Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you drive for the most powerful team in NASCAR, one that has amassed multiple championships and well over 100 race wins at the top level of the sport. Purely hypothetically, let’s say this four-car team had three cars make the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 this past season after winning a combined 18 races, and one of them won the title. Pretty cool, right?
There’s just one problem: You’re the other driver, the one who wasn’t part of that high-flying trio.
That’s what it’s like to be Erik Jones, who had what many people would consider a successful 2019 season, winning one of NASCAR’s most prestigious events and making the playoffs for the second straight season, yet still hearing whispers about whether or not Joe Gibbs Racing would look elsewhere to fill the cockpit of the No. 20 Toyota for 2020. Those rumors ultimately got put to rest when Jones signed an extension for the coming season, but even being in that situation highlights just how high the bar is set by the Gibbs organization and how intense the pressure cooker can be, even for the youngest member of the team.
Not that you’d know it from Jones’ demeanor, of course, as his low-key personality, unfazed by most everything, is probably perfect for the role. The one time fans got to see him really cut loose was after his unquestioned season highlight, claiming victory in the 2019 Southern 500 after a marathon day of rain delays and tangles with Lady in Black that ended just shy of 2 a.m. It was one of those bona fide triumphs that will stick with Jones forever, no matter what happens during the rest of his racing career.
Much of the rest of the time, though, Jones and his team spun their wheels compared to the prior season. In fact, many of his final stats looked almost identical to his totals from 2018, including top 10s (17 in 2019 vs. 18 in 2018) and top fives (10 to nine), and Jones failed to advance out of the Round of 16 for the second straight year — and in the most depressing possible fashion, going 36th, 38th (after a post-race inspection penalty wiped out a top-10 finish) and 40th in the round’s three races.
The Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL was especially cruel, compounding the team’s penalty from the week before that put it in must-win territory by enveloping him in a wreck that damaged his radiator and ended both Jones’ day and his playoff run.
Any way you slice it, though, having three of your season’s five worst finishes when it matters most is about as un-clutch as it gets.
Jones also started the 2019 season slowly. After finishing third at Daytona International Speedway and seventh at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the No. 20 team struggled for much of the spring, with just one top-10 result (a fourth at Texas Motor Speedway) in eight races between Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. A crash at Charlotte led to a rare DNF, but Jones bounced back and heated up considerably just as the weather did during the summer, tearing it up in the stretch between Kentucky Speedway and Watkins Glen International with four consecutive finishes of fourth or better.
That alone should bring hope for the future, along with the fact that Jones led nearly twice as many laps (172) as he did during his inaugural season with JGR. It’s somewhat cliche to say that a driver is trending in the right direction, but Jones certainly feels like he is. He’ll have to qualify better, however, as his starting position in 2019 was more than four spots worse on average than it was the prior season.
His goals for 2020 seem like they’d be pretty straightforward as well: Win more than one race, cement a playoff spot earlier than September and advance to the Round of 12 or further for the first time. The big question, of course, is whether even doing all of that will be enough to stave off speculation about whether the Gibbs camp will keep him in the fold. Though he’ll still only be 23 years old come Daytona, Jones now has another reason to be looking over his shoulder in the form of Christopher Bell, who will drive his rookie Cup Series campaign in the JGR-affiliated ride of Leavine Family Racing. If Jones doesn’t step it up, it would be naive to think there won’t be chatter about Bell replacing him in the No. 20, and he only has to look to Daniel Suarez to see an example of how fast NASCAR’s powerhouses will punt on young talent these days.
But those are outside expectations. What Jones feels about his own team’s performance also counts for a lot, and he was blunt while assessing it on our own Frontstretch podcast, grading the summer stretch an A but awarding himself a C+ for 2019 as a whole.
One thing he said does stick in the mind: “It is also calming knowing you’ve got the speed and you’ve just got to put it all together.” Jones didn’t quite do that this year, but don’t expect him to panic as he tries to take another step forward in 2020.
36 starts, one win, 10 top fives, 17 top 10s
Best finish: 1st – Darlington
Point Standings: 16th
Season Grade: B-