By Cole Cusumano
For Erik Jones, his 2021 campaign began like a majority of his competitors in the Daytona 500 — with twisted sheet metal. Finishing 39th in his regular season debut with Richard Petty Motorsports was obviously not the way he wanted to get things started with his new team, but he admits you always need to keep this scenario in the back of your mind heading into superspeedways.
The fresh-faced driver of the No. 43 is maintaining an optimistic outlook for his fifth full-time season and admits he’s been focused on the Daytona International Speedway road course since Sunday night.
“I’ve really come to enjoy road course racing and I’ve worked pretty hard to try and get better at it,” Jones told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “The Daytona road course is tough … you really have to finesse the car and it’s very technical.
“The infield section is the most technical and the toughest place to get through without making a mistake — whether it be wheel hopping or locking up the tires, you really have to focus hard on getting through there.”
Jones, who was fortunate enough to get additional time on the 14-turn road course in the Busch Clash, had mechanical issues towards the end of the event, but brought home his Chevrolet Camaro eighth. Throughout the wild event he picked up on some valuable lessons before the points paying race on Sunday.
One of those being how to handle the new critically acclaimed low-downforce package. While it made for competitive racing, Jones found there really needed to be an imperative focus on managing brakes more than in years past to prevent burning them up throughout the day.
In regards to fearing dirt being thrown on the racing surface, the 24-year-old doesn’t think it will play a factor. He believes the main reason for this annoyance in the Clash was due to the lack of quality lighting on the infield. Modifications were also made following the exhibition to widen the track by the backstretch chicane to prevent this from happening again.
“The real advantage was running in the Clash and really getting an idea of my team and how we need to work together, what I’m looking for in a race car and things we can do better going forward,” Jones said.
Prior to the Clash, Jones said it was difficult to establish a relationship with his new team, as COVID protocols prevented everyone from being in the shop at the same time. The 35-lap contest served as a perfect sample-sized acquaintance between Jerry Baxter and his new teammates to formulate a rhythm moving forward. This productivity of this process progressively increased throughout the weeklong festivities at Daytona.
“I always say it’s just the best to get to the track, get everybody in their element and working together, and that’s the best way to get to know everybody,” Jones said.
No. 43 team now heads to the Daytona road course after accumulating a single point in the Great American Race. Sitting 37th in the standings, Jones plans on taking a well balanced approach into the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 and weeks following by competing with what the car allows them to do; he doesn’t want to overstep.
“We’re also cognizant of the fact that we are pretty far behind in points right now after one race and we really need to work really hard to eliminate that deficit the next few weeks,” Jones said. “It’s going to be a few weeks of just getting out of the hole that we’re in right now — that’s the focus and if we have a day where we have a top-10 car, we’re probably going to take the stage points and hopefully we can work our way back up into the top-10 throughout the rest of the race.”
Due to the format that determines the starting lineup, Jones will be met with the gutsy challenge of taking the green flag from 37th. While it will be tough to overcome this inconvenience at a track where track position is key, the ability to capture success isn’t out of the question.
In 2020, Kaz Grala started from the rear at the Daytona road course after filling in for Austin Dillon and went on to finish seventh, in his NASCAR Cup Series debut nonetheless. With four full-time seasons worth of experience under his belt and Richard Petty Motorsports’ alliance with Richard Childress Racing, Jones could be poised for a big points paying day.
Tune into the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 from the Daytona International Speedway road course on February 21 at 3 p.m. ET to see if Jones can find his footing with his new team and dissipate a hearty points deficit.