Erik Jones will be in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in two months and the reason for that is perhaps only partly due to Saturday night’s victory in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Career win No. 1 for the 22-year-old Jones came in his 57th career start. But he and crew chief Chris Gayle and team owner Joe Gibbs pointed to a recent seventh-place finish at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway as a key to the improved performance of Jones and the No. 20 Toyota team.
Gayle, who had won with Elliott Sadler, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Sam Hornish Jr. and Jones to victories in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, talked afterward about a change in his young driver in recent weeks.
“We went into that (Sonoma) weekend knowing it was going to be tough and we were going to have to battle,” Gayle recounted Saturday night. “And the first 10 laps of that race were pretty tough. It could have gone either way.”
Jones and the team did their best, though, and the result continues to provide benefits.
Confidence bred from that top-10 finish at a track where Jones confessed he felt out of sorts carried over to Chicago, where he finished sixth, and Daytona, where he finished, well, first.
The win didn’t alter the playoff picture – Jones was inside the top 16 in points and with only six different winners thus far, qualifying for the 10-race playoff seemed likely if not certain.
Still, it’s best to have all the boxes checked, so Jones can pencil himself in to the playoff picture and move ahead.
He is the ninth different driver to win a Cup race for Joe Gibbs Racing, joining Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.
At Daytona, he admitted he didn’t circle the race as a potential victory on his calendar.
When his car was damaged in an incident during the second stage and he fell off the lead lap, a win seemed even less likely.
“I didn’t give up at that point, but thought ‘OK, we’ve really go to do our best to salvage a solid day,’” Jones said.
Eventually he had made it back inside the top 15 and then the top 10 and then the top five and “on that last restart, I was like ‘We’ve got a legitimate shot at this point,’” he said.
More than a shot. In the end it was a win.
• Still a bit astonished, and disappointed, that there were only 18 cars running at the end of Saturday night’s race. That’s the fewest amount for a Cup race at Daytona since … well, the record is 11, set in July of 1963 so let’s just leave it at that.
They didn’t run restrictor plates back then; the attrition was due to mechanical woes.
• Jones’ victory didn’t do a lot to shake up the playoff picture outside of solidifying his own plans – he was 14th in points heading into the race. No new faces moved into or out of the 16-team field and there was only minor movement among those without wins inside the cutoff.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., winner of the first two stages, is four points closer to the cutoff and trails Alex Bowman by 19 while Paul Menard and a few others just inside the top 20 lost significant ground.
• The 17 laps led Saturday night by Kasey Kahne weren’t the first for the LFR driver this season – he led 11 laps at Michigan. But the fourth-place finish was the team’s best since former driver Michael McDowell finished fourth in the 2017 Daytona 500.
• This week’s races: Camping World Truck, Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup teams will be in Kentucky for a three-day show (Thur.-Sat.). FS1 will have coverage of Thursday’s Truck race while NBCSN will handle Xfinity and Cup events.