By DAN GELSTON
The Associated Press
LONG POND, Pa.— Erik Jones started the season on the hot seat for Joe Gibbs Racing. Now, 21 races into the season, he is on a hot streak for the best team in NASCAR and making an easy case for a new contract.
With five races left before NASCAR sets the playoff field, Jones is close to clinching a spot in the 16-driver lineup on points, though he is still looking for a win that would guarantee him a shot at a championship.
Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Sunday’s Pocono Raceway winner, Denny Hamlin, are the elite stars that make JGR the class of NASCAR. The 23-year-old Jones could wiggle his way into the conversation should he find his way into victory lane.
Jones was runner-up in the No. 20 Toyota to Hamlin at Pocono, and finished third each of the previous two races at Kentucky and New Hampshire. Jones has scored eight of his 11 top-10 finishes since early May to move up to 13th in the standings. Nine drivers have clinched a playoff spot with wins and Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney and William Byron would need disastrous finishes to miss the playoffs. Jones, Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman hold the final spots, with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson on the outside nipping at the fringe contenders.
Jones plans to make it a four-driver class for JGR in the playoffs.
“We’re doing great building points, but it would be great to knock a win out,” he said. “We’re just so close, it stings a little bit more when you get close to it.”
His seven top-five finishes so far are three shy of last year’s total, though he won his only career Cup race in July 2018 at Daytona. He failed to advance out of the first round of the playoffs and finished 15th.
Jones opened this season with a third-place finish in the Daytona 500 before falling into a funk: four straight races where he failed to finish better than 13th. He ended that skid with a fourth at Texas, only to finish 14th or worse over the next three races.
The pressure for better results was mounting — JGR has prized prospect Christopher Bell stashed in the second-tier Xfinity Series, thirsty for an open seat. Gibbs has no mercy when it comes to dumping drivers (including Joey Logano, Daniel Suarez, Matt Kenseth) when the next big thing comes along.
Gibbs said the organization is working on a new deal for Jones.
“I just say this, there’s sponsors involved, so many relationships involved, you’re trying to get through all that and work it all out,” Gibbs said. “I think honestly that’s part of Erik’s world. It doesn’t go easy sometimes. He knows. I keep him updated, we do. He knows we’re working as hard as we can. Hopefully, it will be one of those things will get put in place here pretty quick.”
JGR has since formed an alliance with Leavine Family Racing and could Bell in the No. 95 Toyota next season. A deal could be worked to get Bell in a second Leavine car, but expansion might stretch the small team too much. Bell could also just replace driver Matt DiBenedetto, who has three top-10s in his last six races.
Jones raced his rookie season in 2017 on a one-year loaner contract to Gibbs’ sister team, the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing. He and crew chief Chris Gayle have since hit on a formula that has pushed them close to a checkered flag.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman had three straight runner-up finishes in one stretch this season before he finally broke through and won at Chicagoland. Sometimes in racing, getting so close is a sure sign a win is on the horizon.
“We all know with young guys, Denny has been there, drivers have been there, once they get it, it can be something special for them,” Gibbs said. “I think Erik is right on the verge. I know for everybody at that race team, we’re all excited about Erik and his future, doing everything we can to kind of get everything in place to make sure we have him taken care of.”