Erik Jones is a rookie once again—in the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The third-season Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver is one of just 15 drivers locked into the main event. Jones qualified for the race with his win at Daytona last July.
The 21-year-old Byron, Michigan, racer would like to pick up his second Cup win on Saturday, even if it's not a points race.
“I’m looking forward to it; it’s finally my first year that I get to run it,” Jones said. “I missed it the last two years, so it’s nice to actually be in it this year and have a shot to race for it. I’m excited about that.
“I’ve been sitting on my couch back home watching it. It’s great. I love this month coming up, just being at home for a couple of weeks and not having to get on a plane and travel. You get a lot of friends and family that come and stay in town, and that’s always fun.”
Lately, life has been fun for Jones. The driver of the No. 20 Craftsman Toyota is coming off of a pair of top-10 finishes, including a podium result last Sunday at Kansas Speedway. His third-place finish ties his best run of the season in the Daytona 500.
After a tough couple of months, Jones was content with his performances at Dover and Kansas—two different experiences for the team, yet with similar results. Jones described his sixth-place run at Dover as “low-key.” He believed the team should have finished higher. At Kansas, the Joe Gibbs Racing crew faced adversity throughout the night but came back strong.
“It was time to turn it around, and it was time to do things right, do what we knew we were capable of,” Jones said. “Last month was rough for us. We had a lot of things just not go our way, didn’t play out, had some issues on pit road, off pit road so just a lot of things not going our way. You’ll have times like that in racing, but I knew we had fast enough cars that eventually you’re going to overcome it.
“When you have fast race cars, you’re going to overcome those odds and eventually run where you think you’re capable of. Hopefully, just keep the trend going. It was good to get running where we need to, and we need to keep it going here over the summer stretch.”
Jones relied on team owner Joe Gibbs to ease him through the mid-spring drought the driver endured. He believes Coach’s experience in sports is invaluable.
“He’s really on top of it,” Jones said. “Obviously coaching football, he knows driver and athlete personalities really well, and he was always there to make sure that I was staying positive and keeping my head up and know that we’re doing everything we can to fix some of the issues that we knew we had, and they did.
“At this point, I think we’ve resolved a lot of the problems we had, and we’re able now to move forward on it and start to really focus on what we need to do. Coach is really involved in the program. I think many people know that from the outside, but he’s heavily involved in the competition side and making sure that when things need to be fixed, he’s able to get in there and make things right.”
Both Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle believe they can build on the success of the last two weeks. Gayle is relieved that his young driver won’t have to battle his way in through the Monster Energy Open.
It’s pretty cool to be participating in the All-Star race for the first time with Erik and this 20 team,” Gayle said. “It’s good knowing you’re locked into the event, and allows you to focus more on the All-Star race format and the unique qualifying format for the cars locked into the event. Normally, you could use the All-Star event as a tune-up for the Coca-Cola 600, but with some of the rule changes for this weekend, it doesn’t make it quite as useful.
“It’s still a good momentum builder and we’ll do what we can to glean a little bit of info from this weekend to apply to the 600 the next weekend. Charlotte has been a really good track for Erik and the 20 team in the past, and I expect to carry the momentum from the last few weeks to both All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. I really feel like we can go compete for our first win in 2019 over the next two weeks at this race track. Just excited to get to the track and continue the progress we’ve been making this season.”
The All-Star race presents a new challenge for all the participants with the addition of a single-piece carbon fiber splitter/pan and a radiator exit duct through the hood of the car. Jones admits the team had not worked extensively on the new package prior to this weekend. After first practice, Jones was 10th on the speed chart.
If competing in his first All-Star race wasn’t enough for Jones to turn up the wick on Saturday night, certainly battling for a million-dollar prize is plenty of incentive.
“A million bucks, who doesn’t want to win that? It’s a great race,” Jones said. “You look at the history of it and some of the shows that have been put on at that race.
“It’s something that I think we all look forward to as a driver to have an opportunity to go and compete in.”