LAS VEGAS (September 12, 2019) – Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones was made available to media at Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Media Day.
ERIK JONES, No. 20 DeWalt Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Was there extra pressure to make the Playoffs prior to your win at Darlington?
“It’s pressure it some ways, you always want to be able to go up and get a win, especially when your teammates are winning. I knew we could do it, it was just a matter of getting it done. We had the cars to do it, we had the team to do it, it was just execution. Knew it was coming, hoping we could do it before the Playoffs. It was definitely a weight lifted off my shoulders when we got that win. I just gives you a little bit of confidence, a little bit of momentum to kind of move forward from there. Especially in a race like Darlington, it’s a track everybody wants to win at and you definitely feel accomplished when you can do that. Going into Playoffs with that momentum and that win gives you a little extra steam going in. Took a lot of weight off everybody in our group and we were all itching to get that victory and to make things a little easier the last week and a half.”
Was there a point in the Darlington race where you felt confident you would be in the Playoffs?
“I thought before that race we were in an okay spot on points to be able to lock in on points that night. Obviously, we wanted to get the win and just be done with it, but that race I felt like really the whole night we had a good car, even starting back in 15th, I just felt comfortable with it and felt like it was doing the right things it needed to do to be in competition all night and we just needed to get that track position and finally, with around 100 to go, we were getting up front and then finally got the lead with 80 to go, I felt like we were in good spot to take control of the race. Knew if we could hold the lead, we were probably going to be in contention to win it for the rest of the race and really with 30 to go, I was starting to think it was a good possibility we could win as long as I didn’t make a mistake. That’s always a good feeling, you want to be in control of the race at that point and definitely felt like we had it at that moment.”
What have you learned from your previous showing in the Playoffs?
“You learn each time you do something right and I think the first time in the Playoffs was good for us and it was just learning a little bit more about it. You don’t really know what to expect when you’ve never been there. The Playoffs is just challenging, especially us. We’re going in close to 40 points behind the lead with what we have for Playoff points going in so we’re a little bit behind, but we just need to have smooth races. That’s what hurt us last year was we DNF’d in Vegas and that was really the end of it. We never could make that point deficit back up at Richmond or Charlotte. We were in a must-win situation at the Roval and we don’t want to be there again. We know what we have to do and that’s just have smooth, calculated races, running and getting stage points and running in the top-five. Really doing what we’ve done the last month-and-a-half, two months and just getting those good finishes.”
Do you take a risk to get a win early in the Playoffs?
“You’re going to take the chance if it’s there. If you feel like you’ve got a car that can win and there’s an opportunity to take a gamble, we’re going to do it. It’s never an easy choice during the race, but overall I think we’ve done a good job this year, especially the second half of the year of managing that. Managing our day well. If we don’t have a car that we think can’t win, we’ll take those stage points, we’ll take those points where we can get them and take the best finish we can get. If we have a car that we think can win the race, we’re going to play to win the race. We may bail on some stage points and go more for setting ourselves up for track position for the end of the race. That’s what we really excelled at from June on is just taking advantage of those situations. I think we stay on the same game plan. If there’s an opportunity to win, we’re going to take it and it would definitely be nice to win in Vegas and not have to worry about it and move on from there.”
What is it about the relationship you have with Chris Gayle that gives you confidence?
“I think Chris (Gayle, crew chief) and I are a good balance for each other. Chris has a lot of energy and is an amped up guy, but during the race he is really good at keeping things calm and low key, Chris has worked with me long enough now to really understand me and get me, he knows that I’m not necessarily a guy that needs to be pushed. I don’t need to be pushed to run or work hard during a race. He never does that and he’s not really a cheerleader, he does his job. He takes the feedback that I give him, he applies it and does it. He reassures me that we’re going to make the right changes, the right adjustments to be better and do the right thing. Chris has just really learned and developed as a crew chief in the Cup Series a lot over the last three years and I have as well as a driver, but Chris has been right there with me getting better and better. I would say this is probably the best communication or chemistry we’ve had since our Cup career started with him just really being able to dive into my feedback and make really good adjustments. The last few weeks, Darlington we made great adjustments and Indy we were making great adjustments until we crashed. He’s just really been on top of what we need to do to be fast.”
Did the accident at Indianapolis hurt the momentum from Darlington?
“I was reset after it. It was a bummer, you don’t want to crash. I feel like we had a car that could have run top-three in Indy. For me, you just throw it away. It didn’t make a difference honestly at the end of the day. The only thing that would have been better for us would have been winning that race. I don’t know that we really could have done that, the 4 (Kevin Harvick) was really fast. We would have had to be in the right spot, right position, but I already moved on. I think the Playoffs for me is kind of a new season, that’s the way I look at it. You start that 10-race stretch and it’s like you’re back at Daytona again. In my mind, you’re back starting over. The points are reset, you’re racing a different group of guys and not really racing the whole field anymore and you just have to focus forward. I look at what we’ve done the last few months and just focus on that. Think about what we’ve done to be fast, successful and in contention to win and just need to continue that trend.”
Do you feel you can contend for the championship alongside your teammates?
“I think we can. We just have to do everything right. We don’t have as many wins as those guys, but we’ve been in contention to win a few more, we just haven’t capitalized on it. We definitely need to win some races here in the Playoffs to really be contender. For us, my goal at least and I think Chris (Gayle, crew chief) is on the same page is just to get to that Round of 8. If we can make it through this round and the Round of 12, you have an opportunity to go to Homestead. In that round, Texas and Phoenix are two great tracks for me. Martinsville is a little bit of a struggle sometimes, but Texas and Phoenix are two places I feel like we can go and win races at. If we can make it there, I feel like we’ve got an opportunity to sneak one out between Texas and Phoenix. You never know from there, it can be a wildcard.”
How do you get through the Round of 12 to position yourself for the Round of 8?
“It’s not easy. You have to have a perfect run. You have to have 10 perfect weeks. There’s no room for error at any of these races. You can’t go in and DNF, you can’t go in and run 25th, you can’t not get stage points in a race. You have to have 10 perfect races of running up really past the Round of 16 in the top-five. Being in contention for wins and challenge for wins and win races. A lot of things have to go right obviously. You can’t have mistakes, you can’t have things that take you out. Last year, Vegas, the race we got taken out of was nothing of our doing. We just got caught up in a wreck that was unfortunate and took us out of the Playoffs. Maybe there is some luck in there, I’m not a big believer in luck, but sometimes things just have to go your way.”
How were you able to have such strong results in recent weeks?
“I don’t know that I’ve done a lot different necessarily. Maybe just things have worked out better and I think everybody has been on it. The pit crew has been the best they’ve been all year, the last two months, they’ve been the best pit crew I’ve had in my Cup career. Chris (Gayle, crew chief) has done an outstanding job from the pit box, making good calls not only in the race, but in practice and making good adjustments and then making good adjustments from practice to the race. A lot of things just clicking and going right. A lot of people doing the right things. I feel like I for the most part limited mistakes and we just need to continue that trend. We’ve got a really good formula right now that’s been working for us over the last eight races and as long as we can keep on that path I think we’ll be in a good spot to make a good run at this thing.”
Do the cars feel any faster?
“Not really. We’ve had fast cars all year, it was just a matter of getting things in line. We had some pit crew issues we needed to work out at the start of the year. I had to work out some issues with just the cars itself and the new package and figuring out what they really needed for the race and giving Chris (Gayle, crew chief) better feedback and Chris had to learn about them too and interpret the feedback I was giving him to make the right adjustments with this package. I think we all kind of learned about that and I think really the cars I’ve had this year have been some of the best cars I’ve had in my career as far as speed, just raw speed in the race. I don’t think we’ve gotten any faster, I just think we’ve executed better.”
Have other drivers interacted differently with you?
“Not really. Maybe here and there. You definitely get more respect as you win races and you’re around longer in general. Third year now in the series I’ve raced with these guys a lot now, we race a lot just in general through the year. I race with these guys a lot and I feel like we all know how we race each other now. You know what to expect, they know what to expect from me and I know what to expect from them. Maybe there’s some more respect there than my rookie season. There were a lot of guys that you’re going to race that don’t know what you’re capable of. You earn that respect as you go and I feel like there’s definitely maybe a little bit more as this year has gone.”
Do off-track relationships translate to at-track help if you need it?
“A little bit, but mostly with teammates. Your teammates always kind of give you the benefit of the doubt. There’s some guys that I have better relationships with than others. At the end of the day, you put that helmet on and it seems like all of us drivers it seems it squeezes our brains a little bit tighter and you lose a little bit of thinking power at certain points. It’s always tough on the track. Especially as the race gets late into it and everybody is going for that win, nobody is giving an inch. It’s never easy and especially with this package, it’s made guys really, really aggressive and defending track position from lap one until we end the race. It’s made the racing real hard and real frustrating, but it’s also made all of us better drivers.”
If you have a good day at Vegas this weekend, do you consider that a big success moving forward?
“Definitely there’s a big emphasis on just having a solid weekend. You want to qualify well and race well. If we can come out of here with – obviously a win is the goal, but if we can come out with a top-five and a good deal of stage points and pick up a couple spots in the standings and jut close that gap to the lead, that’s a solid day. We’re fighting for 12th. That’s what we’re looking at. You’re fighting for that 12th place in points and hopefully getting some Playoff point moving forward and just closing that gap up. You just want to tighten that gap up to the lead, we’re 40 points to the lead and we just need to get that smaller. That’s too much to be in contention to get all the way to Homestead. Have to work hard at it and not have mistakes. We can’t afford them and some guys can’t afford to have worse days so we just have to be perfect.”
Did you try to make the request to get the race-winning car from Darlington?
“I’d love to have it. Unfortunately, we’re taking that same car to Kansas so I won’t be able to have it. Maybe I can get a hood or a door off of it. Definitely the hood would be cool for me because that logo was reminiscent of Paragon and what we ran on my Late Model with the cross-flags and everything. That would be really cool to have, I don’t know if I can get it yet. They were very generous with my Daytona car and gave me that whole car as it came off the track. That’s definitely a special car to me. That was one of the coolest wins of my career, obviously with it being Darlington and all that, but the paint scheme that went with it and the 100th start was a really special moment.”
Will you try to take anything from the Darlington car to Kansas for luck?
“It will be the same helmet I think so we’ll have a piece of it with us. I’m not overly superstitious, but I guess you grow fond of certain race cars right and some seem to be a little better than others just because, who knows. You can’t be perfect every race car you build because there’s still humans building them, it’s not like we’re on some assembly line doing it. Every race car is a little different. Sometimes you get one that’s better than another and maybe that Darlington one has a little better than the rest of them.”
Can you explain what you mean when you reference ‘over-thinking’ in the Playoffs?
“I think for me, you try to do too much. You can only do so much from the seat and that’s drive the race car to the best of your ability or what your car is capable of that day. For me, I was just trying to do too much last year even starting past Las Vegas. If you look at the Roval, we had a very fast car in practice and we were top of the board or second in one of the practices and then qualifying, I think we had a shot at top-three and I ran into the tire barrier once and went back out and then we qualified like 10th or something. Then crashed the car in practice the next day. That was just too much, I was trying to make too much happen. I was trying to be top of the board every session, trying to qualify first, wrecking the car, tearing things up and it wasn’t necessary. It probably took our chance to be competitive in that race away. The backup car is never as good and that for me was just an example of trying to do too much and over-working myself a little bit.”
What advice would you give upcoming Truck Series drivers looking to make it to the Cup Series?
“It’s tough. You never really understand the jump to the Cup Series until you get here and really do it. I think for me the part that I didn’t really think about or focus on or really know about was how much more challenging it is when you get to the Cup level. There’s more good teams, there’s more good drivers, everything is a little bit harder. These guys have been doing it for so long and it’s not easy to race against them. I think the thing that I would tell those guys is just to fodus and learn how to get better. That was the biggest thing I didn’t do in the Truck and Xfinity Series was learn how to better myself. I had good enough race cars in those series that I never had to improve a whole lot on a lot of things. I could just use the speed in my cars to makeup probably for some of my gaps I had in my development and for me, if I could go back there’s so many things I would have worked hard to get better at. Those are the things guys have to learn coming up. You have to learn how to study and how to focus and how to be a better race car driver along the way.”
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