A month and a half ago, Erik Jones was in the conversation for being “on the bubble” when it comes to making the postseason of the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series. With multiple top five finishes and a victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, the No. 20 team is focused on making it further into the Playoffs this year.
“We DNF’d in Vegas and that was really the end of it,” said Jones, reflecting back on his 2018 Playoff run. “We never could make that point deficit back up at Richmond or Charlotte.”
Leaning on his experience from last year, Jones understands the pressure is still on to perform; not just with securing a spot in the Playoffs, but continuing to progress through each three-race round. When NASCAR introduced elimination rounds for the postseason, there has been less and less mistakes allowed, if any. Jones very much so recognizes this.
“It’s not easy. You have to have a perfect run,” Jones expressed. “You have to have 10 perfect weeks. There’s no room for error at any of these races. You can’t go in and DNF, you can’t go in and run 25th, you can’t not get stage points in a race. You have to have 10 perfect races of running up really past the Round of 16 in the top-five. You can’t have mistakes, you can’t have things that take you out.
“Last year, Vegas, the race we got taken out of was nothing of our doing. We just got caught up in a wreck that was unfortunate and took us out of the Playoffs. Maybe there is some luck in there — I’m not a big believer in luck — but sometimes things just have to go your way.”
But maybe luck has a role in it all. With the Southern 500 earlier this year, a solid pit stop by his team put him in position to claim the lead where he went on to win his second career Cup race. However, Jones was quick to identify his team’s effort to get them where they are now.
“I think Chris (Gayle, crew chief) and I are a good balance for each other,” Jones praised his crew chief when asked about the relationship with his team corresponding with the results they have produced throughout the past year. “Chris has a lot of energy and is an amped up guy, but during the race he is really good at keeping things calm and low key, Chris has worked with me long enough now to really understand me and get me, he knows that I’m not necessarily a guy that needs to be pushed. I don’t need to be pushed to run or work hard during a race.
“I would say this is probably the best communication or chemistry we’ve had since our Cup career started with him just really being able to dive into my feedback and make really good adjustments. He’s just really been on top of what we need to do to be fast.”
Whether it’s luck, hard work, talent or a combination of all the above, Jones knows he needs to avoid one drastic situation: must-win races.
“We were in a must-win situation at the Roval and we don’t want to be there again,” he recalled from the 2018 season after his DNF last year here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “We know what we have to do and that’s just have smooth, calculated races, running and getting stage points and running in the top-five. Really doing what we’ve done the last month-and-a-half, two months and just getting those good finishes.”
This year, Jones has high goals that he believes are achieveable and that he could be one of the dark horses. His team is taking one race at a time, but if the cards fall right, they know they have the speed to make it deep into the 2019 Playoffs, including sneaking into Homestead.
“For us, my goal at least and I think Chris (Gayle, crew chief) is on the same page is just to get to that Round of 8,” Jones declared with confidence. “In that round, Texas and Phoenix are two great tracks for me. Martinsville is a little bit of a struggle sometimes, but Texas and Phoenix are two places I feel like we can go and win races at. If we can make it there, I feel like we’ve got an opportunity to sneak one out between Texas and Phoenix.
“You never know from there, it can be a wildcard.”
So far, Jones has nine top five finishes and 13 top 10 finishes, with a similar average finish compared to last year. He currently sits as the 10th seed, as he seeks to take the No. 20 car to Homestead to compete for his first Cup series title.