Entering Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Erik Jones looked to become one of the few drivers to win a championship in both the NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but for the 20-year old Joe Gibbs Racing driver, a championship in NASCAR’s second tier series was just not meant to be.
“It was a valiant effort. Just didn’t come with a big reward again. The GameStop Camry wasn’t very good to start. We worked hard to get it good by the end and once the sun went down, the track cooled down, and we started to get better and better. The top really started to come in at that point on both ends and I really felt like we were kind of able to get up there and rim ride better than everybody else. Ran the 19 down there before the last yellow, just didn’t have enough time to really get around him. After that caution, I knew we weren’t in a great spot, we didn’t have any sticker tires left and we had to put on some scuffs. Just didn’t work out, just one of those deals, and it just didn’t play in our hand,” said Jones.
With four wins on the season, Jones found himself as one of the favorites to score the title in the first iteration of the Chase in the Xfinity Series. However, the regular season success that Jones showed did not filter over to the first six races in the Chase, with one misstep after another. Despite the setbacks, Jones was able to race his way into the season finale as one of the Championship 4, putting him on equal footing with three other drivers for a chance at the championship
Starting the day in third place, Jones got into fellow championship contender Elliott Sadler when the green flag flew, which would set the stage for Jones’ struggles throughout the first half of the race. From the drop of the green flag, Jones fell back inside the top-10 as the handling on his car was not to his liking, even brushing the wall at one point. Adding insult to injury, Jones made contact with Ryan Reed just prior to the fourth caution of the day at lap 125, knocking a hole in the front of his car, which required a lengthy stop on pit road for repairs.
Once the repairs were complete, Jones found himself barely hanging onto a top-15 position, but as the sun went down on the 1.5 mile track, there was a light at the end of the tunnel for Jones and his team. He was able to make his way back into the top-10 a short time later and then used fresh tires on a restart with 57 laps to go to power his way into the top-five and eventually into the lead 12 laps later.
Jones lost the lead on pit road under caution with 42 laps to go, dropping to fourth place. As the laps wound down, Jones would be able to get past Justin Allgaier to move into second place behind his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Suarez with 20 laps to go.
From that point on, Jones had the speed advantage on Suarez, closing the gap between the two each passing lap. With 15 laps to go, Jones pulled right up on Suarez’s rear bumper, but got into the outside wall on two different occassions, allowing Suarez to pull away from him again.
As Suarez was holding a steady advantage over Jones, a caution with 10 laps to go came out, putting the four championship contenders back on equal ground for the final restart. Jones and Suarez elected to take four tires on pit road, while Sadler took two tires to take over the lead. The pit strategy would put Jones fourth on the final restart, lining up behind the No. 14 car of Cole Whitt, who stayed out on track on old tires.
On the ensuing restart, Whitt spun his tires, stacking up the outside lane that Jones was in, dropping him to eighth and ending any shot that he had at getting back to the race lead and winning the championship. When the checkered flag flew, Jones found himself in ninth, which gave him a final points finish of fourth place.
“I thought the 14 would at least attempt to go. He just kind of sat there and didn’t really even attempt to go, so that’s pretty unfortunate. Really not a lot of respect for guys chasing down a championship, but I thought we were in an OK spot if he had gotten up to speed and we would have been able to kind of go to the top and make something happen, but didn’t really even get that chance. We got to Turn 1 and were in like eighth place. It is what it is, nothing you can do about it now. It’s just kind of unfortunate.”
With the 2016 season complete, Jones now sets his sights on the Sprint Cup Series, where he will be running full-time in 2017 behind the wheel of a second Toyota for Furniture Row Racing as a teammate to Martin Truex, Jr.
“Definitely a good learning year, you know, I learned a lot really about racing itself more so than I thought I would have. There’s a lot of things that I feel like I really didn’t know yet and learned a lot of those things throughout the year and I feel like hopefully I’ll be better at them next year. Just racing and making sure you put yourself in a good spot and taking what the car is giving you. It’s not the things that I did necessarily all year long, so hopefully I can do a little bit better job next year with those things and it will play out better.”