Race strategy is critical every race but nowhere more so than Pocono Raceway where Erik Jones and his No. 77 GameStop/Cars 3: Driven to Win Toyota team earned a NASCAR Cup Series career-best third-place finish in the Pocono 400.
Crew chief Chris Gayle’s decision to make a full fuel run in the first 50-lap segment, while the majority of the field pitted early, played out nearly perfect at the conclusion of the 160-lap race on the 2.5-mile triangular track. The strong run was Jones’ first top-five and third top-10 finish of his rookie season.
The Furniture Row Racing driver jumped two positions, to 16th, in the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series point standings after 14 races. In a tie with Ryan Newman, Jones is three points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for 15th place and 47 behind Clint Bowyer for 10th.
“Just happy, happy that the GameStop team finally got a finish that we deserved,” said Jones. “We ran top-five most of the day, had good strategy and it worked out. The last restart played out right into our hands. It’s exciting we had a fast race car. Wish we had a little bit faster one and then we could have gone up there and raced for it, but definitely a good day for our Furniture Row Racing team. It’s just gratifying.”
Jones started from the inside of Row 8 after a somewhat disappointing qualifying session Friday afternoon found him just the 15th fastest of the 39-car field. He picked up a few positions early before Gayle’s strategy began paying dividends as the leaders started pitting after just 15 laps.
The No. 77 Toyota Camry took the lead on Lap 18 and kept it for 17 circuits before dropping to second. Gayle called his driver to pit road just a few laps shy of the 50-lap first stage and Jones finished it in 13th place.
The second stage found Jones leading three more laps (57-59) and keeping pace in the top 10. A red flag toward the end of the segment forced a one-lap dash which Jones capitalized on by finishing sixth to earn five valuable championship points.
Gayle stuck to his strategy and the Furniture Row Racing pit crew performed admirably throughout the contest. Though the strategy was somewhat against the stream of his competitors, it paid great dividends in the final 60-lap stage.
The day’s fourth and final caution, on Lap 142, allowed Jones to hit pit road for fresh tires and fuel. Gayle’s call for right-side tires only and the crew’s precision effort picked up six positions on pit road and allowed Jones to restart on the inside of Row 2 for the final 13-lap dash to the checkered flag.
In the closing laps, Jones was third while eventual race winner Ryan Blaney and runner-up Kevin Harvick dueled for the lead.
Jones was in perfect position in the event one or both drivers got into trouble, which was about the only thing during the race that didn’t play out in the No. 77 team’s favor.
“I was hoping they were going to get side-by-side like the 21 (Ryan Blaney) and the 18 (Kyle Busch) did and we were able to close that up on them and have a shot,” Jones continued. “I could never quite get up there. I was busy holding off the 2 (Brad Keselowski) and 41 (Kurt Busch).
With Furniture Row Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. and No. 78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress team finishing sixth, the Pocono 400 was the second time this season that both drivers finished in the top 10 in the same race.
Following Blaney to the checkered flag were: Harvick, Jones, Kurt Busch, Keselowski, Truex, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth.
The race had four cautions for 18 laps and was red flagged once for 23 minutes. There were 13 lead changes among nine drivers.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!