By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
In chaotic environments, fighter pilots are trained to be calculated in order to persevere. Which is why it shouldn’t come as a surprise Erik Jones was able to rocket his U.S. Air Force-sponsored Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 to yet another quality finish at Pocono Raceway.
The HighPoint.com 400 had it all: a helmet toss, 11 cautions, fuel-mileage racing, an entertaining on-track product and a victory mired in controversy after a repeated cheap shot by Denny Hamlin for his 50th NASCAR Cup Series win.
While Toyota stole the show by sweeping the podium positions and claiming five of the top-six spots, it was the Chevrolets who accounted for leading over 50% of the 160-lap gauntlet. Among the trio of bowties to place top-10, Jones was second-best in show.
With help from five yellows in the final stage – and Dave Elenz atop the pit box – Jones was able to persevere for his second-straight ninth-place finish at Pocono, which was also his eighth top-10 in 12 starts at the Tricky Triangle.
“I thought we had some good speed,” Jones said. “We capitalized a lot on strategy and some opportunities to get up to the top there at the end. We had some restarts go our way and were happy it played out for us. It was a good day and [we] hope to keep improving.”
At this point in his career, it’s safe to say Jones has eliminated the advertised trickiness from Pocono. But NASCAR’s return to the 2.5-mile track couldn’t have come at a better time for the No. 43 bunch at this point in the season.
Prior to the HighPoint.com 400, Jones was in the midst of his most consistent stretch this year. With no finish worse than 16th in the past four races, he carried back-to-back 11th-place days into one of his best tracks on the circuit, where he went on to score his fourth top-10 of 2023.
Over his last five starts, Jones tallied two top-10s with an average finish of 11th. In his other 16 attempts, the Legacy Motor Club driver averaged a 22nd-place result with nine finishes lower than 20th.
What’s telling about Jones during this current resurgence, is he hasn’t had an average running position higher than 14th over the past five races. Meaning, the No. 43 team has been able to make the right adjustments throughout recent races to maximize speed.
While Jones’ first-half struggles set him back to 28th in the standings and 133 points out of a playoff-spot with only five races remaining in the regular season, the 27-year-old has proven as recently as last September that he and his team are capable of winning.
“Obviously, we wish we were fighting for that playoff spot – we’re in a must-win [scenario],” Jones said. “But we need some more speed to get into a winning position on tracks like (Pocono).
“We made big gains. We went from a 25th-place team to a top-12 team, I’d say, right now. Daytona (International Speedway) is obviously going to be an opportunity, but we need another step going to a place like Michigan (International Speedway) coming up to contend for wins.
Just hope we can find a way to take that next step.”
Next up is Richmond Raceway, where Jones finished 31st this spring and a season-best 23rd between two starts last year. The Cook Out 400 is scheduled for July 30 at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network.