spotter] was probably telling me, but I was just in my own world, right? You’re trying to [react] to what you can see and also trying to listen to him.
“Obviously, if I would have known the bottom had that much steam, I would have stuck with it and hoped the No. 1 [Chastain] has to push me. It’s frustrating — you work that hard for 500 miles and it comes down to the last few thousand feet. It’s tough. It’s a good shot for us to win. I feel like we can win at other places, but this was definitely a day I feel like we could have won.”
Jones took the lead with three laps to go, getting a push in the outside lane from William Byron. Once in the lead, Jones jumped to the bottom lane as the field broke up behind him. At the white flag, Jones led Larson, Chastain, Kurt Busch, and William Byron with the first nine drivers running single file.
“Taking the white, I thought we were in pretty good shape with [Larson] behind us and being single file,” Jones said. “Obviously that’s the best-case scenario because you kind of only have to defend one car. I saw the top getting some momentum there in [Turns] 3 and 4 and it looked like they had a lot…and I was getting too far out. I was trying to back up to the No. 5.
“[Larson] got a run, I tried to defend and it kind of opened the door for the No. 1. He cruised by everybody and ended up winning the race. You only get so much of a picture in the car, in the seat, and I was trying to do what I thought I needed to do to win the race and, unfortunately, there were other circumstances, which is Talladega. But the Air Force Chevy was fast; just needed a few thousand more feet.”
Talladega was a race Jones looked ahead to as an opportunity for Petty GMS Motorsports. He was around the front all afternoon, leading 10 different times for a total of 25 laps and was inside the top 10 at the end of both stages.
Sunday is the third top-10 finish for Jones this season and his fourth top-10 finish at Talladega in his last five starts.
“It’s good in the sense [that] we needed a good run. We’ve struggled the last few races and since COTA haven’t finished well,” Jones said. “We needed a good finish to get some points. We were falling too far back in points. In that sense, it’s good. In the other sense, it’s frustrating.
“You try to look at the positives and [those are]: We did have a fast car, led laps and were in the lead coming to where we needed to be. But it just makes you want to work harder, I guess, at the end of the day. We’ll go to Dover next weekend and hope we’ll have another opportunity. I know we can win at non-superspeedways. We just have to put the parts and the pieces in place to do it, so just have to ride the confidence and know we did what we could do today — what I could — and hopefully go on from there.”