Erik Jones said the surprise news of Carl Edwards leaving Joe Gibbs Racing and not competing in 2017 was “not something that we saw coming” during an interview Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Jones will be a rookie in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season with Furniture Row Racing, which is aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing. Jones said the news won’t impact his rookie campaign driving the No. 77 Toyota.
Daniel Suarez, the defending Xfinity Series champion, will replace Edwards in the No. 19 Toyota after initially being slated to run his third Xfinity season. Joe Gibbs Racing will announce the move at a 10 a.m. (ET) press conference Wednesday at the team’s race shop.
Jones, the 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion and the 2016 Xfinity Rookie of the Year, was announced as the driver of the No. 77 Toyota last August.
The 20-year-old driver said his rapid ascension to the Cup series, which began in the Truck series at 17, didn’t begin to sink in until a trip to Furniture Row Racing’s shop in Denver, Colorado, a few weeks ago.
“I was walking through the shop and looking at all the cars they were putting together,” Jones said on “SiriusXM Speedway” with Dave Moody. “At the time I was looking at the new body for 2017 that I hadn’t seen yet. And walking through the shop, there were some chassis lined up on the floor and every chassis has a serial code on it. It had the chassis number and at the end it had ‘- EJ’ and that was pretty cool. That’s the feeling, you’re walking through and (think) ‘that’s me. That’s my car. They’re putting that car together for me.'”
The last few months have been busy for Furniture Row Racing as it prepares the No. 77 team for its first on-track action in the coming weeks. The first time the completed team will assemble will be on Jan. 31 for a test at Phoenix International Raceway.
Leading the charge for the No. 77 team will be crew chief Chris Gayle, who is coming off a season as crew chief for the No. 18 team in the Xfinity Series thatwon 12 races. When Jones drove the No. 54 car part-time in 2015, he and Gayle won a race at Chicagoland Speedway.
“I didn’t really know him on a personal level so much in 2015,” Jones said. “I spent some time with him (in Denver) last time I was there. I stayed at his house and it’s been fun getting to know him more.”
When Speedweeks rolls around, it will be the first time Jones has driven a Cup car in race conditions since 2015 when he substituted for a suspended Matt Kenseth in two races at the end of the season. That was after he drove for the injured Kyle Busch at Kansas Speedway in May of that year.
But the Cup cars have changed dramatically in those two years, with two major reductions in downforce, that Jones said those starts and even his mid-race substitution of Denny Hamlin at Bristol in April 2015 don’t count toward real Cup experience anymore.
“I realized that at a test I did at Kansas last year with the Furniture Row group,” Jones said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The driving style (in 2015) was fairly different than the test I did at Kansas a few months ago. I think it’s a small learning curve. The driver takes whatever they’re given to the maximum performance level that’s allowed.”
The Kansas test with the 2017 rules package also showed a “big change” from what Jones was used to in the Xfinity Series.
“Immediately, the first lap on the track you’re all the way out of the gas using brake,” Jones said. “I don’t think there’s a single mile-and-a-half on the schedule for the Xfinity Series where we used much brake at all and we were using quite a bit at Kansas. It’s definitely a lot different, but I think it’s good. I think putting it in the driver’s hands is what everybody in the Monster Energy Cup Series has been asking for and we’re getting to see that now.”
Jones will make his full-time Cup series debut on Feb. 26 in the Daytona 500.