Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Erik Jones is typically, cool, calm and perhaps a bit shy when facing a room full of reporters hanging on his every word. But that same composed demeanor has also served him well behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota Camry that he drove right into Daytona International Speedway Victory Lane a year ago for his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory celebration.
Backing up that win on the notoriously challenging Daytona high banks in Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) may be a bigger challenge yet. The last person to win two consecutive Daytona July races was newly-selected NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart – coincidentally, also a former driver of the JGR No. 20 – who did it in 2005-06.
The 23-year old Jones certainly remembers his last lap, career-defining win vividly even a year later.
“I remember that whole last sequence of restarts,” Jones said. “The last one, the green-white-checkered, we were stuck side-by-side with Martin (Truex Jr.) on that first lap. Then coming around to take the white, I could see the top line forming behind me and I was hoping they would stick with me and I would get a big push.
“Going down the backstretch, Martin was trying to side draft hard and we got a really big push from behind from the 37 (Chris Buescher) and got clear of Martin there and I knew at that point, the only way we were going to lose it was a catastrophic failure so I was defending the last move that Martin could make and getting to the checkered.
“Coming out of (turn) four, I would say I knew it was pretty locked in. I remember everything about those last laps for sure.”
And, he added with a smile, he also remembers the celebration that ensued.
“It was good,” Jones said. “I didn’t home until three in the morning and I had to fly out and go out to Slinger (Speedway in Slinger, Wisc.) the next day for a late model race, so I don’t know if we went to sleep. But we flew up there and practiced the late model that day and finally got to celebrate that night.
“I had a lot of buddies that came over to Wisconsin from Michigan to come celebrate so that was a lot of fun.”
And now, Jones could certainly use a second boost of good fortune. He’s the only member of his high-achieving JGR team without a win. Yet. His former Cup champion teammates Truex and Kyle Busch have four victories each and veteran teammate Denny Hamlin has a pair of wins too – including the season-opening Daytona 500.
Daytona has long been a source of extreme emotion for drivers. They tend to either love it or simply, tolerate it – the style of intense pack racing a test of ability, that also seems to require a stroke of good fortune.
Jones would like to think that the defending winner tag may be a source of good juju too.
“Coming back as the defending winner always feels good,” Jones said. “For me, it gives you that extra little bump to keep being the defending winner and to come back and do it again.”
He certainly came close in the February Daytona 500, won by his JGR teammate Hamlin. Jones finished third – his best ever showing in the race.
That gives him consecutive top-five finishes at the speedway counting his victory last July. He has three top-10s in five career starts at the big track, including a ninth place run in the 2017 summer race.
Jones comes into this weekend’s race ranked 17th in the championship standings – 15 points behind Clint Bowyer in the 16th and final Playoff position. He’s had eight top-10 finishes in the 17 races and four top-fives. He has a season-high three third-place finishes.
Even after the promising results, Jones is fighting for this Playoff entry. And absolutely upbeat and optimistic about his chances.
“I think for us, our goal is 30 points a race,” Jones said. “That’s about a seventh-place finish. If we do that every week, we will easily point our way in without a win. We know we can win a race. We have a lot of good tracks coming up here.
“If we can continue to crank out that 30 points a race, guys will make mistakes, and we will keep pointing our way up there”
And he reassured, “We’ve got good cars; we just need to have things go our way. We need to execute better on our end on all fronts. Make sure we are doing all we can to get the best finish that we can.”