(photo courtesy Leon Hammack)
In only his fourth race with Furniture Row Racing Erik Jones scored a career best NASCAR Cup Series finish of eighth while Martin Truex Jr. drove a tenacious race, overcoming multiple issues to post a respectable 11th-place result.
Sunday’s 312-lap scheduled race brought the best out of Jones and Truex at the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway, one of the hardest tracks on the circuit to pass on.
The 20-year-old Jones and his 5-hour ENERGY Toyota Camry were steady all day, riding the majority of the race in the top five and top 10 after qualifying eighth.
Though Jones was dealt with handling issues the first half of the race the rookie driver worked his way into the top 10 by Lap 123. The No. 77 pit crew was also strong, advancing Jones two positions from seventh to fifth on the next to last stop.
But the call for four tires instead of two didn’t work out the way Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle had hoped for on the final pit stop. Jones restarted 14th when the race went into overtime, but thanks to a hard charging driving job he picked up six positions in the final two laps.
“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, good on pit road, executed well and did everything we needed to do to run in the top 10.”
However, it was a different story for Truex and his No. 78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Toyota. Truex started 16th and advanced five positions by the first caution on Lap 28. But following a pit stop after the completion of Stage 1 (Lap 75), there was a pit-road issue that sent Truex back to 26th place. He fought his way to ninth by Lap 246, but a clutch malfunction late in the race forced the crew to push-start the No. 78. The clutch issue caused Truex to lose 17 spots and back to 26th place.
Truex continued to fight back and managed to finish 11th after foregoing a final pit stop just before the race went into overtime.
“We restarted third at the end, knowing that some of the guys with fresh tires would most likely pass us, but we held off a lot of them too,” said Truex, last week’s race winner at Las Vegas. “Had we pitted then we would again have lost a bunch of spots on pit road due to the clutch problem. We had an easy top-10 car and possibly a top-five or better Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Toyota, but the issues we faced made it a rough day.”
After four Cup races, Truex is fourth in the point standings while Jones is 18th.
The race winner was Ryan Newman. Rounding out the top-10 were: Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.
The race had 15 lead changes among eight drivers and there were eight cautions for 45 laps.
The next Cup race is Sunday, March 26 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!