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LAS VEGAS — Erik Jones stood on pit road at Daytona International Speedway in February with his family. The warm Florida sun shone brightly as Jordin Sparks sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and drivers prepped for the "Great American Race" with hugs from loved ones and well wishes.
It was a special moment for Jones, making his debut as full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver. But he was missing someone.
His late father, Dave Jones.
"I definitely thought about him out at Daytona, standing out at pit road," Jones shared at a roundtable discussion with media at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Friday. "I wish he could have been there to take it all in. It was a pretty cool moment for my family and I, but (we) definitely knew that he was watching down."
Jones’ father passed away on June 7, 2016, after a battle with lung cancer that had spread to his brain. He was 53 years old.
The loss understandably stung the younger Jones, and was something he hadn’t been able to discuss up until recently. His father’s diagnosis was unexpected, a trip to the doctor that went south very quickly.
Jones vividly remembers receiving that phone call that no one ever wants to answer.
"He had lost feeling in his arm one day and went to the doctor and thought he had a pinched nerve or something," Jones recalled. "And they found the cancer and gave him around a year to live with treatment.
"That’s pretty hard news to take any time, but by April (2016), we’d seen some X-Rays and they’d really never seen it progress that quickly. It went from being, he was fine and we weren’t going to be able to cure it but we were going to be able to maintain it and manage life with treatment, and all of a sudden that kind of deteriorated and he was in and out of the hospital."
But Dave Jones’ passing in June was more than the loss of his father for Erik. It was the loss of an adviser, a supporter.
His best friend.
"I was pretty holed up in my house," Jones said. "Didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t want to talk about it to anybody. Most of my friends for a month didn’t even know he was sick. Slowly started to tell more people and kind of talk about it as time went on. But it wasn’t something I shared with many people or talked about it at all."
Today is the first time he’s talked about his father in length with others outside his family. It feels good, he says. That it’s important to tell his story.
"I looked up to him so much for so many years," Jones said. "He was really my best friend, I didn’t think of anybody that I felt closer with or felt that I could share more with at any time, so it’s nice to talk about him."
• • •
Days after his father’s passing, Jones was scheduled to visit his home track — Michigan International Speedway — to compete in the XFINITY Series’ Menards 250.
He could have sat out. His crew would have understood, and he likely would have been OK in the points standings. But Jones felt like he had to race.
For his father.
"It almost seemed so surreal at the time it happens, you’re almost numb at that point," Jones said. "I felt like that was somewhere I should be and felt like I had no reason not to be there … But it was definitely tough, it was a tough weekend.
"Honestly the one (thing) I wanted to do, I wanted to have a good run for him and felt like that would just kind of make everybody feel better."
The Byron, Michigan, native finished fourth in the Irish Hills that day, a finish his dad likely would have been proud of. But that was just the beginning of what is a long process of grief, uncertainty and struggle for the 20-year-old driver, especially when it came to his career.
"The first few months after he was gone were tough going to the race track," Jones said. "Not necessarily something I wanted to do right away was go back to the race track, but felt like it would get my mind off it at least, and knew it was something he would have wanted me to do.
"Honestly (I) worried about, funny enough, if I’d ever even win again. I didn’t know if I’d even be the same person after going through something like that."
He did win again — and soon. His first win after his father’s passing came in July at Iowa Speedway, and then another at Chicagoland to kick off the playoffs.
Soon after that, Furniture Row Racing announced that it would expand its operation to field two cars and that Jones would pilot the No. 77 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Toyota in 2017.
But Jones’ father knew his son’s future before most of the world knew.
All thanks to a visit from Coach Joe Gibbs.
"He was starting to get pretty ill and Joe Gibbs stopped by our house kind of out of the blue," Jones said. "… We chatted together — him, me and my dad — and then I stepped out, just let them have some time together.
"I came back after Joe had left and kind of talked to him and said, ‘How was it?’ … and he said ‘I think you’re going to be well off … I was talking to Joe and it looks like next year you’re going to be with Furniture Row and you’re going to do this deal and I’m just really happy for you. It will be a great year.’
"I was glad at that point that Joe sat down and told him that. It wasn’t something we had fully engaged with at that point and weren’t sure exactly what was going to happen. Joe took the time to sit down and explain to him that everything was going to be OK and I was going to be competing at this level next year."
It’s been a fast process in Jones’ rise in the racing ranks, as he just started full time in the XFINITY Series in 2015. It’s a process where he wishes he had his father alongside him.
"He always had the answer, I felt like," Jones said. "And all of sudden, you lose that. In three, four months I went from having that to it was gone. I kind of felt like I was on my own. And trying to figure all that out myself at 20 years old — I don’t have a ton of experience in the world — and trying to figure that all out and trying to figure out how to do these things was challenging.
"At the end of it all, especially today, I feel like I’m more solid and knowing what’s going on more than ever. But it took a long time to get there. All of last year, I felt like some things were not in my control, like I didn’t know what was going on. I probably ignored a lot of things through the middle and later part of the year. Just didn’t deal with it. If there was an issue, I would sometimes throw it to the side and not worry about it.
"And now, I feel like this year in the offseason, I got a lot of things in order like I need to and I definitely feel like I have it under control."
• • •
A 1965 Corvette and a leather and silver-faced Shinola watch are two pieces that remind Jones of his father. He keeps the watch close with him, everywhere he goes on the NASCAR circuit. A Michigan native, Jones said his father treasured the Detroit-made watch for its roots to his beloved home state.
Sometime after his diagnosis, Dave Jones thought his son should have it.
"He took it to a jeweler and had it engraved for me," Jones said. "… It’s kind of the one thing that I have that connects me back to him."
The Corvette is a little different — it’s more of a repayment to his father.
"He had it when I was a little kid," Jones said. "He sold it when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old to fund my racing and I always wanted to buy it back for him. I finally got the point a year ago where I was like, ‘I can finally start thinking about buying this car back for him.’ Then he got sick. But I finally got the car back."
But even with these objects aside, Jones’ father remains a presence in his life, even after his passing. He’s in his dreams, in his thoughts every day, beside him as he stands at the race track ready to take on another race, a dream of Erik’s that his father loved and supported.
"I always think about it," Jones said. "And a lot of the things that I still do are with him in mind, and thinking about what he would think or what he’d want to do. I always feel like he’s there in some way.
"… There’s definitely been times over the last few weeks that I would have loved to call him and just talk to him … talk to him about racing in general, about life, everything that’s going on.
"I definitely think he’s proud and would be proud."