Coming off what could be labeled as a transformation season, Erik Jones is heading into the 2018 season where he believed he would be all along with Joe Gibbs Racing. The young hot shoe is replacing Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 machine.
During his rookie campaign, Jones posted five top-five finishes, 14 top 10s, while leading 310 circuits, 260 of which came in the Bristol night race. The Michigan native missed the playoffs, finishing 19th in the series standings.
For 2018, it’s all about leaning from 2017 and making his sophomore season a success.
“I think this year it’s really what taking last year and trying to improve on it,” Jones said at the Daytona 500 Media Day. “We had a lot of good things that happened to us last year, but there was also a lot of things that we could have done better at the end of the day.
“I think making the playoffs is a huge goal for us and trying to get to Victory Lane. Those two things and improving on our top fives and top 10s and getting a few more of those along the way are going to be some big goals for us.”
Jones finished a career-high second at Bristol, after winning the pole and placing inside the top five in the opening two stages. Between Pocono Raceway in late July and Richmond Raceway in early September, the 21-year-old had six consecutive top-10 finishes, the longest streak for a rookie in 2017.
Replacing Kenseth doesn’t come as a surprise. However, during the 2013 season, Kenseth’s first year in the No. 20 ride, he posted seven victories and finished runner-up in the season standings to Jimmie Johnson. Jones knows he has some shoes to fill, but plans on becoming an established driver in the famed No. 20 machine.
“I haven’t talked to Matt over the off-season, but I got to know Matt a lot last year,” Jones said. “Him and I became pretty close last year with that alliance with JGR and Furniture Row Racing. I’m just excited to be in the [No.] 20 car in general. It’s an iconic number at Joe Gibbs Racing and I have a neat opportunity to really build my own legacy in that car, and I think that’s really cool. I hope to be at Joe Gibbs Racing a long time and have my own success in the [No.] 20 car.”
The No. 20 ride has won two championships with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2002 and 2005 with Tony Stewart behind the wheel. Though, he hasn’t visited the Winner’s Circle through his first 38 Cup Series starts, Jones admitted to learning valuable lessons in his rookie season to take forward for 2018 and beyond.
“If you’re having a seventh-place day, it’s a seventh-place day, don’t try to push it and do any better than that,” he said. “I think that’s where I got in trouble a lot at times trying to take a car that was sixth or seventh and put myself in a position to win and that’s where you get in trouble really quickly.”
Jones qualified sixth in Daytona 500 qualifying and will roll off third in the second Can-Am Duel on Thursday evening.