It proves difficult to gauge the potential of rookies ahead of each season. With little experience behind the wheel of a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car, they face a steep learning curve, and it’s tough to predict how quickly they will overcome it.
Erik Jones entered 2017 as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year after excelling in the lower ranks and showing promise in his first few NASCAR Cup Series starts in substitute roles.
After facing a slow start, he is now running better than ever and emerging as a significant threat as the regular season nears its end.
The NRA / Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway marked his best race yet. After winning the pole, he remained up front throughout the night, led the most laps with 260, and seemed to be the only driver capable of challenging eventual winner Kyle Busch before finishing a career-high second-place.
While Busch’s experience and prowess at Bristol provided an advantage, keeping pace and performing well attested to Jones’ talent.
The Furniture Row Racing driver scored his fourth consecutive top-10 finish on Saturday night. He and Busch are the only two competitors to place inside the top-10 in each of the last four events, setting themselves apart as the Playoffs approach.
Although Busch is comfortably locked in with two wins, Jones is on the outside looking in.
With two races remaining before Chicagoland, it will take a victory from Jones to propel the No. 77 team into championship contention.
Based on how well Furniture Row Racing is running, Toyota’s strength, and Jones’ momentum, a win has never seemed more likely.
His next challenge will be translating his recent success into another shot at victory at one of the toughest tracks on the schedule, Darlington Raceway.
In one career XFINITY Series start, he placed sixth last September. It’s one of the most challenging tracks for young drivers.
The regular season finale at Richmond Raceway will feature many teams making last-ditch efforts for victory. But Jones will stand out in his attempt if he can continue performing this well.
Consistency and speed at this point of the year is critical for post-season hopefuls. Jones is doing everything he needs to do, but a win is all that will matter in the next two races.
Should Jones achieve a post-regular-season berth, it will put his competitors on notice.
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