Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – On his way to vacation during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series off-week, Erik Jones stopped by Daytona International Speedway on Wednesday to give local media thrill rides in Toyota Camrys and an off-road taste in the brand’s Tundras – all in the spirit of getting people fired up for the upcoming Coke Zero Sugar 400 (on July 7 at 7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the sport’s most famous track.
As Jones took media members for a literal spin in the car, his smile was hard to miss. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver said he’s learning – and appreciates – the art of superspeedway racing. And despite crashes in two of his three Cup races at the Daytona track, he looks forward to this style of competition. He finished ninth in his only summer Cup start here last year.
“It’s something different,” he said with a grin. “I think it’s kinda fun to come and have a change, to do something different than what we do every week.
“For me, the 500 this year was probably the most challenging superspeedway race I’ve been in from this point – the way the cars drove and tough to handle. It made it challenging. The July race is always fun being around the holiday and seeing the celebration and what’s going on. It’s a good time.”
“It does open the door up to new winners,” he continued. “You never know whose going to win the superspeedway races. It’s the same shot for everybody and it’s really not like that anywhere else.
“It’s neat to see guys running up front you don’t normally see there, you’re mixing it up with guys you don’t always race with week in and week out. It’s always interesting to see who’s going to come out on top. It’s a big change up from the normal guys that are running up front. The strategy you try to employ works out sometimes but not very often. It seems like it gets kind of a wild ending with what happens in these races and that’s what makes it so fun.”
In the meantime, Jones said he’s already been preparing for next week’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway road course in California’s scenic wine country.
He will arrive there ranked a highly respectable 14th in the Cup standings with five top-10s on the season – nearly twice as many as he had at this point in his rookie 2017 season. His best showing of 2018 is a fourth-place at Texas, where he led 64 laps.
And Jones has already been doing his road course homework to prepare for Sonoma. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota spent a full day on course getting tips from a driver’s coach. And, Jones, reminded, although he finished 25th in his maiden Sonoma Raceway Cup start last year, he does like road course racing and does have a Camping World Truck Series win at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park back in 2015.
“Sonoma is a tough track,” allowed Jones, who celebrated his 22nd birthday two weeks ago. “That’s probably the toughest track I’ve ever been to. I went and did a lot of work before Watkins Glen and we ran well at Watkins Glen. I feel comfortable on a road course, it’s just that Sonoma is very challenging, very technical – one of the most technical tracks we go to all year, oval or road course.
“I went in a little blind last year. My first laps ever on the track were for practice (race weekend.) Fortunately this year, I’ll have more.”
And, Jones reiterated, he likes the change how the schedule mixes up all competitive venues.
“They’re fun,” he said. “It’s just so different. You’re working hard behind the wheel and as good as everyone’s gotten on the road courses, it’s never easy.
“The veterans been there so many times and are so talented on these tracks. Road courses are very fun and was fortunate to have success in trucks on them and that gave me a good opinion of them.”
The Xfinity Series continues to see a new look in Victory Lane this season and is on track to match or exceed a record for number of different winners. There have been 12 winners in the first 13 races. Monster Energy Cup driver Brad Keselowski, the only repeat winner so far. The series record is 18 different winners in a season set back 1988 and 2017.
Only three 2018 race champs are entered in Sunday’s Iowa 250 presented by Enogen (5 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – Justin Allgaier (Dover), Christopher Bell (Richmond) and Tyler Reddick (Daytona).
There is precedence for the track to crown a first-time winner. Both William Byron and Ryan Preece picked up their career first Xfinity wins at Iowa last year.
KEEP ON WINNING
Johnny Sauter’s victory at Texas last weekend was his fourth in the first eight races of the 2018 season and his fifth win on the Texas Motor Speedway 1.5-mile high banks.
Going back to the 2017 season, Sauter has won six of the past 11 races and amazingly finished in the top-three, in 10 of those. Only three drivers in history have recorded four or more wins through the opening eight races – Kyle Busch and Mike Skinner.
The 40-year old Sauter has yet to win at Iowa Speedway, where the series races Saturday in the M&M’s 200 presented by Casey’s General Store (7 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). He has a pair of runner-up finishes including 2017 – his seventh top-five at the track.