Erik Jones looks on

Erik Jones ends ‘motivating’ day with top-five outcome at Atlanta

Erik Jones had another brush with a season-changing victory Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, a potential triumph that would have thrown a further jolt into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs picture. Instead, the consolation was a fortifying finish and a modest gain in the hunt for a postseason berth.

Jones spurred the Petty GMS Motorsports No. 43 Chevrolet to a fourth-place finish in Sunday’s Quaker State 400, notching his second top-five result of the season. The 26-year-old driver helped steady his course after an uneven batch of recent finishes, nearly cashing in again on a track using the series’ superspeedway rules package.

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“We needed a tick more speed,” said Jones, who led 10 laps in the race’s final stage. “I think we had to do some things for handling that slowed us down a little bit. We were up there, but I couldn’t really break out and do much. When I got in the lead there, I wasn’t really quick enough to hold it myself. We were close. It feels good to just have a good race. We’ve had a rough month, so it’s nice to get a top five and get some points.”

Jones actually jumped up one spot to 17th in the Cup Series standings, but with the influx of 13 winners thus far onto the provisional 16-driver postseason grid, he remained 19th in the playoff standings. Jones stayed behind Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola in that category, but was able to whittle nine points off his deficit to the cutline, which is now 76.

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Jones’ recent runs have lacked a measure of consistency. A seventh-place outcome at Gateway plus an 11th-place pop at Nashville were offset by finishes outside the top 20 on the road courses at Sonoma and Road America. His day at Atlanta, which packs superspeedway-style racing into an intermediate track size, represented a return to a sweet spot.

Jones finished sixth at Talladega Superspeedway in April, allowing the lead to slip away in the last bit of the final lap. His next shot at the same track type comes in the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway, where he notched his first Cup Series win in the track’s annual 400-miler in 2018.

“It’s motivating,” Jones said. “I think our superspeedway and 1.5-mile stuff has been so good all year. We were close here in the spring in the end and we were close again today. We were close at Talladega and close in Daytona. So, all the superspeedway races, we’ve been really fast. We’re there, we just need to have one play out for us.”

It nearly did Sunday, where Jones had a prime viewing point for Chase Elliott’s run to the checkers, under intense pressure from eventual runner-up Ross Chastain, underdog Corey LaJoie, and Jones himself.

“I would have loved to have run that last lap out,” Jones said of the final caution flag, which froze the running order with half a lap remaining. “I think Ross and Chase were going to run each other pretty hard in (turns) three and four, and I would have loved to have a chance to make something happen. I feel like we’ve been close at a lot of superspeedways, just haven’t closed one out. I would love to get the No. 43 in Victory Lane and I hope we can do it before the playoffs.”