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Erik Jones: Young drivers have started to close in on the ‘Big 3’

BROOKLYN, Mich. — The driving story of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has been the dominance of the ‘Big 3’ of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. But a first career win by Erik Jones at Daytona may have marked the beginning of a plot twist.

Taking the No. 9 to Victory Lane at Watkins Glen, Chase Elliott became the second driver behind Jones to earn his maiden premier-series victory this year. Add that to a strong second-place run by Daniel Suarez, who nearly beat out Busch at Pocono Raceway, and it appears the youth movement may gradually come to fruition with four races remaining in the regular season.

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“I think we (young drivers) all knew what (we) had to do,” Jones told and NBC Sports following a tour of the Toyota Motor North America Research and Development facility on Thursday in York Township, Michigan. “I think there was just work, not only for the young guys, but the whole field, to catch up to the three who have been winning the majority of the races. It wasn’t just the young guys that needed to get there, it was everyone except them.”

Before his Daytona triumph, Jones only had one top-five finish to his credit. In the four races since then, Jones has scored two fifth-places results in as many races and hasn’t finished worse than 16th in that span.

Jones said they’ve been working hard to contend and win races, an effort that has shown in the recent performance.

“It does feel good to be one of the young guys who have won along with Chase,” Jones said. “I think it’s been good to see some variety here in the last month of guys who’ve been contending for wins and who have won some races. You can see that everyone has closed in a little bit.”

For the most part, the upswing in performance spans across all of Joe Gibbs Racing. Two straight top-five finishes by Suarez bode well for him to potentially squeak out a must-have victory to qualify for the postseason. Although Denny Hamlin has recorded one top-10 result in the past five races, he’s in solid position to make the playoffs without a win, sitting 189 points above the cutline heading into Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

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But according to Jones, it’s been an uphill climb since February to get the organization’s Toyota Camrys to where they are now.

“I feel like we at JGR had some catch-up to play at the beginning of the year compared to some other teams,” Jones said. “I think we’ve done a good job of getting there. Kyle was really taking advantage of good execution to win some races early this year. I think he’d agree if you’d ask him that he didn’t have the best car. But now, I think we’re at the point where we can win some races based on having some of the best cars.”

With that said, is the No. 20 team peaking as the playoffs loom heading into Jones’ home track ?

“For right now, yeah,” said Jones. “We’re in a stretch of good tracks, at least for me and I think for JGR in general. If you look back in years past, JGR and Toyota have done a good job of continuously getting their cars better as the years go on, especially around playoff time. You’re seeing it again this year.”