Erik Jones unsure of 2018 plans, “just driving”

John K Harrelson/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

SPARTA, Ky. — Erik Jones isn’t sure where he’ll be running next season, but he isn’t too worried about it.

“I’m just driving,” Jones said in a Thursday media availability. “For the most part, for me, whether – I don’t know where I’m going to be yet. They haven’t let me know.

For me, I’ve been really happy at Furniture Row (Racing) and it’s been a steady group of guys over there that I think work really well together. I don’t yet. Hopefully I know soon. You know it’s kind of getting down to that point. I guess it’s July now, so I’m sure we’ll have an answer here soon.”

In the midst of a potential rookie of the year campaign, the Furniture Row Racing (FRR) driver is one of many that could see a move as part of the upcoming NASCAR silly season. In Jones’ case, the decision likely comes down to two options – staying with FRR, or replacing one of the current quartet of drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), the organization Jones has competed for in the XFINITY Series since 2014.

When the Byron, Michigan native was first announced as the driver for a new second FRR team in August 2016, team owner Barney Visser could only confirm Jones for one year in the No. 77 Toyota.

The logic seemed simple at the time – Jones could make his Cup debut and gain experience with the JGR-affiliated FRR before making the leap back to his original organization in the coming years.

However, much has changed since that day.

Carl Edwards retired, replaced by Daniel Suarez. One year removed from their winningest season in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series JGR has gone winless, while Jones’ teammate Martin Truex, Jr. has gone on to win two races and 11 stages.

Matt Kenseth voiced hopes to continue full-time competition in 2018 back in April. Denny Hamlin doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, nor do Kyle Busch and Suarez.

With the season halfway over, it appears Jones is as likely to stay with FRR as he is to move to JGR.

However, while he may be unsure of where he’ll land, Jones can take solace in the fact that — should he stay with FRR — both he and his team have grown over the course of the season.

“I think I’ve learned more in this year already, halfway through the Cup season, than I learned in two years of mostly full-time XFINITY,” Jones said. “That’s been huge for me, just trying to figure out what it takes to win these Cup races and some of the things that go along with the Cup Series and just how competitive it is.”

Jones, 21, entered the 2017 season with a brand new team, filled with many people devoid of Cup experience. Given that, the Michigander takes pride in how far the No. 77 team has come in just five months.

“A lot of guys on my team actually haven’t been in the Cup Series full time,” Jones said. “They’ve been there, but haven’t had a chance to do it for a full year, so even as far as my crew chief, Chris Gayle, he’s never been in the Cup Series as a crew chief full time. It’s been a big learning year for just everybody. I think me and Chris have come a long way in terms of communication. Chris has done a really good job here in the last few weeks of having some really really solid strategies and getting us up front and in position to run up front and contend for wins.

“And then as far as even the pit crew has come a long way. We had a lot of struggles at the beginning of the year where I can think of four or five races that kind of got away from us on pit road where we should’ve ran top 10 or top five and they’ve really been solid here over the last month and a half.”

The 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion also says he’s grown closer with Truex — a critical step given the veteran’s lack of a connection to JGR.

“I didn’t know Martin (Truex Jr.) at all until this year, I had never talked to him,” Jones said. “He wasn’t in the JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) fold, so I didn’t really know him. He was never around, so having to – you know just to get to him this year and be able to have someone to lean on that has a lot of experience in the Cup Series and is successful – he’s already won two races this year so it’s just nice to have that benchmark for the 77 team, of a team that is competitive and that is racing for wins pretty much every week.”

There’ve been a lot of changes for Jones this season, and his year still has more to deliver. Sitting 17th in the standings, the Michigander has both a potential playoff spot and the Rookie of the Year award to contend for.

The stories haven’t all fallen into place just yet, but that’s alright.

Jones is just driving.

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