Watkins Glen International was voted “Best NASCAR Track” in the USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice poll in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Andrew Legare, email@example.com | @SGAndrewLegare
Erik Jones expects to go to his home state of Michigan next week with a much better feeling when he sees friends and family.
Itâs not that they judge him and his ability, but when he went there amid a slump in early June, he sat perilously close to the provisional playoff cutoff and in an overall funk.
âIt was kind of a somber welcome home last time,â Jones said. âWe werenât running right and just had a lot of issues. We hadnât run well in the last month.â
His friends didnât shy away from asking him about why he couldnât seem to find a rhythm while his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates had rattled off wins.
âMy close friends, theyâll ask me whatâs the deal, whatâs wrong and whatâs going to get fixed,â Jones said. âI kept them updated a little bit.
âSometimes I ignore them because I donât obviously want to talk about it.â
The talk for Jones will sway more positive this time as long as all goes decent this weekend on the road course at Watkins Glen International (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET).
In early June, Jones went to Michigan International Speedway one point to the good of the playoff bubble and left seven points outside after a 31st-place finish.Â He fell as low as 15 points outside the top-16 following the June 30 Chicagoland Speedway race, despite a top-10 result. But finishes of third, third and second in the last three races have put him 39 points above the playoff cut line â the best he has been all season. He has posted top-three finishes in five of his last 10 races.
And yet some of the questions will continue unless Joe Gibbs Racing and Jones can put ink to a contract extension.
Jones has felt the talks the last three months have progressed well, but with Christopher Bellâs five-win performance this year for JGR on the Xfinity side showing his incredible promise for a Cup ride, nothing will feel good for JonesÂ fans until an announcement. Bell has signed with JGR for the 2020 season, but at what level remains up in the air.
Stanley Black & Decker, the majority sponsor on the Jones and the JGR No. 20 car, must sign for next season.
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âIt’s so hard putting everything together,â team owner Joe Gibbs said. âI know people get frustrated because you haven’t made a decision yet on some things. But 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.
âI think honestly that’s part of Erik’s world. It doesn’t go easy sometimes. He knows. I keep him updated. 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.â
Gibbs, who knows how to say something without totally tipping his hand, indicated that he feels the team, led by crew chief Chris Gayle, is on the verge of a breakthrough.
âThe last three weeks I think show kind of where the team is,â Gibbs said. âChris Gayle over there has done a great job. I think Erik can sense it. âŚ Weâre 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.â
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All Jones can do is keep running well. His points position last Sunday at Pocono Raceway kept him from taking a risk on fuel mileage and he had to give up the lead (to conserve fuel by using less throttle) and fell back to fourth. After a flurry of cautions relieved any fuel concerns, he rallied to finish second.
âWeâre almost a race up on the cutoff line, which is a good feeling,â Jones said. âIt took a long time to get there so we donât really want to give it up all at once (by risking it on fuel).â
Jones appeared to have the speed of his JGR teammates at Pocono. He knows he needs to continue that pace as Kyle Busch (four wins), Martin Truex Jr. (four wins) and Denny Hamlin (three wins) are among the championship contenders.
âWe just had so many races of blown tires, pit road penalties, loose wheels taking us out of contention (earlier in the year),â Jones said. âThese last two months, we havenât had anything go wrong. We had some mishaps but nothing we couldnât work back from in the middle of the day. âŚ I know weâre going to win one.
âWe canât keep running second and third every week and not. Itâs just going to happen eventually.â