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Erik Jones’ continued growth signals first win is getting closer

BRISTOL, Tenn. — No. 20 crew chief Chris Gayle prompted an important conversation with his driver Erik Jones during the offseason.

They talked face-to-face, putting everything from 2017 on the table — and it was good, he said.

“We sat down in the offseason and had a real good talk about what the deficiencies were between he, me,” Gayle told NASCAR.com on Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “We both kind of laid it all on the line, here’s where we both need to get better. And I think we’re doing that so far, so if we can just continue down that path we’ll be OK.

“Not that it was bad or controversial or not that anyone felt bad about it, but it was just an honest conversation (that said), ‘Hey, I’m willing to take it on the chin. I make plenty of mistakes, you make plenty of mistakes, but we want to minimize both of these and we’ll all be better.'”

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That conversation paved the way for a more consistent start to the 2018 season for Jones, who joined the Joe Gibbs Racing fleet this season after spending his rookie season with JGR affiliate Furniture Row Racing. Currently ranked 11th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, the 21-year-old boasts an average finish of 9.33 in the past six races; last week at Texas Motor Speedway, he led 64 laps and notched his first top five of the season after starting 21st in the field.

Jones called it a “big step up” during his post-race interview at Texas on April 8.

RELATED: Jones earns season-best finish at Texas

“I knew we had a good race car and you know we showed that,” Jones said on his Texas run.  “… That was the first day we’ve been up in the top five. We led some laps. That’s a good builder … It’s something I’ve been wanting to do here with this group and … we did a good job of it this weekend.”

The laps out in front of the field were especially significant for Gayle.

“We didn’t lead any laps on intermediates last year,” Gayle said. “We were competitive, but we didn’t lead laps. Last week we led some laps and could have been in position to win the race with some circumstances … I think we’re getting better in every category, it’s just a matter of building that consistency.”

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The 2017 Monster Energy Series season was one of change for Jones. He was beginning his Monster Energy Series career with a new team that was based in Colorado, meaning that the North Carolina-based Jones couldn’t be at the shop for face-to-face conversations with Gayle. On a personal level, he was starting a new season without his father — who passed away from lung cancer in June 2016 — for the first time in his racing career.

“The last year for him has been tough,” Gayle said. “He’s had to become a little bit of the man of the house and I think that throws some stuff on your plate that maybe you don’t deserve …

“And you have to grow up a little bit though all of that.”

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Jones’ maturity is something that Gayle appreciates about him. He doesn’t wreck race cars often and his laidback personality lends itself to a sense of that maturity. But there was still plenty to learn for the up-and-coming driver in his first year in the Monster Energy Series.

“I think the first 10 races, he kind of had this wake-up call where ‘I’m in the Cup Series, I thought this was going to be a little easier than what it was,’ ” Gayle said. “I know we had some conversations like that, I don’t know if he’ll admit to that totally, but it was definitely a wake-up call … And so I think it was kind of a ‘I’ve been really successful and haven’t had to do a whole lot of work to be successful to this point, but now natural talent alone isn’t enough to get it done.’ So, I think that was probably the first third of the year. And then there were lots of conversations about, ‘OK, now that I’ve realized that, what should I do?’ “

Gayle encouraged him to talk to other drivers for advice and Jones began to prepare better during the week heading into the race.

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At some point in the season, something “clicked” for Jones; he rattled off six straight top 10s from Pocono to Richmond, nearly winning Bristol’s famed night race in August.

“We never finished out of the top 10,” Gayle said of the stretch. “I think he looked at that (six)-race stretch and his average finish was like the second or third-best in the Cup Series during that … It clicked for him and it clicked for me that we can do this, he can do this. It’s just a matter of getting that consistency all the time …

“I think he really saw how good he could be and he could be at more than just one or two race tracks that he’s really good at.”

Gayle wasn’t the only one who has noticed a change in Jones this year; Kyle Busch, Jones’ longtime mentor and former team owner, joked that he doesn’t hear from his JGR teammate as much as he did when he was starting out.

RELATED: Busch interrupts Jones’ presser with a ‘call’

Their relationship now more resembles equal teammates than one of a teacher and student.

 “I don’t know if he thinks he knows everything or he doesn’t trust me,” he said with a smile. “Erik’s been obviously a student of the game … We all lean on each other and we all pick each other’s brain all the time – I’ve asked Jones questions in some of our debriefs and such …

“But as far as Jones calling me during the week or talking to me much about going to particular race tracks and stuff like that, I think he’s probably been around long enough that he’s comfortable with what he knows and what he’s doing and what he’s got going on with his own team that he doesn’t pick my brain as much.”

Teacher and student will go head to head this weekend, as Busch starts on the pole and Bristol is a track where Jones has always thrived. After a tire test last September, Jones told Gayle that he could run laps around Tennessee short track all day. 

He paced Friday’s opening practice session with Ryan Blaney and topped the 10-lap average charts in the first and second practices. Last August, Jones led 260 laps after starting on the pole in the night race, battling none other than his mentor Busch in the final laps. His No. 20 Toyota looks strong again this weekend and Jones hopes redemption is in the cards for him this weekend.

RELATED: Best 10-lap averages at Bristol 

“You’re always motivated when you come to a track to win, especially when you come back to somewhere you feel like that you had a car that could do it and just didn’t close out the deal,” Jones said. 

“Winning my first Cup race is something that I really want to get done. I feel like if we can get one knocked out of the way that more is kind of going to come with that, so we’re going to continue to push this weekend. … It’s good to come back to a place where your team is fast, where you’re comfortable and the car unloads good. We’ve had a good weekend so far, we just need to keep it heading that way.” 

After watching his driver this year, Gayle predicts that coveted first win will come soon for Jones. Perhaps even this weekend; he’ll have to make up 12 spots to get to pole-sitter Busch initially, but Busch’s six wins at Bristol have all come with starting positions of 12th or worse. He won over Jones in August after starting 18th. 

Gayle hopes that trend holds true this weekend, as Jones will roll off the grid 13th.

 “I wish we’d qualified better, but what did Kyle qualify 16th or 18th last fall and won the race?” Gayle said. “It’ll be a little different; last year we were the hunted during this race. Kyle hunted us down and beat us. We’re in reverse roles this year.”

He smiled. “I told Erik to go up and talk to Kyle and make sure he reminds him of that before the race …

 “We’re coming after you.”