Jones' consistency has made him a NASCAR Cup playoff contender

Marty O'Brien
Contact Reportermobrien@dailypress.com
Jones finished in the top 15 of five consecutive Cup races this seasons

The scouting report on Erik Jones in the Athlon Sports NASCAR season preview didn't exactly diminish expectations heading into his rookie season in Monster Energy Cup.

One former driver labeled him "unreal" and called him "head and shoulders above everybody else when it comes to up-and-coming young drivers."

So far he's handling the expectations fine, with consistency rather than brilliance.

Heading into the Toyota Owners 400 on Sunday at Richmond International Raceway he is 12th in the Cup standings. That not only puts him on pace to reach the 16-driver playoffs, but is highest among rookies in the series.

He showed signs in practice on Friday of improving that status on Sunday by covering the 3/4-of-a-mile oval at RIR in 123.035 mph. Only Furniture Row teammate Martin Truex Jr. (124.178 mph) was better.

"I like Richmond," said Jones, who will turn 21 in late-May. "I ran second here last year in the Xfinity Series.

"Richmond is a fun track. It's racy at times and tough at times."

The hype that preceded Jones into Cup was in part the product of his success the previous two seasons. He won the Camping World Truck Series in 2015, then won four races in the Xfinity Series a year ago, remaining in the title hunt until the final few laps.

When Denver-based Furniture Row Racing, the only one-car team to put drivers in the Chase in recent years, added a second team for this season, Jones moved up to NASCAR's highest series. He's teamed there with Truex, who had four Cup wins last year in driving then-one-car Furniture Row into the playoffs.

"He's been helpful," Jones said of the Truex. "I like working with a guy with that much (13 seasons in Cup) experience.

"They have been fast every week and we've been able to lean on them."

Jones' first full-time season in Cup didn't start well. He was collected in a five-car wreck that put him out of the Daytona 500, but said "It was exciting to be in the Daytona 500 for the first time."

He shook that off with five consecutive races in the top 15, starting with a 14th at Atlanta and a 15th at Las Vegas. Then he earned his first Cup top ten with an eighth-place finish at Phoenix.

"Erik had great restarts," crew chief Chris Gayle said. "He got to learn a lot about how these cars drive on a track like (Phoenix) under really hot conditions."

Jones said, "It was nice. We were working hard all day to get good stage points and be in position to make the (playoffs) later in the year."

Jones continued to enhance his chances with consecutive 12th-place finishes at Fontana and Martinsville, and was a solid 17th in his latest race at Bristol. That moved him into the top 12, impressive for a rookie, but Jones feels there's plenty of room for improvement.

He's happy with the speed of his Toyota's, which have run for long stretches in the top 10 in four of the eight races. Still, he'd like to see the team execute better on pit road and with late-race strategy.

"It's a good start to the season," Jones said. "We've had fast cars and run up front, but we're not finishing.

"If we keep working hard, the finishes will come. It's pretty cool right now to be in a spot to get both (Furniture Row Racing) cars in the playoffs."

O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963

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