Erik Jones has kept plenty busy during the age of COVID-19 isolation, making the grand step of moving to a house closer to Charlotte in a search for more room and a home life reminiscent of his youth growing up in Michigan. He has also found the stray moment to strum a guitar from his modest collection and rekindle his childhood love for reading by starting a children’s book circle on social media.
The many diversions have helped him navigate the pandemic’s impact in his home life. His work life, however, is picking up.
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Jones and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team face a deficit in their hunt for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with eight events left in the regular season. The 24-year-old driver sits 24 points back of Jimmie Johnson’s provisional hold on the final postseason berth, with William Byron and Tyler Reddick in close competition for one of the remaining spots in the 16-driver field.
“Eight races out, we’re definitely looking at that, on the outside looking in,” Jones said Tuesday, two days before the Cup Series’ next event. “We’ve been looking at what we can do the next few weeks to try to put ourselves in the position to get in these playoffs, and I feel confident honestly that we can win one of the next eight, but if we can’t, I think top fives in these next eight will get us in. I think we can still point our way in, so we’re going to look at all the options to try to figure out what we can do from our end to get the most points and I think we’re going to execute those the next eight races, try and go out there and get as many points as we can.”
Jones’ bid to finish the regular season strong begins its next phase in Thursday’s Super Start Batteries 400 Presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM) at Kansas Speedway, a venue that carries special meaning for him. He made his Cup Series debut there in May 2015, getting a major-league call-up as a replacement driver for the injured Kyle Busch, barely one year graduated from high school. Getting a chance to race against Jeff Gordon, his childhood favorite, in his final season? “Really cool,” Jones recalled, flashing back to his wide-eyed, 18-year-old self.
Jones wowed the crowd by leading final practice, driving into the top five in his debut and leading his first green-flag lap. But his eagerness resulted in an unforced error, crunching his No. 18 Toyota and leaving him with a 40th-place result his first time out.
Though still startlingly young, the Jones of today now has some veteran-style cred on his side — more than 100 Cup Series starts, plus wins in each of the last two seasons at historic venues in Daytona International Speedway and Darlington Raceway. He’ll need to draw upon some of that on-track maturity to overcome the points knocks he has sustained in recent wrecks at Pocono Raceway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
That starts with the potential for another big moment this week at Kansas, a chance Jones sees as a favorable place to land an automatic playoff ticket with a victory. A clinching triumph would also eliminate the points math and the possible minefield of two regular-season events next month at Daytona — one on the perilous superspeedway, one on the untested oval and road-course layout.
“Kansas coming up, we’ve got a great opportunity to go out there and win,” said Jones, who has a string of four consecutive top-10 finishes at the Kansas City track. “The Daytona road course, even the Daytona oval, are probably two concerns on the schedule coming up. It’s kind of two wild-card races. You never know what can happen at Daytona, and then the road course at Daytona, we’ve obviously never run that, so I don’t know how that’s going to go. You’ve got to kind of prepare for anything to happen there, so those two races are kind of wild, but Kansas coming up is definitely one I think we can win.”
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Jones finds himself in a similar position to last year’s end of the regular season — teetering close to playoff eligibility and facing a degree of contract uncertainty. In 2019, both of those question marks were resolved in the span of a week. Jones clinched a postseason spot with a convincing victory on Sept. 1, 2019, in the Southern 500; five days later, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Jones would be back in the No. 20 for this season, keeping him in the Toyota pipeline that has groomed him in his climb up the NASCAR ladder.
Much like last year, Jones says he hopes to have good news to report on both fronts soon.
“I’ve definitely been talking to them,” Jones said of negotiations with JGR. “I think we’re moving in the right direction right now, trying to get some things in line for next year. I want to stay with JGR and work on a deal there, so we’ve just started talking to each other and trying to get things in line, but nothing to update as of now. Nothing’s been signed or anything like that.”
The work life may carry some extra pressure these days, but Jones is trying to make the most of an ever-changing home life during the global health crisis. He’s still sorting out his new living arrangements, but he’s also trying to provide a sense of home for others with “Erik’s Reading Circle,” a series of story-time sessions on Facebook Live.
Even since the Cup Series returned to action in May, Jones has tried to keep the children’s books coming, providing his own commentary and dutifully showing the pictures to the camera and his audience.
“I’ve always been a pretty big reader myself, and trying to get kids involved in reading, I think it’s a great idea,” said Jones, who has promoted his sessions through the hashtag #READwithErik. “I’ve read since I was a young kid. Having an opportunity to connect with people to do something that gives them a sense of normalcy, I guess. That was big for me during the break when we weren’t racing, just to try to do something a little bit more normal, sitting and reading was just something to make people feel normalcy and to connect with people. I love to read and just getting that out there to kids was something that played really well with me.”