AVONDALE, Ariz. — Throughout the XFINITY Series Chase, there were moments when it looked like Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones would not have a chance to be one of the final four championship drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
After winning the 2015 Camping World Truck Series title as a rookie, he was instantly a favorite for the 2016 XFINITY championship and with four victories on the year, rightfully so.
However, mishaps have plagued Jones at inopportune times.
In the opening of the Round of 12, he led half of the 200-lap race at Kentucky Speedway but got caught up in a late wreck with Ty Dillon and finished an undeserving 28th.
The following week at Dover International Speedway, the 20-year-old ended up two laps down after reporting a vibration in his team, which forced him to make an off-cycle pit stop before halfway. This came back to haunt Jones when he had to pit for fuel with less than 10 laps left and he finished 16th.
He scored a top five at Charlotte Motor Speedway to survive the three opening Chase races and compete in the Round of 8.
The second round went smoother, but he was never able to lock into Homestead with a victory. None of the other series regulars won in the Round of 8 either, so he didn’t endure as much pressure as in the first round. Despite multiple issues on pit road through the event, he finished 10th in Phoenix, which sufficed for a berth in the title-deciding race in southern Florida.
In this playoff format, the fastest cars aren’t always the ones still standing for the championship finale. Look at Kyle Busch Motorsports rookie William Byron, who won six Truck Series races but was eliminated from the Chase when he suffered an engine failure after leading 112 laps at Phoenix.
Byron’s title hopes ended at the conclusion of the Round of 6 and won’t do what seemed likely, which was also winning the Truck Series championship as a rookie, like Jones.
“It was definitely shocking to see William get knocked out,” Jones said. “I don’t think anybody expected that. It just shows how wild the Chase is.
“I was watching it, and I was in disbelief. Sure, it crosses your mind when you’re in that position, and you have a mistake. We can still get it and do what we need to do. It’s a wild Chase format, but I’m proud to say we’ve made it to Homestead.”
For two consecutive seasons, Jones will have the opportunity to win a NASCAR championship as a rookie.
“It would be really sweet to go back-to-back with the Truck and XFINITY deal,” Jones said. “This is going to be one of my only shots in the near future to win an XFINITY championship. I’d definitely like to get it done and hopefully go try to win a [Sprint Cup Series] championship someday. It’s a goal of mine, and I’d love to do it, so it’s pretty special to be at Homestead again with a shot to win a championship.”
If Jones were to hoist the XFINITY trophy next week, he’d be the first in NASCAR history to win the Truck and XFINITY titles in consecutive seasons.
In 2017, he’ll race in the premier series in a second car for Furniture Row Racing driving the No. 77 Toyota.
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