Reporting by Zach Catanzareti & Dustin Albino
Though the 2016 XFINITY Series Chase has been a relatively smooth ride for Erik Jones, he wouldn’t mind a few changes when it comes to the tracks on the schedule.
Driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, the 20-year-old Jones has survived each round of eliminations in the inaugural series Chase and will battle Elliott Sadler, Daniel Suarez and Justin Allgaier in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track on which Jones says is great to end the season.
“It’s hard to find one much better,” Jones said. “It tests every part of a race driver and a race team. You can run anywhere from the bottom to right against the wall. Miami is great. I think it s a great place to have the championship.”
But despite the success in his Chase season, along with a championship victory at Homestead in 2015, don’t think Jones isn’t thinking of ways to make it better.
“The only thing that could be better yet as a driver would be to rotate the track at the end of the year,” Jones said. “That would be cool to be able to go to some different tracks for the final four and the final race. I wouldn’t say there is one specific one that I would say, ‘Man, I wish we could go to here.’ I think it would be neat to randomize it throughout every year, go to any track it may be.”
Jones, who realizes the difficulties with TV contracts and sponsor relationships, still has his eyes set on “throwing curveballs” in not only the XFINITY Series, but also the Sprint Cup Chase.
“It would be exciting anywhere,” he said. “There would be a plate track that would be insane but interesting. A short track, road course, any of that stuff would be interesting. It would be cool to not only rotate the final race but to rotate the Chase races as well. You saw it in past years with Jimmie [Johnson] and the No. 48 team, they were really strong at all these Chase tracks and it played out really well in their hands.
“It would be interesting to see those races rotated and some different curveballs thrown in there.”
Though Jones leads the XFINITY Series with four victories, he has nine finishes of 20th or worse. During the first round of the Chase, the Michigan native was in danger of missing the cut, before having a solid performance at Charlotte finishing fifth.
With the points system putting more of an emphasis on winning, Jones has put himself in some tough situations, leading to a mixture of results, not performing to the teams full potential.
“I think it hurt us because we wanted to have better finishes throughout the Chase and we did that a little better in this previous round,” he said. “We had some good races and we were able to put together a decent round and not sweat too bad about making it.”
Jones said he feels that in order to win the championship, the driver in question will have to win a race, similar to the last two years in the Cup Series.
“It’s interesting that the four guys in here are from the same teams,” Jones said. “I think throughout the weekend you don’t change your process at all. We will still lean on each other and help each other while we can. Once it gets down to the last 50 laps, I think you have to go for it. At some point you’re going to have to race for it. We don’t want to take each other out of that chance, but at the same time we have to be in to try to win our team the championship and make it happen.”
The open notebook policy at Joe Gibbs Racing will make it hard for both Jones and Suarez to out perform the other to win the title. That policy will continue throughout championship weekend, but at some point Jones knows he might have to throw that out the window in order to win the XFINITY title.
“During the race they are going to know what is going on and the crew chiefs are going to be communicating with each other,” Jones said. “Obviously, we are competing against each other, but we’re still trying to help each other and do the best we can to have a shot at the championship.
“We’re going to go out there and race for it. We can’t take each other out or both take away each other’s chances of winning the championship, but when it comes down to it hopefully it’s him and I racing for the championship and we’re able to settle it between us.”
Over the course of the 32-race season Suarez has finished ahead of Jones more times than not (19 to 13). During the six races in the Chase, the No. 19 team has yet to finish worse than fifth, while the No. 20 car has only two top-5 finishes.