By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
A 24-hour turnaround does come a long way in the NASCAR Cup Series. That was the case for Erik Jones who went from having a disastrous 38th place result Saturday to finishing a quiet yet strong third-place in Sunday’s Pocono 350 at Pocono Raceway.
The man entering 17th in the regular season standings was six markers behind Tyler Reddick for the 16th and final playoff spot. However, Jones had his worked cut out for him due to running a backup car after crashing on Lap 71 Saturday which also collected Reddick, who also ran a backup.
Fast forward to the long afternoon in Pennsylvania, it was just Reddick who endured problems from the start due to power steering issues. The Sunoco Rookie of the Year points leader ended up with a agonizing 35th and fell out of the top-16 playoff grid.
Meanwhile, Jones’ No. 20 Craftsman Toyota Camry wouldn’t get into fully rhythm until deep into the final stage. This was thanks in most part that Jones was able to make his car work, passing multiple drivers as a shot of a strong points day grew.
Darkness beckoned “The Tricky Triangle” and so did the fuel economy run, creating multiple pit strategies as it boiled down of which pit window worked best. Jones ran as high as second before making his final stop with 26 laps remaining.
Jones commented on the conditions changing, noticing how tight his Camry got when the sun went down, freeing up his car but still ended up pretty loose.
“It was kind of holding us back from really doing much more than running third, but it did change a lot,” said Jones. “It was pretty dark the last 10 laps, but I was glad we could get the race in.”
With drivers such as Martin Truex, Jr. and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. pitting in the closing laps, Jones saw himself inside the top-five and ultimately crossed the line in third for his best finish of 2020, surpassing his three fifth place finishes he’s had.
Due to the superb result, Jones is now 16th in points after 15 races. More importantly, built a feasible 14-point advantage over the new 17th place points man Austin Dillon and 26 over Reddick.
“I feel like we should definitely make the playoffs. It’s nice to have a solid run but it seems like something always has went wrong for us the last few weeks. It’s nice to have a clean day,” said Jones.
“The only mistake we had all day was a loose wheel and it didn’t really affect us which was good. Hopefully, we can just keep doing that moving forward. We got good race tracks coming up for us. Places we’ve ran real well at in the past and I think we’re going to keep racking up some good finishes. Hopefully, we can get a win pretty soon.”
There was a what-if for Jones, feeling that a top-five sweep at the 2.5-mile circuit could’ve been possible and that his primary was still better than the backup.
“I thought we could have probably contended both days a little more towards the win if we had our primary, but the Craftsman Camry was good. We made good changes overnight,” Jones on his weekend.
“We actually changed a lot of stuff and tried to kind of rebalance with what we had with this backup car. It’s nice to get a solid finish. I mean, we came off a good run at Talladega and went right back to a DNF and to come back here with a third. We just need to be consistent from here and keep it rolling,” Jones added.
The regular season is down to its last 11 races and entering the toughest stretch of the season, beginning with the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway July 5 (4:00 p.m. EST on NBC).
Jones isn’t thinking about the points table as he’s eyeing for consistency. The confidence level of making the playoffs is there due to making the playoffs since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018 and doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“We’re so much better than that. I don’t think it plays on my mind,” said Jones. “We’ll be strong enough to get a win at a race in the next month or two. We just got a good enough car and good enough team, but we just got to clean some things up. Have some things go our way.
“I don’t really believe in luck that much, but you can keep chugging along and things will go your way eventually.”
Indy is a track where Jones finished second in 2018, but also endured rotten luck with two finishes outside the top-30.
Jones is hoping to have clean race following an early exit last September when he and Brad Keselowski crashed at the exit of Turn 1, bringing out the red flag for tire barrier repairs.
“It’s definitely been on or off. I feel like all year we’ve been fast and just haven’t had things work out for us. Hopefully, it’s another clean race,” Jones going into Indianapolis.
“I think the speed will be there. Not having practice really hasn’t seem to hurt us a whole lot, so hopefully we can kind of just go out and do the same thing (Sunday). If we can do that, get a good draw on the start, I think we can contend for the win.”