Pocono Raceway has always been one of Erik Jones‘ better racetracks, and he continued the hot streak on Sunday evening (July 28) in the Gander RV 400.
Jones began the 400-mile event in fourth position. For much of the opening run of the race, the No. 20 car stayed inside the top five, but it wasn’t all rainbows and roses for the team, despite finishing eighth in the opening stage.
In the second stage, Jones played the strategy game to finish seventh. But the final stage is where the No. 20 team excelled, leading 10 laps. But Jones had to give up the lead and two other positions late while going into fuel conservation mode.
“If we have a day that we run out of fuel because we were trying to push to get a win and we don’t make it, that’s a pretty bad day to finish 25th,” Jones said after the race. “We’re in a spot now — we’re almost a race up on the cutoff line, which is a good feeling. It took a long time to get there, so we don’t really want to give it up all at once.”
On a restart with four laps remaining, Jones restarted in the outside lane, the preferred groove at Pocono on restarts. By the exit of turn one, the No. 20 car moved up to second, chasing down Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin. But then, a multi-car incident forced the race into overtime, as most front running teams, including Jones were on the verge of running out of gas.
With what turned out to be the final restart, Jones battled Hamlin into the first turn, but when the No. 11 cleared, it’s all it wrote, unless Hamlin ran out of fuel. But he didn’t, meaning the No. 20 car finished second, its third straight top-three finish this season.
“Aggressive as you can be,” Jones said of the final restart. “You can’t put yourself in a spot to be taken out. If we were to finish 30th because of a mess on the restart, that wouldn’t have been good. I pushed hard and drove it into [turn] one as hard as I could, trying to get to the left rear of the [No.] 11 just to match him on exit. Couldn’t get there.
“Martin [Truex Jr.] gave me a good push, but once the top got rolling there about halfway down the frontstretch after the restart, I could only go so much more. Fortunate to really stay in second and have a shot on the last lap to be close to Denny. Clean air is really big, and I was doing all I could to make a run, trying different lanes, not trying to follow him, but it wasn’t quite enough.”
Had Jones not had to have save fuel, he doesn’t think Hamlin, Truex or Kevin Harvick would have been able to get by. But for a track Gibbs has dominated over the past three seasons, Jones was happy to be running with his teammates near the front.
“Today was definitely a day where we were right there with them,” Jones added. “Even with the last run before I started saving fuel, we were hanging right with the [No.] 18 and had as much speed as him.
“It’s a good feeling. That’s what we need to do. If we can finish this deal out, get into the playoffs, we’re going to have to run with those guys to try to advance to the nest few rounds, and we’re going to have to beat them along the way at some point.”
With the runner-up finish Jones is 14th on the playoff grid, 39 points above the cutline. Knowing the No. 20 team has had speed this season, he’s happy to finally be getting the finishes the team could have had for the majority of the season.
“There have been races where we’ve had pit road penalties, blown tires, loose wheels, stuff like that taking us out of contention,” he said. “These past two months, we haven’t had anything go wrong, necessarily. We’ve had some mishaps, but nothing we couldn’t work back from in the middle of the day. If we can continue that, we’re going to continue to run in the top five. There’s not a track coming up the rest of the year that I don’t feel confident that we can’t contend. I know we’re going to win one. We can’t keep running second, third every week and not. It’s just going to happen eventually.”
Jones finished in the middle of a JGR sweep of the podium, with Hamlin winning and Truex in third. Despite leading 56 laps, the fourth JGR driver, Kyle Busch, finished ninth.
It’s Jones’ fourth top-five finish in six starts at Pocono.