By: Ashley McCubbin
Currently with 19 of the 26 races completed ahead of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, 10 drivers have ideally locked themselves in via scoring race victories. Erik Jones wishes he was one of those like last season, but instead finds himself 24 points below the cut-off line without a win.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s ranking in the standings is courtesy of a rocky past couple of weeks with just three top-10 finishes in the last nine races.
“I think some of it has been mistakes on our end,” Jones told POPULAR SPEED. “Some of it has just been things we can’t control. I think Texas was a good example of just having a smooth weekend. We’ve been making some changes with our pit crew to try to continue to improve there and I think we’ve been getting better each week. I think it’s just a matter of not making mistakes. Texas, we just went out and had a mistake-free day. We didn’t make any mistakes on pit road. I didn’t make any on the race track, no penalties and that’s what we need.”
Jones feels if they can keep mistakes to a minimum, they can consistently run in the top-10, enabling them a chance to make a strategy call and possibly sneak out a win, referencing Cole Custer and Austin Dillon the past couple weeks.
“We have to put ourselves in those positions and I think we’re adjusting strategy accordingly to what it’s going to take to get clean air because that seems to be what’s really important at the end of these races,” he added. “We had four tires at the end, but I wasn’t really going anywhere with it. The guys up front took two tires or no tires. We have to adjust accordingly to that and play our races more on that side of things and take some more risks probably to get up front at the end and give ourselves a shot to be on the front row and have clean air for those late-race restart to see if you can hold them off.”
Battling for one of the final spots with just six positions available in the playoffs outside of the 10 winners already, there is a possibility to either lock himself in via a victory, or still finding enough points. Balancing between which route to take is something Jones calls a fine balance.
“I think looking at it, if we can top-five it each week in the next eight races, I feel comfortable about pointing our way in,” he said. “I don’t think we need anybody to have mistakes. The worst case would be having another person behind us in points win and jumping us again, that would put us in a pretty tough spot. Winning is the goal, but I think we do have to focus a little bit on stage points coming up, especially with some of the wild card races.”
If Jones is unable to point his way in or score a victory in the next couple weeks, he may find himself as one of those desperate for something to happen in the pair of trips to Daytona International Speedway. Many are viewing both events as wild cards as the first marks the series’ inaugural event on the road course, while the second brings the random possibilities involved with a restrictor plate race.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he commented. “I’ve never made any laps on the Daytona road course and it sounds like things are kind of changing daily with what we’re going to run there. Trying to figure all that out right now and with no practice there, it’s going to be really tough. We will have to do a lot of simulator time and get in with TRD and try to take advantage of that. Hopefully, that will get us enough of a footprint to be able to go out there and lean on when we make our first few laps around there.
“Then obviously the last race of the regular season being at the Daytona oval is going to be just wild with guys making last ditch efforts to get a win and put themselves in the Playoffs. Throwing big blocks and making crazy moves and seeing a lot of wrecks probably. I hope we’re in a good position by the time we get to that point because it’s going to be pretty wild.”
Jones will hope to erase all of the worries on Thursday night with a victory at Kansas Speedway. The confidence is high following four straight top-seven finishes, including a third in 2019.
“Last year we ran really well there and had a shot I felt like to win, if the race had played out a little bit differently for us. I think it will be the same tomorrow,” he said. “I really feel confident about the cars we’ve had at Kansas the last few years, especially in the night races that we’ve had there. Last year, the night race was our best race. I’m looking forward to it.
“It’s definitely been tough this year, the competition has really changed their game plan a lot and is doing similar things that I feel like JGR as done over the last year that made us really good wit this package. The competition has kind of caught onto that and done some similar things to really make their cars or building their cars a little bit different. It’s been tougher to race and tougher to pass.
“The opportunities for differences between speed and cars is less it seems like this year so it’s hard to make your way through the field. I think Kansas is a cool place just because it’s so wide and there’s so many options. That’s the thing this package needs, you need to be able to get clean air and go to different lanes. Kansas has that so that’s what I really enjoy about it.”