Erik Jones took a huge step forward in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in 2018. Not only did he rack up his first-career victory, but he also became a more consistent top-five racer and he was a mainstay in the top-10 all year long.
Jones started the season off with a 36th-place finish. After leading 11 laps on the day, Jones was swept up in a crash in the Daytona 500, but after a disappointing finish in Daytona he showed excellent consistency.
In a four race stretch, Jones finished 11th (Atlanta), eighth (Las Vegas), ninth (Phoenix) and seventh (Auto Club).
A couple of races later, in Texas Jones flexed his muscles.
After starting 21st, Jones knifed his way through the field. By the end of the race, Jones had led 64 laps en route to an impressive fourth-place finish.
While it appeared that Jones was on the verge of a breakthrough, reality was that he was about to face his biggest test of the year. Over the next eight races, Jones recorded just a single top-10 finish (seventh at Kansas). The young driver went from solidly in Playoff contention, to hanging on by his finger nails.
At Sonoma, Jones finally stopped the bleeding with an impressive seventh-place effort. A week later, he backed that up with a sixth-place finish in Chicago. As Jones headed into Daytona – the ultimate crapshoot — for the July Coke Zero Sugar 400, things were looking good.
Jones qualified 29th at the 2.5-mile speedway. His race was moving along until on lap 65, he was swept up in a seven-car melee. Jones’ car was beaten and battered, but luckily enough it was able to keep on truckin’.
After going a lap down, Jones received the free pass during a lap 124 crash that involved Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Larson. Jones would keep his nose clean the rest of the event, and when a nine-car pileup ensued in overtime, Jones lined up with a position to win the race on the next restart.
On the final restart of the race, Jones was able to surge past Martin Truex Jr. for the lead and he would capture his first career win after leading only the final lap.
“How about that boys and girls?” Jones said to the crowd after getting out of his car.
“I’ve never been that good on superspeedways and never thought this was our shot to win,” Jones explained. “But to get here tonight, that’s pretty awesome. It’s our first win and not much that has felt better than this one.”
With Jones locked into the Playoffs for the first time in his young career, he went on a hot streak to close out the regular season. Jones finished inside the top-10 in six of the final eight races before the Playoffs. He looked like a legit championship contender, until the Round of 16.
Jones started the Playoffs with a pole at Las Vegas, but Joey Logano worked his way to the lead before Jones could even pace one circuit. Jones would have a decent day going, until a crash on lap 148 ended his day. Jones would finish dead-last.
A week later, Jones would finish 11th at Richmond. However, the nail in the coffin for Jones’ title hopes came with a 30th-place effort at the Roval.
Just like that, Jones was eliminated from the Playoffs.
However, Jones finished the year strong with four top-10 finishes (including three fourth-place rankings) in the final seven events of the year. A 27th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway secured the 15th-place spot in the championship standings for Jones.
Overall, Jones recorded a win, a pole, nine top-five finishes and 18 top-10s on the year. But can he carry over the success to 2019?
I see no reason to suggest he can’t.
Jones seemed to really gel with his crew chief, Chris Gayle over the 2018 campaign. He will enter 2019 with another year of experience under his belt and he will have the confidence of knowing he has what it takes to reach victory lane in the premier series of NASCAR.
He has a wealth of knowledge to pull from in his Joe Gibbs Racing stable. Jones once again joins Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin as teammates, but 2017 Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. replaces Daniel Suarez in the No. 19 for JGR, so there will be even more experience for Jones to pull from.
I expect multiple wins for Jones in 2019, and I also expect him to make it past the Round of 16 in the Playoffs.