Erik Jones, No. 20 team ‘settling into our groove’ heading into Bristol

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Erik Jones has to be feeling good about himself.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is coming off his best race and first top five of 2018 and he’s returning to the site of his best Cup race of his short career.

Jones, 21, finished fourth Sunday in the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway. That was after he led 68 laps, easily a career-best for him on a 1.5-mile track (only three laps led on 1.5-mile tracks previously).

That total is second to what he recorded last August at Bristol Motor Speedway, the track the series returns to this weekend.

Bristol was the site of Jones’ first career Cup pole. That night, he led 260 laps and battled Kyle Busch for the win before finishing second, his best result through his first 46 Cup starts.

It was similar to how his day at Texas ended, with Busch streaking off for the win.

“I was sitting in second place watching him drive away about a half a car length a lap, kind of shaking my head,” Jones said Sunday.  “It seems like every time I get to lead some laps, he comes up and spoils it.

“Hopefully one day we can get up there and challenge him for one of these wins.”

Sunday’s Food City 500 will be Jones’ first Cup start at the track with JGR after making his first two with Furniture Row Racing.

Heading into the 500-lap race, Jones has four top 10s in addition to his lone top five. Last year, his No. 77 team didn’t claim its fourth top 10 until the July Daytona race.

“I’d like to run obviously more like today more often,” Jones said. “I think it was somewhat of a transition (to JGR). I mean, the cars are a little different this year. It’s a new group. It’s a new process for (crew chief) Chris (Gayle) over at JGR. It’s new engineers for him. It’s a new environment for me, as well.

“Overall it was a little bit of a learning curve, kind of figuring everything back out. But I feel like we’re settling into our groove a little bit. This is a good two‑week stretch. Coming in, I was pretty excited going to Texas number one, then off to Bristol next week. Fun weeks for me, two of my favorite tracks.”

In five Xfinity starts at Bristol, Jones has started from the pole three times and won twice. He finished in the top 10 in all but one race. He finished sixth in his only Truck Series start there.

Not counting his 26th-place finish in April 2015 when he substituted for an injured Denny Hamlin mid-race, Jones has six top 10s and four top fives in eight NASCAR races at Bristol.

“I think we look to contend for the win again,” Jones said. “That’s my outlook and my hope and goal. I think going up and being up front again is what we should do. The track is going to be really similar. … We went there and tested last fall (in September with Ty Dillon), did a tire test, we were really fast. Hopefully we can just be quick again.

“Obviously, there’s been some other manufacturers that are really strong this year, have been really fast, hard to beat. I think Bristol is a little bit different animal.”

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