By every measure but one, this has been a successful NASCAR Cup Series season for veteran driver Erik Jones. Statistically speaking, he doesn’t have the race results that compare to his time at Joe Gibbs Racing from 2018-20, but his second go-round with his new team has been off-the-charts better than 2021.
All that’s missing is the accomplishment that matters most this month: locking down a playoff berth. Having made a strong but unsuccessful run at it on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, Jones thinks it comes down to Daytona, the final regular-season race.
Erik Jones has climbed to 14th in points
Petty GMS driver Erik Jones has finished in the top 10 in four of the last nine NASCAR Cup Series races, leading a few laps in each of the four. Even with no finishes better than fourth in that stretch, Jones has climbed to 14th in points and could easily move up a couple more spots this month.
But with 15 drivers having won races and winless competitors Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. far ahead of him in the standings, Jones’ only path to the playoffs is winning at Richmond, Watkins Glen, or Daytona as the regular season winds down.
Other than sixth place in 2017 and a fourth-place finish in 2019 negated by a disqualification, Richmond hasn’t been a good track for Jones, now in his second season driving the iconic No. 43 Chevy. On the other hand, he logged top-10 finishes in three of his four career starts at Watkins Glen.
The regular season ends at Daytona
By the time the checkered flag comes down at Daytona at the end of August, there will have been somewhere between 15 and 18 winners this season in the NASCAR Cup Series. The exact number going into the race will dictate the scenario facing the key players, but just about any combination of circumstances puts Erik Jones into the playoffs as long as he wins in one of the next three weeks.
Daytona is only a so-so track for him. Jones posted one of his two NASCAR Cup Series wins at the 2.5-mile superspeedway during the 2018 summer race, and he placed third in the following year’s Daytona 500. On the other hand, Jones’ average finish in his last six appearances at Daytona is a subpar 25.8.
Still, Jones told NBC Sports before last weekend’s race that Michigan and Daytona were the two opportunities he was pointing to as potential victories.
“I feel good about our chances,” he told NBC Sports before finishing eighth at Michigan. “You know, we have to win for sure, but we really want to get to the playoffs this year.
“It’s really been a year of, I think, a little bit of overperforming from what we expected, honestly. And it’s been good. It’s been a lot of fun. But we want to get in the playoffs to cap it off.”
The “overperforming” has netted Jones a multi-year contract extension, and he’s waiting to learn who’ll replace Ty Dillon in the other Petty GMS car next season. For now, however, the focus is on finding a way to score a crucial third career victory.
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