When “What Might Be” Becomes “What If”

Let’s face it. Erik Jones just never had a true shot in the 2019 Playoffs. This now makes it the second consecutive year in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series.

And what was a story of an uprising season now becomes a story of “what if” as the Round of 16 comes to a conclusion with Jones being one of the four drivers eliminated from the postseason brackets.

“It’s frustrating; it’s frustrating not to even have a chance,” Jones remarked about the early incident in the must-win situation at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jones won earlier this year in the iconic Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway to secure his spot in the Playoffs, setting himself up for a great run into the postseason. The seasoned Joe Gibbs Racing driver had his eyes set on making it deep into the Playoffs to get his No. 20 Craftsman Toyota team a chance at a golden ticket to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway by winning one of the final races. By winning one of the races in the Round of 8 (Martinsville, Texas or Phoenix), it wouldn’t matter where he was in the points battle as he would automatically earn a spot to race for a championship in the last race of the year.

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However, if there were a list of racing deals that are out of the hand of the driver, Jones has checked all of those in the opening three races of the Playoffs. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway and this past weekend on the Roval, the on-track incidents were no fault of his own.

  • Vegas: On the Stage 2 opening restart, Jones had fought his way into the top 10 when the transmission stuck in second gear, bringing his car behind the wall for repairs and finished in the 36th position.
  • Richmond: Jones finished fourth in what would be a 1-2-3-4 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing, but NASCAR officials discovered that the car failed post race inspection for a rear-wheel alignment infraction. This disqualified Jones to a last-place finish.
  • Charlotte: A chain reaction crash caused Jones to get hit from behind entering Turn 1. The spin and light contact with the wall was no concern to the team, but a punctured radiator brought fatal overheating issues, ending their race early.

“The damage wasn’t bad at all, we had that fixed completely,” Jones shared after his fourth DNF at the Roval, and his second consecutive last-place finish. “Kind of a freak deal. Usually a wreck like that wouldn’t end your day by any means.”

Just like his untimely exit of the Playoffs last year, Jones is now in the same position this year: again, to no fault of his own.

“It’s frustrating; it’s frustrating not to even have a chance to run the whole race,” said the dejected 2017 Rookie of the Year driver. “We didn’t make it to the first stage and it wasn’t our fault, and that’s probably the most frustrating part, to get taken out and there was nothing you can do about it.”

Earlier in the month, Jones announced he signed a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing. With silly season rumors arising between Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the affiliated Leavine Family Racing team, and Christopher Bell, current NASCAR Xfinity Series points leader and Toyota Racing Development driver, there was uncertainty for Jones’ future stakes. Now, he can say for certainty that he has another shot with his team in 2020.

“I put my heart and soul into this and this race team.,” he said in a team release. “I’ve been racing with JGR since 2014 and it’s really cool to be able to continue with the foundation we’ve built over the years and hopefully win more races and contend for championships together.”

He still has seven more races in 2019 to put circumstances behind him and keep on pace with where he was before. In the last four races, Jones’ best finish was 36th at Vegas. Before that, Jones scored five top four finishes in the previous seven races, including the Darlington victory. That hot streak at the end of the regular season was abruptly met by misfortune in the Round of 16. He has a lot of talent he wants to prove: to his team, to his fans, to his competition and to himself. He’s just trying to hold his head high in some dark days of his young racing career.

“[We] have to keep going all year, win some more races, and come back and start over again in next year’s Playoffs.”

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