Erik Jones has high hopes for first Cup season with JGR

Erik Jones is the first NASCAR driver to win the freshman trifecta—each step in his progress through the Trucks, Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup Series has included Rookie of the Year honors.

Erik Jones has high hopes for first Cup season with JGR
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Championship victory lane: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series 2015 champion Erik Jones, Kyle Busch Motorsports celebrates with team owner Kyle Busch
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota
NASCAR Truck Series champion Erik Jones, Kyle Busch Motorsports
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota, Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

On Wednesday, Jones was named the Sunoco Rookie of the Year for the Cup Series during the Myers Brothers Awards Ceremony at the Wynn Las Vegas. Jones scored five top fives, 14 top 10s and his first-career Cup pole in the Bristol Night Race in August.

Even Jones finds his meteoric rise through the ranks surprising, but he’s thrilled to lose his rookie stripe and start a new adventure with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018.

“I was in the truck series for so long, I never thought I would climb to Cup so quickly,” Jones told Motorsport.com. “Getting to Xfinity and only being there for a year and now completing my first year in Cup was a really fast jump. But, no, I never thought it would happen so quickly.”

Jones topped his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Suarez and Germain Racing’s Ty Dillon for the rookie honor, piloting the newly created No. 77 Toyota from the Furniture Row Racing stables.

Working with Chris Gayle

He’ll leave the Denver-based team for JGR next season with crew chief Chris Gayle at his side. After jumping from trucks at Kyle Busch Racing, where he won the 2015 championship, to JGR's Xfinity program the following year, his opportunity with Gayle in the No. 20 Toyota will provide Jones the continuity he’s been missing with the revolving door of crew chiefs. 

“It’s really nice for me,” Jones said. “I’ve never really had the opportunity to work with a guy for more than a year. So this is kind of the first time I’m having a chance to get to know a guy a little better and have a second year to go out and use some of the chemistry we’ve built from the previous season into next year.

“It’s going to be really nice to have a guy that we’ve already built that working and personal relationship and have a head start on adjusting on cars when we get to Daytona.”

The 21-year-old from Byron, Michigan, has been successful at every rung of the NASCAR ladder. He won his first of seven truck races in just his fifth start. His first Xfinity win came nine races into his transition to that tour. Jones has won nine races and 15 poles in his 77 NXS starts. Although his promotion to Cup was expected, Jones' move into the No. 20 team, displacing former Cup champion Matt Kenseth, was awkward at best.

“Matt has been in the sport for a long time and has a lot of dedicated fans, but I think if we can go out and perform it will silence some of (the blowback),” Jones said. “I don’t think it’s any different than football or basketball when you have the next guy coming in and they take on that starting role eventually. So hopefully, we can go out and have the performance to match that.

“Obviously, Matt had a great season and was able to get a win there late in the year. Hopefully, we can contend for races, win races and make the Playoffs.” 

Veteran mentors

Jones had an ideal role model at Furniture Row Racing with champion Martin Truex Jr. He’ll have an equally impressive cast of drivers to pull from at JGR with former boss and mentor Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Suarez, who topped Jones for the Xfinity title in 2016. Jones will be in his comfort zone joining JGR. 

“Kyle and I have a strong relationship and I’ve just known him for so long and know Daniel really well and I’m getting to know Denny better,” Jones said. “It’s a great group. I think it’s a great mix of Daniel and I being young and coming into it and Kyle and Denny being the veterans and kind of leading the way.

“I think it will be an interesting dynamic between the four of us. We all have a little bit different way of doing things and setting up our cars. I’ll be interested to see how it all works out.”

Jones led 260 laps at Bristol before finishing second to Busch. With success coming so quickly in the other series, Jones was expecting similar results in Cup. He admits it’s a different sensation.

“When I was in the truck series we won so early on and then in Xfinity,” Jones said. “It seemed so quick there. It was like, ‘OK, I know what to do. I know what I want my car to do.’ And the wins kept flowing after that.

“In the Cup series, I feel like there has been races we’ve been in contention, obviously, Bristol, Phoenix and others. There were races where I thought, ‘Man, we have a shot, where we can win today if we have a shot.’ We just weren’t at that point—or I wasn’t at the point—where if we were off or had a bad pit stop and lost some spots and things weren’t working out, we couldn’t fight back and get those spots. We really needed a perfect day to get a win.

“I don’t know if that will change after we get our first win, but I feel I’ll definitely feel more comfortable and have a better idea what to do after we do that.”

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