Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Erik Jones Staying Independent in Rookie Cup Season

Fast but unsteady. It’s the story of not only Erik Jones’ rookie Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, but his entire racing career.

From go karts, late models, NASCAR Camping World Truck, XFINITY or Cup action, Jones has had to learn how to gel with new people on almost a monthly basis.

Rising to the Cup Series with Furniture Row Racing, he and his newly formed No. 77 Toyota team have come out of the gate solid, sitting 16th in points with five top-15 finishes.

The numbers, however, are not indicative of the pace from the 20-year-old through a quarter-season of racing in 2017.

Frontstretch sat down with the Michigan native to talk about his transition into full-time Cup, his maturity with frustrations and why he chooses to be independent in the NASCAR garage.

Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: Here we are, the quarter mark of your first Cup season. What are your thoughts right now?

Erik Jones: We keep trying to bring fast racecars to the track and trying to keep the momentum going. We want to start getting some of the finishes that I feel like we deserved. At some of these races, we’ve been running up front and had good cars, just haven’t quite finishes in the spots we’ve wanted.

For the most part, just keep bringing these fast racecars and try to get some better finishes.

Catanzareti: You had a great run at Bristol, started 14th and was into second in no time. Didn’t turn out the way you wanted but what does a run like that do to you confidence-wise this early in the season?

Jones: It’s nice to know we’re capable of doing it. Obviously, after that I feel like we’re capable of each week running up front. Bristol was definitely a race I feel like we should’ve had a really good finish, probably a top-four finish, maybe a top three. That would’ve been a nice boost for us but it didn’t work out.

Erik Jones has worked with crew chief Chris Gayle in both XFINITY and Cup. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Catanzareti: You’ve seen a lot of disappointment in your career so far. You’ve had great success, but you’ve also seen low moments. Do you think it’s important to have a better gauge on how this sport can treat you?

Jones: Yeah, I think so. I’ve definitely had a lot of ups and downs throughout my career — maybe some of that is self-inflicted. It’s been a good learning experience since 2013. I keep learning every day of every week. The Cup Series has been a whole new challenge for me. Going from XFINITY, where I felt confident and where I could win every week, to a whole new challenge at a whole new level here at the Cup level to re-adjust and to figure out what to do to try and compete and win these races.

Catanzareti: Compared to the Truck Series, you didn’t win as many races as you should have and you were frustrated a lot. Comparing that to how you deal with yourself now, are you different? Have you learned to handle yourself better?

Jones: I think so. As times went by, I think I’ve learned how to deal with the frustrations better — not only after races but during races as well and how to communicate better with your team and stay calmer. There are still times when I get frustrated, we all get frustrated. But for the most part, I feel like I do a better job at staying calmer.

Knowing and realizing that there’s only so much you can do as a driver, as long as you’re driving to your max capability and communicating what you can. Getting frustrated doesn’t seem to do much good.

Catanzareti: What are the difference between Trucks, XFINITY and Cup? You’ve gone straight up the ladder the last three years. What are the major differences? You have to handle yourself differently, different cars, competition.

Jones: It has changed a lot. Each step has been incrementally more challenging as a driver. Incrementally more challenging and time-consuming as a person, and the time constraints at the Cup level is definitely higher than they are in the XFINITY or especially Truck Series.

Learning that and trying to figure out how to handle that and the time management as well as learning the competition side and racing with new guys in each series has been a learning experience as well.

Teammate Martin Truex Jr. has taken the role of mentor in 2017. (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

Catanzareti: You talked about your relationship with drivers. You keep to yourself a little bit, you bring your friends to the racetrack, you said. Can you elaborate on that? Do you think there are benefits to being that type of driver?

Jones: Well, I think so. Obviously, I know my teammates well, I talk to Martin, I talk to our JGR affiliates. But other than that, I’m friendly, I’ll say, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ But we’re not grilling out at the house or something during the week. It’s just how I always have been. I remember racing late models like that, I remember racing go karts like that.

I think its hard at times for myself to be buddies with a guy and then have to get in a situation to where I’m racing and, if it comes down to it, to make a move to either move someone out of the way. I have a big heart, so if I’m friends with them, I don’t necessarily want to do that. So, it makes it a challenge.

Catanzareti: Are you different that way? It seems a lot of drivers, it can be anybody out there, when it comes down to the win, they will bump them out of the way. Do you feel you can expect better from drivers knowing you treat them well?

Jones: I think you race everybody the way they race you. That’s how I’ve always looked at it. You do what it takes to win at the end of the day, but there is more respect shown in NASCAR today then there has been ever in the sport, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We all race each other with a lot of respect. If you don’t see that, you see people return the favor. That’s how I always look at it. I try to gain these guys’ respect.

Obviously, I’m new here in this series, I’m a rookie, I want to show these guys I can race around them, we can race hard and we can race clean. You don’t want to go out and get a bad reputation right off the bat. We’ve seen that in the past and it’s hard to clear that up.

Catanzareti: You’re catching the tail-end of a lot of great drivers, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards. Do you feel lucky that you can say you’ve raced with these guys right at the end of their careers?

Jones: I am fortunate to say I have raced with a lot of those guys and had a few battles with them. I battled with Dale really hard for my first XFINITY win a few years ago, so that’s a cool memory I have with him. As well as getting the start my first Cup race next to Jeff, get to race with Tony that day as well.

Kyle Busch is one man Erik Jones is used to talking with. (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

So, all these guys I have gotten to a chance to race against at some point, which is neat. These are all guys I looked up to and watched race when I was a kid. It’s pretty cool to at least have one opportunity to race against them all.

Catanzareti: Is experience the only thing keeping you from winning in the Cup Series right now?

Jones: Yeah, I would say it’s a lot of it. A lot of it is just learning these cars, still learning how to manage these races, what I need out of the car, what I needed to do throughout the day, these tracks, these cars change different than others.

I think we have shown we can have speed, we just need to do a better job of executing throughout the day and keeping up with the racetracks. I’ve been working on that, me and (crew chief, Chris) Gayle, both. We’re getting better every week, we have the speed every week, we just need to fine-tune it to make sure we’re having that speed with 50 to go as well.

Catanzareti: A lot of people doubted this second Furniture Row Racing team. At this point in the season, do you think you’ve made your stance as a competitive race team?

Jones: I think so. We haven’t gotten as many as the finishes as we wanted but we’re still 12th in points because we have run well and gotten a lot of stage points. We have shown we can do it, we’ve shown, especially at Bristol, that we can run up front and be competitive — both us, the Nos. 77 and 78. Martin has a win there at Vegas.

It’s cool to see that we’ve been able to jump headfirst into this thing and have speed right off the bat. It’s never easy starting a new team from scratch but everybody has done a really nice job of coming over and figuring out their roles.

Catanzareti: You’re used to new teams. You’ve jumped team to team, series to series. How tough is that? You’re trying to build a legitimate team in the Cup Series but it always has seemed unstable for you.

Erik Jones is used to meeting new people. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Jones: It’s tough, it’s been the story of my career a little bit. I had a different crew chief every year in late models, I had a different crew chief every year in Trucks almost. And then XFINITY, a new crew and then Cup a new crew. You learn a lot of a person, as a driver. You learn a lot of people skills and dealing with different people.

You pick up a little bit from each team and each person you work with. At the end of the day, I hope to have the opportunity to build a team. I’d love to stay with the same group of guys for a long time. We’ve seen that that can be very successful with the No. 48 team with Chad (Knaus) and Jimmie (Johnson) being together now since the beginning of his career. I’d love to have that opportunity to have a relationship like that with a crew chief and my team. Hopefully, I can build that.

Catanzareti: Where can the team improve? You’re running top 10 almost every week, only one top-10 finish. Is it just luck or is there something at the team has to improve on?

Jones: It’s a little bit of each. Some of the situations just haven’t worked out for us. Bristol was a situation where it’s just a racing deal, we cut a tire. But there have also been situations where we put ourselves in bad spots. Phoenix was our only top 10 of the year but we also restarted 15th on an overtime restart.

There have been situations where we’ve put ourselves in bad spots, it’s just all a big team effort. It’s just hard to have a really good day in the Cup Series. That day is coming, we keep bringing fast cars and running in the top 10, top five, we’re going to have a good day.

Catanzareti: Jumping team to team, is that why you’re independent?

Jones: Yeah, it is some of that. your jump around and work with all these different people, it’s kind of hard to keep up at times. it makes it fun, its a challenge as a driver, as a competitor, I enjoy the challenge of that. Running XFINITY is a challenge, especially in the Cup Series, jumping back and forth and trying to keep it in line. At the end of the day, it makes it pretty fun.

Catanzareti: Can you believe you’re in the Cup Series?

Jones: No, not this soon. If you asked me that in 2012, I would’ve said, ‘no way.’ over the past few years, getting some really good opportunities with some good teams and getting race wins, I was hoping at some point I would get that opportunity in the Cup Series.

Erik Jones has already won twice in XFINITY in 2017. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

This year, to get it, I didn’t think that would happen. In a way, it’s hard to fathom that. Definitely pretty cool to be here, especially with it only my fourth year in NASCAR. It’s been a fun journey, a quick climb, but one I have enjoyed.

Catanzareti: It’s been a tough year, you lost your father last year. Being in the Cup Series, I bet it’s so special. Did he know you were going to make it into the Cup Series?

Jones: Yeah, actually, Coach (Joe Gibbs) sat down with him, talked to him and told him everything was going to be all right for this year and that we were going to be racing in the Cup Series. That was a cool moment. There are times, even last night I was sitting in my motorhome and I was like, ‘Man, it would just be cool to get him to see this thing. He would think it was pretty neat that we had a motorhome and all this cool stuff.’

A lot of things I wish he was here to be able to see but I definitely know he is watching down and know that he knew everything was going to work out.

Catanzareti: When you lift that trophy for your first Cup win, what are you going to be thinking about?

Jones: As a driver, you think about that day a lot and you try to plan it all out, say everything you want to say and do everything you want to do. But at the end of the day, when that happens, I imagine it would be a pretty surreal moment. Obviously, it takes a lot to win these races. You see guys now, three- or four-win seasons are huge. So, to win just one of these races is a big deal.

The feeling? I don’t know. Hopefully, after it happens I can tell you more about it. But it will definitely be hard to describe.

(Below is a video capture of our conversation with Erik Jones.)

About the author

Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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