Previewing the action as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series moves on to Phoenix International Raceway.
USA TODAY Sports
The people paid to know are nearly unanimous: Erik Jones is a superstar-in-waiting in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
It hasn’t taken an expert to see Jones’ talent in the last few years.
After a breakthrough win in the November 2013 Camping World Truck Series event at Phoenix International Raceway — at 17, that series’ youngest winner at the time — Jones won three more times in 2014. That included a PIR repeat, competing part-time for the team owned by Kyle Busch. The series championship came with another trio of victories in 2015 and he started three Cup races. Jones advanced to the Xfinity Series last season, with four wins, and was fourth in points.
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Toyota is certainly a believer. The automaker fast-tracked Jones’ career and was central in arranging for the Furniture Row team to field a second entry, the No. 77 5-Hour Energy Camry, alongside Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Bass Pro Shops car this season. Truex won four races last year and at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday. Jones was a season-best 14th the week before at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Furniture Row is a technology partner with Toyota’s flagship team, Joe Gibbs Racing.
Jones’ father, Dave, died of cancer last June. The 20-year-old admits he’s still grieving for the man he says he considered his best friend.
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Jones spoke with azcentral sports during a recent test session at PIR in preparation for Sunday’s Camping World 500. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: How does it affect you to have so many people calling you one of NASCAR’s next big stars?
Answer: I never paid much attention to it. I just kept going out and doing my thing and was fortunate to be in some really good race cars early in my career and make a name for myself. Honestly, I put so much pressure on myself, it’s something that never crossed my mind.
Q: Was your 2013 Truck Series victory at PIR a turning-point in your career?
A: Early in my late-model career I was not thought of as one of those guys who was going to be very good. It all came full-circle in the Truck Series when we won at Phoenix. From there things kept growing and growing.
Q: Do you believe you can win a Cup race this season?
A: I think there will be a weekend when everything will go really well and it will be a matter of execution. There’s going to be times when we unload (off the hauler with a car that’s) really fast, and times when we unload really slow. It’s going to be a matter of handling those ups-and-downs. When we do get those fast cars, take advantage of it, and do everything right and put ourselves in a position to win. That’s a realistic goal, to win a race.
Q: Do you like NASCAR’s new three “stage” race format and lower-downforce aerodynamic rules?
A: Those (stage) bonus points might be more important to me than someone else. I might have to try to point my way into the (playoffs.) Less downforce (has) put more back in the drivers hands, but made it tougher to race in traffic at times, especially getting so loose into the corners behind other cars. I think everybody’s more on a level-playing field than maybe in the past. There’s been so many changes I think it just evens it out. I hope that plays into my hands.
Q: Have you thought that, if Carl Edwards had made his decision not to race before last December, Toyota might have placed you at Gibbs Racing in the No. 19, which went to fellow rookie Daniel Suarez?
A: I guess so. You saw the speed the 78 had every weekend last year and to be in that same group, it’s pretty good for me. I like the feel of Furniture Row. It’s kind of a small-team feel. To see them grow and expand is pretty cool.
MORE COVERAGE: NASCAR weekend at Phoenix Raceway
Q: Could you join Gibbs’ team in the future?
A: I don’t know exactly what the plans are for after this season. My ultimate goal is to grow a winning team.
NASCAR week at PIR
What: NASCAR Monster Energy Cup, Xfinity series races
When: March 17-19
Where: Phoenix International Raceway
Tickets, information: phoenixraceway.com
NASCAR Week at PIR schedule
March 17 (gates open 10 a.m.)
Xfinity practice, 10 a.m. (TV: FS1)
Monster Energy Cup practice, 11 a.m.
Xfinity practice, 1 p.m.
Monster Energy Cup practice, 11 a.m. (TV: FS1)
Monster Energy Cup qualifying, 4:45 p.m. (TV: FS1)
March 18 (gates open 9 a.m.)
Monster Energy Cup practice, 9 a.m. (TV: FS2)
Xfinity qualifying, 10:05 a.m. (TV: FS2)
Monster Energy Cup practice, 11:30 a.m. (TV: FS2)
Xfinity race: DC Solar 200, 1 p.m. (TV: FS1)
March 19 (gates open 8 a.m.)
Monster Energy Cup race: Camping World 500, 12:30 p.m. (Channel 10)
NHRA: Gatornationals, Gainesville, Fla. Sunday, finals, 12:37 p.m. (TV: FS1)
Canyon Speedway Park, 9777 W. Carefree Highway, Peoria. Information: 602-258-7223; canyonspeedwaypark.com. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m.: Shamrock Showcase, with IMCA Modifieds, Sport Mods, Stocks, Hobby Cars, Dwarf cars
Arizona Speedway, 47346 N. Ironwood Road, San Tan Valley. Information: 480-926-6688; arizonaspeedway.net. Saturday, 7 p.m.: USAC Non-Wing Sprints, Modlites, Pures, Bombers