BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Second-year NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series driver Erik Jones may be on the verge of a getting a breakthrough victory today at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Jones is coming off a fourth-place finish last week at Texas and has finished in the top 11 five times in seven Cup races this season. He also has a history of running well at Bristol, earning the pole last August and leading a race-high 260 laps before finishing second to current teammate Kyle Busch.
Add in that the 21-year-old had the top 10-lap average in the first practice Saturday, and there are the makings of a first career Cup victory.
"Winning my first Cup race is something that I really want to get done," Jones said. "I feel like if we can get one knocked out of the way that more is kind of going to come with that, so we're going to continue to push this weekend."
Jones won at Bristol in 2016 and 2017 in the Xfinity Series, so he certainly knows his way around the half-mile track.
"It's good to come back to a place where your team is fast, where you're comfortable and the car unloads good," Jones said. "We've had a good weekend so far, we just need to keep it heading that way."
Jones' crew chief, Chris Gayle of Little Rock, said he and his driver had an offseason discussion during which they out everything from the 2017 season on the table.
"We sat down in the offseason and had a real good talk about what the deficiencies were between he, me," Gayle told NASCAR.com on Friday at Bristol. "We both kind of laid it all on the line, here's where we both need to get better.
"Not that it was bad or controversial or not that anyone felt bad about it, but it was just an honest conversation [that said], 'Hey, I'm willing to take it on the chin. I make plenty of mistakes, you make plenty of mistakes, but we want to minimize both of these and we'll all be better.' "
That conversation paved the way for a more consistent start to the 2018 season for Jones, who joined Joe Gibbs Racing this season after spending his rookie season with JGR affiliate Furniture Row Racing. He led 64 laps last week at Texas and notched his first top-five finish of the season.
"We didn't lead any laps on intermediate [tracks] last year," Gayle said. "We were competitive, but we didn't lead laps. Last week we led some laps and could have been in position to win the race with some circumstances. ... I think we're getting better in every category. It's just a matter of building that consistency."
For his rookie season in 2017, Jones was racing for the first time in his career without his father, who died of lung cancer in June 2016.
"The last year for him has been tough," Gayle said. "He's had to become a little bit of the man of the house and I think that throws some stuff on your plate that maybe you don't deserve. And you have to grow up a little bit though all of that."
Gayle also said Jones' maturity is something he appreciates about him. He doesn't wreck race cars often and his laidback personality lends itself to a sense of that maturity. But there was still plenty to learn in his first year in the Cup Series.
"I think the first 10 races, he kind of had this wake-up call where, 'I'm in the Cup Series, I thought this was going to be a little easier than what it is,' " Gayle said. "I know we had some conversations like that, I don't know if he'll admit to that totally, but it was definitely a wake-up call."
But something clicked for Jones, and he rattled off six consecutive top 10s from Pocono to Richmond, nearly winning at Bristol in August.
"We never finished out of the top 10," Gayle said of the stretch. "I think he looked at that [six]-race stretch and his average finish was like the second- or third-best in the Cup Series during that. It clicked for him and it clicked for me that we can do this, he can do this. It's just a matter of getting that consistency all the time.
"I think he really saw how good he could be and he could be at more than just one or two race tracks that he's really good at."
NASCAR has moved the start of today's race to noon Central due to the threat of heavy rains and thunderstorms in the area. If the race is postponed, it will be held Monday.
Mod driver pulls upset
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Ryan Preece won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race Sat-urday at Bristol Motor Speedway and took home the Dash 4 Cash $100,000 bonus prize.
Preece, 27, a full-time driver on the NASCAR Modified Tour, became the seventh winner this year in the Xfinity Series in as many races, beating Justin Allgaier and Daniel Hemric to the finish line.
Elliott Sadler finished fourth and Spencer Gallagher was fifth.
Sports on 04/15/2018
Print Headline: Jones, Arkansan ready for victory