Change of plans: Don’t crown Erik Jones top rookie just yet

Photo courtesy of NASCAR/Getty Images

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

Erik Jones is no longer in a class by himself.

When Jones announced last August that he was joining Furniture Row Racing in its new No. 77 Toyota entry, he was alone in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie class at the time. And Chris Gayle, his crew chief, was sure the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors would be a foregone conclusion.

That was until Ty Dillon joined the fray in late November. Now enter Daniel Suarez with powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing, a technical partner of the two-car FRR operation out of Denver, Colorado.

“When we started talking about doing this late last year, we thought the rookie deal was gonna be locked up, right? No big deal,” said Gayle in an interview with the ‘Morning Drive’ on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Thursday.

“Both those guys Erik has raced against before and are going to be extremely tough competitors; both in good situations. And in Daniel’s case, pretty much the same equipment that Erik and myself are going to have. So it’s going to be a tough battle.”

It didn’t look as if 2017 would provide much of a rookie race, like the one we witnessed between eventual winner Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher, Ryan Blaney, Brian Scott and Jeffrey Earnhardt last year.

But that suddenly changed after JGR promoted Suarez to drive the No. 19 Toyota vacated by Carl Edwards, who abruptly announced on Wednesday that he was stepping away from full-time racing.

“You kinda understand that hey, everybody has their goals in life and certain levels they want to reach and once they kinda get there, it’s probably good to move on to the next chapter in their life and what they want to accomplish,” Gayle said.

Gayle, who spent 14 years with JGR as an engineer and later as an Xfinity Series crew chief since 2013, said he had plans to talk expectations with the 20-year-old Jones soon. The two are familiar with each other as Gayle served as crew chief when Jones won the Xfinity Series race at Chicago in 2015.

“I think as the season gets a little closer we’ll definitely sit down and kinda talk about what our goals are, what he needs to be better and what I think he needs to do to be better,” said Gayle, who will be a rookie crew chief in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017.

One thing for sure, Jones will need to be competitive as he goes up against Suarez, who beat out Jones for the Xfinity Series title at Homestead last year, becoming the first Mexican-born driver to win in one of NASCAR’s national series. Jones finished fourth in championship points and captured top rookie honors after a four-win season.

While Suarez, 25, doesn’t have any experience at the Cup level, Dillon, the other rookie contender, does. The 24-year-old has made 18 Cup starts over the last three years, including 11 in 2016. He had a sixth-place finish as he filled in for an injured Tony Stewart at Talladega last spring. He will now drive the No. 13 Geico Chevrolet for Germain Racing, a single-car operation which shares a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, an organization started by Dillon’s grandfather.

As for Jones, the 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champ, he has been in the Cup car under some unusual circumstances as he filled in for JGR drivers in 2015. He hopped in Denny Hamlin’s Toyota at Bristol when Hamlin suffered neck spasm and didn’t return to the No. 11 car after a four-hour rain delay. Jones finished 26th.

Jones also subbed for an injured Kyle Busch at Kansas in the spring and later returned for a suspended Matt Kenseth in the fall races at Texas and Phoenix.

“I think the one experience I look at is when he subbed for Kyle there he at least got the whole weekend and I think you saw him do really well in the race,” Gayle said. “I know he got into some trouble late there but he ran competitive all race long without the experience level he has today from another full year of Xfinity Series racing.

“So I think he’s gonna do great. I know he is a rookie and there’s gonna be bumps in the road and it’s gonna be up-and-down year. But I think that you’re gonna see him really surprise people and run really competitive in a lot of places, qualify well. I think if you look at his Xfinity Series stats, he’s one heck of a qualifier. So I don’t think going fast is going to be an issue for him.”

Still, Gayle expects Jones to go through an adjustment period as he battles with the best of the best each weekend.

“I think it’s just gonna take some time to adapt to running long races and learning how to race the next-level guys, you know, and kinda give and take and run up front all day but be there at the end mostly,” Gayle said.

Jones, who will have the support of FRR teammate No. 78 driver Martin Truex Jr., will run some Xfinity Series races, Gayle said.

“I think he’s going to run a lot,” Gayle said. “I’m not sure what the exact number is. I’m not sure what they have announced, but I know that he plans to run as many as they can physically, you know, could sell or he could do.

“I haven’t heard the number but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s running more than 10 in the Xfinity side this year.”

Gayle said he was looking forward to the open test session at Phoenix on Jan. 31 — his first time together with Jones in the MENCS car – as the new team seeks to build chemistry.

“From the standpoint of 12 new crew members on this team that haven’t worked together before, it’s gonna be great to get all those bugs and kinks worked out and kinda everybody learn each out,” Gayle said.

“It’s very important the 77 go to it with a new group. So we’re definitely looking forward to that. I think it will help kinda our team jelling a lot before we get to Daytona.”

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