The wide smile and unmistakable light in Erik Jones eyes felt familiar Friday morning. There was still a lot of residual joy even a week after earning the first victory of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career.
The 22-year old Joe Gibbs Racing driver met with the media at Kentucky Speedway in advance of Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusNASCAR Radio) and he showed an almost a palpable extra dose of confidence.
Jones grinned when asked about how he celebrated the career milestone, assuring there were plenty of celebratory moments in the last six days. And now, he’s eager and ready to add to the trophy he earned last week at Daytona International Speedway.
His family and good friends waited up until Jones’ 4 a.m. arrival back in North Carolina last Sunday morning, he said. NASCAR’s newest first-time Cup winner arrived at his home nearby to find congratulatory posters and ecstatic friends from the airport tarmac to his home, where a victory party was already underway.
It was emotional on many levels for Jones, who last year lost his longtime biggest racing supporter, his father, to cancer.
“It was a lot of effort from a lot of people and the first thing that came to mind for me, was family,’’ Jones said. “From there, the race team and how happy I was for them and the work they’ve put in …. It was cool to see all that hard work pay off and how it all worked out.
“I met my family at the airport, they were waiting in Concord (N.C.) and I got to see them for a minute. And then I went back home and it was probably 4:15 in the morning at that point and all my buddies were there waiting for me. They had signs made up. It was pretty cool. They were having a good time waiting on me, I could tell.
“I got to go in there and enjoy that with them. It was just cool to see them all. It was late, almost 4:30 in the morning and it was cool to see them stick it out and wait for us to get back.’’
Many would argue the celebration was inevitable for the young former Camping World Truck Series champion and Xfinity Series title contender. He moved from last year’s series championship Furniture Row Racing team to his previous NASCAR home organization, Joe Gibbs Racing, this season.
And other than – ironically – crashes in the previous two restrictor plate races (Daytona 500 and Talladega Spring race), Jones has avoided any sophomore slump. His victory caps a three-race streak of top-seven finishes. And just past the season’s midpoint, Jones is on pace (eight) to top his rookie total (14) of top-10 showings. And of course there is that major change in the win column.
Jones was sixth here at Kentucky Speedway last year and fully concedes that he feels in a much better place now to add to his season’s good results.
“For me it’s going to be stage points and playoff points, just trying to earn as many as we can now,’’ Jones said. “We need to work on getting a little bit of a buffer for the first round of the playoffs.
“Obviously we’re really excited to be in the playoffs at this point, but we also want to do really well in them and succeed through the first and second round and make sure we can make a run at this thing. Just focus on what we’ve got to do to compete with (Martin) Truex, (Kevin) Harvick and Kyle (Busch). “
Jones said he felt his No. 20 Toyota team was ready to take it to the next level and spar with the season’s “Big Three” – points leader and five-time race winner Busch, another five-time winner Harvick and three-time winner Truex.
“I think we’re getting really close,’’ Jones said. “There’s still work we’ve got to do, but we’re coming into a stretch of really good tracks for us . … there’s been a lot of momentum on our side for almost the last month now and we want to keep that rolling obviously.
But I think there’s going to be a lot of work to do to catch them, but some of these tracks coming up have been really good for myself and really good for JGR and places we ran pretty well last year.”
Although Jones crashed out of last year’s summer races at Indianapolis, which now closes the “regular season” in September and at New Hampshire, where the series races next week – he then went on a streak of six top-10 finishes to close out the regular season.
“I feel way more confident now than last year, even before the Daytona win, I just felt more comfortable and knew what to expect,’’ Jones said. “ There were so many times we went to the track last year and we’d be sitting on pit road before practice and I was like, ‘I have no idea how to get around this place in a Cup car.’
“And you just sit there and hope you can figure it out quickly when you roll out on to the track. This year we went back to most places and it was like, ‘oh okay, I’ve got a memory of what we need to do to be fast and be successful, especially at tracks we ran well at. We ran well here.
“Just having that notebook mentally and physically has been a pretty good advantage.’’
“Hopefully we can keep this rolling.’’