(photo courtesy Leon Hammack)
Erik Jones saw a potential top-10 finish nearly disappear in the waning laps of the Camping World 500 but used four fresh tires on the No. 77 5-hour ENERGY Toyota Camry to pick up six spots over the final three laps to finish a NASCAR Cup Series career-best eighth at Phoenix Raceway.
The Byron, Mich., native started on the outside of Row 4 for the second consecutive week for Furniture Row Racing after posting the eighth-best lap in the final segment of Friday’s qualifying session. Jones was 10th when the first caution flag slowed the field on lap 28. He returned to racing in 12th and dealt with a loose handling Camry throughout the first 75-lap stage, finally settling for 11th place at its conclusion.
The loose condition continued through the majority of the second 75-lap stage until adjustments made during a stop under caution on lap 119 proved beneficial. Jones found himself running seventh by lap 128 and finished the second stage in seventh, picking up four valuable championship points.
Jones ran between seventh and 10th through the first two-thirds of the third stage before pitting under caution on lap 259 while running seventh. Yeoman effort by the 5-hour ENERGY pit crew picked up one position on pit road and Jones moved to fifth on the first lap of the restart on lap 262.
The Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate settled in there and it was looking like that’s where he would finish when, with less than 10 laps remaining, a blown tire on the No. 22 of Brad Keselowski brought out the final caution.
Crew chief Chris Gayle called Jones to pit road for four fresh tires. Unfortunately, many drivers either took just two tires or didn’t pit at all, forcing Jones to restart 14th with just three laps remaining. He wasn’t able to get back to fifth but displayed great determination in passing six cars in just three miles.
“It was a good day,” said the 20-year-old Jones, who claimed top-15 finishes at the past two races. “Your expectations kind of change as the day goes on. When you feel like you have a fifth place car, you want to run fifth, but it just didn’t work out at the end. We had a lot of guys take two (tires). A lot more than I thought would. A lot more obviously than Chris (Gayle, crew chief) thought would. We had a great restart and were able to get back up to eighth.
“Not too much gain, not too much loss. A solid day for us. Definitely the best day overall for the 5-Hour ENERGY Camry. Just well put together. We got better all day, had good pit stops, we were good on pit road, executed well and did everything we needed to do to run in the top 10.”
Jones moved up two more positions in the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series point standings to 18th.
“All in all, the entire weekend was good,” said Gayle. “The 5-hour ENERGY Toyota Camry qualified in the top-10 and, because of that, we drew a good pit stall. We ran in the top 10 most of the day and Erik had great restarts. He got to learn a lot about how these cars drive at a short track like this under really hot conditions. I thought we had a fifth- to sixth-place car, maybe even a fourth-place car if things had gone just right. Unfortunately, with those late-race cautions you don’t know what’s going to happen strategy-wise and it was kind of chaotic. But Erik did a great job on four tires to rebound to get his first top-10.”
The fifth race of the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series season is the March 26 Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!