For most NASCAR rookies, competing at a track for the first time can be quite daunting. But then again, Erik Jones wasn’t like most rookies when he headed west in November 2013 to compete in his first NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Phoenix Raceway.
Jones was making just his fifth Truck Series start as an 18-year old rookie for Kyle Busch Motorsports and, despite his youth, Jones felt right at home on the one-mile, desert oval. He led three times for a race-high 84 laps en route to his first Truck Series victory and first national NASCAR series win. To show it was no fluke, Jones came back to Phoenix the following year and won again, this time from the pole in a dominating drive where he led all but 36 of the race’s 150 laps.
Now in his fourth full year in the NASCAR Cup Series and third as the driver of the No. 20 Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), Jones heads back to the “Diamond in the Desert” with his sights set on another victory.
Phoenix has proven to be outrageously dependable for Jones, who will appropriately represent JGR’s founding sponsor and longtime partner, Interstate Batteries, in Sunday’s FanShield 500k. It will mark Jones’ second straight NASCAR Cup Series start at Phoenix carrying the Interstate Batteries colors, as he drove the No. 20 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry to a solid seventh-place finish last November.
Jones would like nothing more than to get his third NASCAR Cup Series win – and first at Phoenix – in the new green-lighting Interstate Batteries paint scheme. In seven NASCAR Cup Series starts at Phoenix, the 23-year-old from Byron, Michigan, has a best finish of fourth in November 2017, along with three other top-10s. In the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Jones posted top-10 results in all seven of his appearances at Phoenix, including five top-fives.
And with a top-10 in his most recent NASCAR Cup Series race last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, Jones comes into Phoenix getting hot along the weather, as temperatures are predicted to hit the mid-80s. The sunny weather is a welcome reprieve from the typically harsh environs of Jones’ home state of Michigan, where snow is possible on Friday before swinging to 60-degree weather on Sunday. And as a bona fide car guy, Jones knows full well how those temperature swings can affect a car’s battery, making him an ideal spokesman for Interstate Batteries. As such, he and Interstate Batteries are encouraging consumers to take advantage of Interstate All Battery Centers® and its nationwide offer of free battery tests.
Jones passed his first test at Phoenix with flying colors, and as he returns for his 115th career NASCAR Cup Series start and eighth at Phoenix, he eyes a return to victory lane.
ERIK JONES, Driver of the No. 20 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
The first time you raced at Phoenix, you won. What was it about Phoenix that helped you get acclimated so quickly to win that Truck Series race in November 2013?
“We had been getting our trucks better during that year, and I had been getting better in a truck that year in general. It was my fifth start and I just felt comfortable with the place right off the bat. I talked a lot with Kyle (Busch) that year before going there and it was the second year after the repave and we were fast off the truck. We were fastest in practice and qualified well, and felt like I quickly knew what to do to get around there. I’ve been able to apply a lot of those things I learned there that weekend every time I go back. The track has changed a lot since then. That was seven years ago, and now the track has aged a lot and lost a lot of grip.”
You went back to Phoenix the following year and defended your Truck Series. How important was that second victory?
“That was huge for me. The first win is always big, but sometimes I think that the second win is even bigger in a series just because it shows you can do it consistently and can continually win. For me, going back there the next year and having the same kind of dominance, we didn’t come back and just win it again, we came back and had the same strong showing we had the year before. Phoenix has always been a good place for me. That first win put me on the map in a big way in NASCAR and really gave me the opportunities from there to continue to not only race with Kyle, but give me opportunities to run in the Xfinity Series, as well.”
With your history at Phoenix, do you come into that racetrack with even more confidence than you do at other venues?
“I always feel a little better going into Phoenix just because I have so many good memories there and good runs. We’ve come close to winning in Xfinity and Cup and have been in contention. At all the places you’ve won, you have a little bit extra in your notebook of what it actually takes to win a race.”
There’s a new aero package for Phoenix compared to the package you had when you raced there last November, How do you think it will perform?
“Back to two years ago, that’s all the notes we have from it. I drove it a little bit in the simulator last week just trying to get a feel for where we’re going to be. You’re going to have a lot more (tire) degradation, a lot more falloff through the run than what we had last year. It’s just going to be a different race. I think it will be better – the racing will be improved quite a bit. Last year, we couldn’t even really get close to anybody and passing was a huge challenge – it wasn’t the most fun in the seat. Hopefully, it makes it better and we’ll get closer to people to make more passes. You need to have it where you can get on the left-rear of cars and get them free so you can make a pass if you’re better than them, and I think that’s what this package brings us back to.”
You’ll have Interstate Batteries on the car this weekend at Phoenix. You’ve been with JGR for nearly a decade and have gotten to know Norm Miller, Interstate Batteries Chairman, and everyone there really well. What does it mean to represent a brand that has been with JGR from the very beginning?
“It’s really special. Interstate Batteries is JGR’s first sponsor and, obviously, their longest-standing sponsor. To see them still involved and still passionate about it is great. Norm really loves racing and it’s always great to see him at the track. There wouldn’t be anything more special for me to win with them on the car. Getting to victory lane with Interstate Batteries would be a very special day, no doubt.”
Meet the No. 20 Interstate Batteries/Joe Gibbs Racing Team
Car No.: 20 – Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry
Road Crew Members:
Driver: Erik Jones
Crew Chief: Chris Gayle
Car Chief: Chris Sherwood
Spotter: Rick Carelli
Engine Builder: TRD
Engineers: Seth Chavka, Jaik Halpainy
Shock Specialist: Scott Meyers
Mechanics: Travis Stock, Justin Peiffer, Tony Hamm
Tire Specialist: Jerold Shires
Engine Tuner: Dan Bajak
Truck Drivers: Tom McCrimmon, Chris Miko
Pit Crew Members:
Front Tire Changer: Mike Hicks
Rear Tire Changer: Deven Youker
Tire Carrier: Drew Morgan
Jackman: Ernie Pierce
Gas Man: Justin White
Erik Jones at Phoenix Raceway:
Jones will make his 115th career NASCAR Cup Series start in Sunday’s FanShield 500k at Phoenix Raceway. In 114 career starts, Jones has two wins, 24 top-five finishes and 50 top-10s.
Sunday’s FanShield 500k will be the eighth NASCAR Cup Series start at Phoenix for Jones. His best finish there is fourth, earned during the fall 2017 race, and his best qualifying effort is seventh, earned in the fall 2015 and 2018 races. He’s qualified in the top-11 in all seven of his previous Phoenix races with an average start of 8.7. His average finish at Phoenix is 13.3.
Jones has been to victory lane already in 2020 with a win in the non-points Busch Clash in February at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. After being involved in an earlier accident, Jones and team rallied from behind to score the victory, which was Jones’ second at Daytona. Jones won his first career NASCAR Cup Series win in the 2018 Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.
Thus far in 2020, Jones has earned one top-10 in the three races contested – a 10th-place finish last weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
Jones scored his first career NASCAR victory at Phoenix when he won the fall 2013 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race and followed it up with another Truck Series win there a year later. He’s made seven NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Phoenix, all resulting in top-10s, including five top-fives. He qualified on the Xfinity Series pole at Phoenix in the spring 2016 and fall 2017 races.
Sunday’s race is Jones’ second NASCAR Cup Series start representing Interstate Batteries. He earned a solid top-10 finish in Interstate colors at Phoenix last fall. Jones has also run in Interstate Batteries green in three Xfinity Series races. He started third and finished 29th due to an accident in the 2015 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, started from the pole and finished third in the June race at Iowa Speedway in Newton, and started second and finished third in the 2016 race at Las Vegas.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!