By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Erik Jones earned third-place in Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway the hardest way imaginable and that’s overcoming multiple setbacks.
Whether it’s a speeding penalty or multiple incidents with several drivers, Jones made the most of rallying back to equal his result from last Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky. Even if he described his good day as a sloppy one from his viewpoint.
“We got good stage points in the first stage and finished well at the end. The Stanley Camry was good,” said Jones. “All day I felt like we were close, we just needed to get up front and never quite did it. Never quite got the lead, but we were there. Again, up in the top five, you can’t complain and especially with the points we gained today. It’s good.
“We can definitely get more aggressive with that gap. We’re getting close there to having almost a race on them. If we can have a couple more good weeks, we’ll be there. Pocono is a good one. We’ll keep doing it, but today was definitely a testament to our speed and this team. We keep fighting through it. We never gave up. We did what we needed to do and fixed the damage when we needed to and got a good finish out of it.”
Before the madness really began, Jones headed into 301-lap contest 16th in points but only two markers ahead of Ryan Newman. With a stellar fourth-place qualifying starting spot, “That Jones Boy” backed up his strong Joe Gibbs Racing entry with a stout opening stage.
Strategy played a pivotal role for Jones to get himself in front of the field, leading a few laps in the process. This led to a strong second-place result and collected nine valuable stage points he needed to help his bid of making the playoffs.
The action picked up in Stage 2 when Jones’ day could’ve turned really ugly multiple times. After the third caution came out due to contact incidents involving the two Daniels (Suarez and Hemric), Jones came down pit road and collided Alex Bowman, causing right front fender damage and required to fix it.
Jones recovered nicely, but an incident on Lap 136 angered one driver, who’s day ended after multiple run-ins.
The angry driver was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who Jones ran into him before his left front tire went down and slammed the Turn 2 wall. It ended his afternoon and now sits 20th in points, 77 markers behind the playoff cutoff line with six regular season races to go.
Stenhouse warned Jones that going forward, he won’t forget how his day at Loudon ended.
“I don’t know what happened to get him in the back,” said Stenhouse. “We had that restart with him up front and didn’t have any issues, so he’s run over us a couple times, but that’s his deal. He’s gonna have to deal with it at some point.”
Jones said it was hard racing battle for multiple laps until he ran out of patience with Stenhouse.
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“I got five or six runs on him about every corner and he pulled me tight. Finally, I said it was time to go and had to move forward.” Jones explained. “He was there and ran into my right rear until the very last second. I don’t want to run people over but if you’re going to race hard, you’re going to be race hard back.”
Regarding if Jones is willing to speak with Stenhouse, he has no problem making peace but isn’t sure if he’ll respect his explanation from his perspective as to why Stenhouse’s day ended while Jones continued on.
“I’ll talk to him if he wants to talk about it. I don’t think he’ll understand my side or not, but I definitely have a side,” said Jones. “It wasn’t a reckless move by me, it was a calculated move and did it to move up. He had a choice to lift another lap and let me go, and just keep racing his day.
“He knew I was faster and back there because we had to repair damage. If he don’t want to show the respect and want to race really hard, it’s fine. I would expect the same thing back if I was racing him and holding him tight.”
Moments later, Jones’ race took another twist as he had to restart at the rear of the field due to Jones speeding in Section 5 on pit road. He wound up 19th in Stage 2.
A frustrated Jones soldiered towards the front and was up to sixth with 115 laps remaining. Eventually, he saw himself inside the top-five that could’ve evaporated before 30 laps to go.
The ninth and final caution came out after Kyle Larson crashed in Turn 1, different strategies kicked in and at the last second, Jones’ No. 20 Stanley Tools Toyota Camry made a hard right turn to stay out.
There was concerns if Jones violated the pit commitment line, which had Jones livid over the radio. Fortunately for Jones, he didn’t have all four tires beneath the orange box and would restart second.
Crew chief Chris Gayle told him to calm down and focus on the final 29 laps of the race as a shot for his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory was within reach.
Kevin Harvick led the field to the restart and had a strong entry into Turn 1, clearing Jones before hitting the backstretch. Jones’ teammate Denny Hamlin, who had fresher tires, would get by as Jones’ pace wasn’t strong enough to contend for the win.
As Harvick and Hamlin put on a phenomenal show, Jones exited Loudon with a respectable but hard earned third which marked his sixth top-five of the season.
He’ll now head into the Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway July 28, 14th in points and 28 markers ahead of Clint Bowyer, the new man holding the final playoff spot.
“It feels better than two points that’s for sure. It’s getting there,” Jones on being inside the top-16 in points. “I wish we had a little bit more and hopefully we’ll just get a win here and not have to worry about it. We’re close and if we keep finishing up here in the top three, it’s going to happen.
“We’re going to get there. Just got to keep going and it definitely feels – I’m going to sleep a lot easier this week with this gap than what we had last week.”