Friday 5: Erik Jones balances playoff bid and future

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As Erik Jones prepares for one last chance to make the Cup playoffs this year, he also focuses on his future.

With a pair of Cup wins, two playoff appearances and youth on his resume, Jones is selling himself to teams for next year after Joe Gibbs Racing decided not to extend his contract.

“I’ve been burning up the phone more in the last two or three weeks since I found out I wasn’t going to be back at JGR,” he told reporters this week. “Just trying to work on opportunities and find out what is out there for next year because I didn’t have really an inkling that I was going to be in that spot.

“I guess that’s probably more of what I’ve been focused on right now, which is unfortunate because I want to be focused on racing 100 percent and be able to do what I need to do there and go and be competitive each and every week. I’ve been putting in the time on that as well. It definitely seems it has been split more to the side of me trying to work on opportunities for next year.”

Jones declined to reveal which teams he’s had discussions with but is optimistic he’ll be in winning equipment next year.

“There are still some other dominoes to fall in the sport to make the decisions for them and what they’re going to do,” he said. “I feel good about the couple of opportunities that we’ve got out there right now.”

He also notes he faces some challenges in securing a ride.

“I don’t have sponsors with me to move around and any kind of money to bring,” he said. “That’s been part of the challenge.”

Erik Jones celebrates after winning the Busch Clash in February. He likely needs to win Saturday night at Daytona to make the playoffs for a third year in a row. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jones previously said he was “blindsided” by JGR’s decision to let him go after talks had progressed on a contract extension. Plans changed after Bob Leavine sold Leavine Family Racing. That left Toyota without a place to put either Jones or rookie Christopher Bell. Toyota and JGR went with Bell. Jones was left without a ride for next year.

Joey Logano can relate to what Jones is experiencing. Logano was not retained by JGR, opening a place for Matt Kenseth to join in 2013.

Logano texted Jones to see how he was doing. Although they are not close, Jones asked to meet Logano for lunch to talk.

“He went from not being 100% competitive where he wanted to be at JGR to being obviously a champion after he left,” Jones said of Logano, who won the 2018 Cup title for Team Penske. “I kind of wanted to know what switched for him and what really clicked for him after he left. … It was an enlightening conversation.”

Jones’ immediate goal, is making the playoffs for a third consecutive year. The 24-year-old all but needs to win Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Daytona (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App) to do so.

He scored his first career Cup win in the July 2018 Daytona race. Jones also won the crash-filled Busch Clash to open this season in February.

“Both of those races my car was pretty destroyed, so I don’t know that laying back and trying to avoid the wrecks helps that much,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you’re still in it with five to go or 10 to go, even if you’ve got damage, it seems like it doesn’t really matter.

“I know there is going to be a lot of aggression.”

2. A life-changing experience

It’s tempting to look ahead to what could be, but Matt DiBenedetto is focused on making the playoffs for the first time.

DiBenedetto is in danger of falling out of a playoff spot after large leads on William Byron and Jimmie Johnson disappeared the past three races.

DiBenedetto is 15th in the playoff standings heading into Saturday night’s race at Daytona. Byron, who holds what would be the 16th and final playoff spot trails DiBenedetto by five points. Johnson trails DiBenedetto by nine points.

Matt DiBenedetto is on the cusp of making the Cup playoffs for the first time. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It’s probably going to be a game of survival when it comes down to the very end, especially as desperate as a lot of people will be,” DiBenedetto said. “We’ll be paying pretty close attention to what those guys are doing. Where they’re at. If they’re getting into any trouble or anything like that, but it changes lap by lap at Daytona.”

Two weeks ago, DiBenedetto led Byron by 37 points and Johnson by 57 points.

DiBenedetto’s advantage narrowed after he placed 15th at the Daytona road course and then 20th in the Saturday Dover race and 17th the next day. Johnson has finished no worse than seventh in the last three races. Byron scored two top 10s in those three races.

As far as where my emotions are at I haven’t been able to answer it real well,” he said. “Because it’s like, man, am I excited that we have a shot to make the playoffs? For sure. Am I frustrated that we had a much bigger cushion and we had a bad couple Dover races and lost a whole bunch of points? Yeah. Am I a little uneasy knowing that the cutoff race is Daytona and not like a short track or some more straightforward race? Yeah.”

Should he get through Daytona, he’ll have a chance at the title. While Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will be the favorites, DiBenedetto could imagine being the champion in November.

“This stuff is life-changing for me if we make the playoffs,” he said. “Because not only knowing that we could just make them and be there, knowing that we have the speed and the team to really go and compete and hopefully make it through rounds and make a big splash in the playoffs and you’re in the fight for a championship.”

3. Teamwork

Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Jimmie Johnson are racing for the final playoff spots. While there is a chance both could advance, it’s possible they could race each other for the final playoff spot.

Johnson, the seven-time champion, seeks to avoid missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year. Byron seeks to make the playoffs for a second year in a row.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Cliff Daniels enter Daytona outside a playoff spot. (Photo: Getty Images)

The question is how much will their teams work with each other?

Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Johnson, said he’s had conversations with Chad Knaus, crew chief for Byron.

Very close in our communication in what we’re doing with our cars and what we’re doing with our strategy,” Daniels said. “I’m so thankful, along the course of my career, working with the No. 48. Chad, I was his engineer for a while, and he was a great leader and great mentor. He was very supportive of my switch to the role of crew chief on this team. He still loves Jimmie to death and loves his team.

“Chad and I were talking the other day and we both want each other to be in the playoffs, just not quite as much as we want ourselves to be in the playoffs, right? So, it’s been great to have a relationship with that team. Those guys have done a good job digging out of the few holes that they’ve been in. I know that they’re going to be strong and tough.

I hope to work with them, and we are going to work with them, all night Saturday night and put ourselves both in a good spot. And I would love to be side-by-side, door-to-door with them, with points in the bag, coming to the finish line for the final checkered flag with those guys. It would be a great position to be in.”

4. Is this his time?

Saturday night’s regular-season finale provides drivers outside a playoff spot hope. That’s not something they could truly say about past regular-season finales.

Only once in the last four regular-season Cup races did a driver outside a playoff spot finish in the top five. Bubba Wallace placed third at Indianapolis last year.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters Saturday night’s race at Daytona outside a playoff spot but a win would give him a chance to race for a Cup title. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For those seeking playoff bubble drama, Indianapolis was not an ideal track to host the regular-season finale because of the unlikelihood of a surprise winner. Richmond hosted the regular-season finale before that. It’s last two regular-season finales saw only one driver outside a playoff spot entering that event finish in the top 10.

Daytona offers more of a chance for a surprise winner. Justin Haley scored his first career Cup win in last July’s rain-shortened race. Erik Jones scored his first career Cup win in the July 2018 race there.

That gives Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hope. He finished second to Ryan Blaney by inches at Talladega in June in the most recent superspeedway race.

Stenhouse’s previous two Cup wins came at Talladega and Daytona in 2017. Could he race his way into the playoffs with a win Saturday night?

“We have a lot better shot to win here than we did at Indy or Richmond in those final regular season races,” Stenhouse said. “But, to me, I don’t really feel like I’m going into this race any different than I would if it was in July. I still feel like the July race is our opportunity to make it into the playoffs.

“Yeah, it’s kind of a little more dramatic with it being the final race of the regular season and it’s super nerve-racking for those three that are trying to get in on points. So, they will be tiptoeing around and making sure they get to the end, but stage points are also critical for them.

“It’ll be kind of crazy, as far as that scenario goes – that playoff bubble. And then if somebody like ourselves or somebody outside of the playoffs gets a win, I think that’s kind of the thing that’s exciting – makes it come down to the final lap in the last race of the regular season because there’s multiple people that can win and move somebody out of the playoffs.”

5. A race of his own

Mac MacLeod’s interest in motorsports comes naturally. His great-grandfather raced stock cars and was a thrill show stunt driver in Canada. MacLeod grew up in Blind River, Ontario, Canada, about six hours north of Michigan International Speedway.

He followed his love of motorsports to North Carolina. MacLeod graduated in May 2018 from Belmont Abbey College in the Charlotte suburb of Belmont, North Carolina. 

He works at Front Row Motorsports, serving as the social/digital media manager and public relations manager. MacLeod works with driver Michael McDowell. MacLeod handles various media and partnership duties related to it. Before NASCAR reduced the number of team personnel at the track because of COVID-19, he was at the track most weekends. He now does the same work at home as many others in similar positions for other teams. 

As the season moves closer to the end, MacLeod faces his own challenge in securing a visa to continue his work. With restructuring in visas, what MacLeod must have has changed. His current visa expires at the end of January.

It’s just an example of some of the challenges those in the sport can have as NASCAR draws people from outside the U.S., whether they are engineers, mechanics or work on the business side of the sport. 

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