WOODY: Jones hoping youth will be served in NASCAR’s playoffs

September 22, 2018

Erik Jones has an understanding of racing, a feel for racing, maybe even an instinct for racing. He is a natural. Whatever “it” is, he has “it.”

“I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a natural,” Jones said. “There are maybe certain qualities you have, hand-eye coordination, good reflexes that help you avoid wrecks, but from there, it’s how you’re brought up and if you really grasp it and want to learn about it.

“This is something I’ve been doing so long I don’t even think about it. I started when I was 7 and went from go-karts to stock cars to late models. You kind of adapt and learn how to race at all those different levels. When I was a kid, I wanted to learn how to be faster and better. Each step is different, and at each step, I’ve have good people and good teams around me.”

Good drivers, though, tend to make good teams even better. Jones has done that in the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.

At the age of 22, he’s already driving at NASCAR’s highest level and has been extraordinarily successful at every other level. In his second year on the Cup circuit, he won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona and qualified for the playoffs.

Saturday night, Jones will be on the track for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway. He’s one of 16 drivers in the first round of the playoffs.

Jones began the postseason in 10th place. Now, he’s in 15th, 19 points out of the 12th and final spot needed to advance after next week’s road course in Charlotte, N.C.

That’s not an impossible position, but Jones has to pass Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman to get there.

At least that’s who he has to pass going into the Richmond race. After Richmond? You never know.

Last week in the first playoff race in Las Vegas, Jones certainly didn’t expect his day to end on Lap 120. But a tire on Kevin Harvick’s car blew out, Harvick went into the wall, and Jones was coming up too fast to do anything other than collide with Harvick.

“I don’t think we’re in a must-win situation,” Jones said. “If we go like we have been, I think we’ll be all right. We have to move forward.”

Jones has moved forward quickly in his professional racing career. He never has seemed to be in over his head. He was the champion in the Camping World Trucks series when he was 19. He won at the Xfinity level and has proven he can drive with the best on the Cup circuit.

But Cup racing has been a bigger challenge than all other levels.

“In Trucks and Xfinity, I didn’t have to do a lot of prerace preparation,” he said. “In Cup, I had to relearn what it takes to be a good driver. I have to study and work hard. I’ve had to learn how to drive in these long races, the 400- and 500-milers. I’ve had to learn how to manage a race better and try not to put us in a bad spot early in the race.”

Jones has had to do this while shouldering a fair amount of pressure. He took over the No. 20 car from Matt Kenseth, a former Cup series champion. And Jones is one of the young drivers on the circuit who is seen as the future of the sport.

“I think drivers are like quarterbacks,” Gibbs said earlier this season. “If you don’t like pressure, you need to get out of your profession because it comes with it. There’s always pressure in this sport because you’re the guy with the wheel.”

In 2018, Jones has six top-five finishes and 14 top-10 finishes in 27 races. He had almost identical statistics in 2017 after 36 races, minus the all-important victory.

“I think when you’ve had a year in the Cup series, you grow a lot,” Jones said. “I never learned as much in any other series in any other year racing as I did last year. And the things I learned last year are things I’ll take with me probably for the rest of my career in NASCAR.

“It’s definitely been a journey, but [crew chief Chris Gayle] has done a good job of helping me with that. I’m still only 22, but I would say a slightly calmer 22-year-old than I was as a 21-year-old. We’re still working to sand the edges a little bit, but we’re definitely getting there.”

And he’s getting there fast.

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