LONG POND, Pa. — For Erik Jones, the determinant in maximizing his propitious NASCAR career has never been a question of talent but rather maturation and adaptability.
Since he outdueled Kyle Busch to win the prestigious Snowball Derby late model event as a 16-year-old in 2012, race fans and media members alike instantly pegged Jones a top prospect. And with a label like “prospect” comes with “potential” attached, meaning everything in place is a project for the time being and the result can go a hundred different ways.
Often times, the spotlight stunts talent, the ones who don’t know how to handle adversity and the fact that wins don’t come before the cutthroat learning-curve. Jones has certainly endured his, like failing to close the Bristol race last year in his rookie season for Furniture Row Racing after leading the most laps, and on top of that having to cope with the emptiness of losing his father, who died of cancer in June of 2016.
As the second half rolls along — a season in which he’s replaced former Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth — Jones continues to blossom into the driver he’s projected to be and is heightening championship prospects by the week, even amidst the dominance of the “Big 3” — Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, who have accounted for 15 of 20 wins this season.
Over the last six races, Jones has an average finish of seventh, right up there with Truex’s 4.5, Harvick’s 5.7 and Busch’s 7.7. He also has one win — his first career Cup victory at Daytona — along with a pair of top fives and five top 10s.
“I think he’s really starting to come [together],” Jones’ car owner Joe Gibbs said after his driver pulled off a fifth-place finish at Pocono on Sunday. “He has a lot of confidence now. I think he’s on a roll.”
Since his seventh-place finish at Sonoma last month, a place Jones dreads, the 22-year-old has rattled off the same amount of top 10s the last six races than what he compiled in the first 15. Then came a sixth-place finish at Chicagoland, his first career win at Daytona — a race he fought back from a lap down — seventh at Kentucky, 16th at Loudon and fifth at Pocono. He’s also started in the top 10 in four of those races, meaning the speed is there to consistently stay up front.
While his average finish the last six races ranks third in the series, his 12 laps led over that span compared to Harvick’s 124, Busch’s 148 and Truex’s 339 means he still has a ways to go if he wants to be considered as a legitimate title contender.
“We need to lead more laps,” Jones said. “We need to contend more in the top three, but we’re definitely getting there. We’re close to them, [the ‘Big 3’].
“We’ve definitely had the consistency,” Jones added. “We need to get up with the No. 4 (Harvick) and 18 (Busch) more. [Sunday at Pocono] was a good day for that. We got to see what he does to be fast and where he’s quick and where we can improve on to be better. Overall, we’re getting there week by week. We have five more races to do that before the playoffs. So, hopefully, we can clear it up.”
Another promising token for Jones is he has Busch, his teammate, to lean on and compare notes. Clearly, a wide gap remains. And that largely has to do with Busch’s experience and pedigree — I mean, the guy has nearly 200 national series wins. Another factor is the supporting cast. Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens have a tightknit relationship and know how to piece together a championship season. Jones, meanwhile, is still developing with crew chief Chris Gayle and the members around him.
“He’s experienced and he also has just the right deal. Him and Adam are a good mix,” Jones said when asked about what’s keeping his No. 20 team from apart from Busch’s No. 18. “They have a good pit crew and they just know what they want from each other. They’re able to execute and make the most out of their cars.”
Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis all lie ahead before the playoffs at Las Vegas on Sept. 16, and Jones could very well add to the surge. Jones should have won the Bristol night race last year — leading 260 of 500 laps to finish second — and he finished third in the second Michigan race a year ago. He placed fifth and 10th in his only starts at Darlington and Watkins Glen. Last year at Indianapolis, he wrecked out to finish 31st. But Sunday’s top five at Pocono is a good sign for things to come on another flat track in Indy.
In a little less than two months, a time that Busch, Harvick and Truex have widened their competitive gap to a historical level, Jones has morphed from a prospect to a Final Four favorite in Homestead. Now, he’s thinking, “why not me?”
“I am right now,” Jones said if his outlook is a why-not-me mindset. “Those three (Busch, Harvick and Truex), I feel like if there are no catastrophes for them, will be at Homestead. That four spot is kind of a wild card. It’s not totally open but there’s definitely a chance there to make something happen. So, yeah, I hope it can be us.”