By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Erik Jones and his No. 20 Reser’s Toyota Camry race team delivered in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth, finishing a season-best fourth after leading 64 of 334 laps.
It’s Jones first top-5 of the season and improved from 12th to 11th in points, 123 markers behind points leader and race winner Kyle Busch.
“The Reser’s Camry was really good. We didn’t qualify where we wanted to this weekend,” said Jones. “It was kind of a – kind of a downer coming into Sunday, but I knew we had a good race car and you know we showed that today. A big step up.
“That was the first day we’ve been up in the top five.We led some laps. That’s a good builder for next week, so we’ll keep going.”
The 21-year-old sophomore had his work cut out right out of the gate after qualifying 21st, but showcased where a driver starts doesn’t reflect what will happen during the race and moved up the running order once the green flag dropped.
After teammate Daniel Suarez was involved in a multi-car crash on Lap 3, Jones was already up to 16th.
As the opening stage progressed, Jones was dealing with a loose car in traffic. Despite the concern, Jones was on the cusp of cracking the top-10, running in 12th before making his green flag stop on Lap 45.
Then Martin Truex, Jr. hit the Turn 4 wall, brining out the second caution that wrapped up stage one. Jones scored a stage point after finishing in 10th.
Outside of his driving ability, Jones’ pit crew got the job done throughout the day. Jones’ crew got him out in sixth, gaining four spots to start off stage two.
Once the race restarted, Jones remained in sixth but reported of having a tight car. His crew adjusted it during the next round of stops, and again gained him spots as he restarted in fourth on Lap 134.
Much like the first green flag run in stage two, Jones retained his fourth-place spot and scored an additional seven stage points.
For the third time under caution flag pit stops, the No. 20 team out beat teammate and stage two winner Kyle Busch off from pit road and took the race lead for the first time on Lap 173.
The three-time Texas winner in the Xfinity Series was satisfied with his car during the first part of stage three as he was the class of the field, seeing no threat of losing the top spot.
With 110 laps to go, pole sitter Kurt Busch responded to the challenge and slowly cut Jones’ lead down before another round of green flag stops.
Jones relinquished his lead with 103 laps remaining to make a chassis adjustment in Turns 1 and 2. Jones was back in first three laps later, just in time for a caution caused by Paul Menard, who had a cut tire in Turn 1.
The race restarted on Lap 240 and Kyle Busch wasted no time to regain the race lead in Turn 1 and gradually pulled away. Kyle’s older brother was knocking on the door of taking second from Jones, but unable to pass him.
Kasey Kahne and Trevor Bayne brought out the 7th caution on Lap 249, putting the leaders in a tough spot of whether to pit or stay out as tire issues plagued many top contenders all afternoon.
The top three took a gamble and stayed out, hoping to make it under a one stop strategy without using up their Goodyear Eagles.
On the restart with 79 to go, Jones got off slow and wobbled in Turn 2, losing second to Jamie McMurray as Kyle went off to the races once again.
Jones’ bid of his maiden Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win faded away and by Lap 276, he lost third to a hard charging Kevin Harvick, who had fresher tires.
Crew chief Chris Gayle brought Jones in on Lap 289, looking to deliver when it counted most. However, Jones came out as he was before pitting, behind Kyle, Harvick and McMurray.
Kurt went by Jones before Ryan Newman brought out the 8th caution of the day on Lap 303.
With a couple of drivers who have yet to pit, Jones was a lap down in eighth and took the wave around.
On the restart, Jones clawed his way back in the top-5, gaining three spots. Then Jones passed Ryan Blaney for fourth and set his eyes on catching McMurray for one last spot as Kyle and Harvick had their own race.
Kyle went on to capture his first win of the season, while Jones wasn’t able to pass McMurray and settled for fourth.
Jones said dirty air was part of the culprit of not challenging for the win and passing McMurray.
“I mean a little bit. I don’t know that we really had enough for Kyle (Busch) or Kevin (Harvick). They were really fast, but overall I thought we were a third-place car,” said Jones. “Jamie (McMurray) had some tires here at the end and we couldn’t really do much with them.”
Jones’ momentum will shift to Bristol Motor Speedway for the annual Food City 500 in Bristol, Tennessee April 15th.
He’ll be looking to score his first win there after winning the pole and finished second to Kyle after leading 260 laps last August.
Jones added his performance at Texas was a good start of being a contender this season.
“To get the Reser’s Camry up front and just in the top five is a big moment for us,” said Jones. “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do here with this group and you know we did a good job of it this weekend.
“Texas is a place I like. I’ve got to say thanks to the pit crew. They worked really hard. We’ve had a rough start to the year on pit road, but they knocked them out.
“We picked up a lot of spots on pit road today and that was huge for us. Just a good day overall and a lot to build on for Bristol.”