After putting himself in a position to challenge Daniel Saurez for the championship in the late stages, Erik Jones saw the chance erase away from him when he got stuck behind Cole Whitt on the final restart, finishing ninth.
“It’s unfortunate,” Jones said. “We did a really nice job making our stuff better, getting to where it needed to be to have a shot. It just didn’t work out.”
After starting near the front of the field, Jones faded throughout the early stages, struggling with a tight racecar as he slid back to the bottom half of the top-10. He also found himself with a slight hole in the right front of his No. 20 GameStop Toyota Camry after getting into the back of fellow Championship contender Elliott Sadler on the start.
“I mean, didn’t start out the way we wanted to,” he said. “Didn’t have the car we needed to at the beginning of the day and really through the mid part of the race. Didn’t get where we needed to be until about lap 150 or so, and the sun started to go down, track cooled down, and our stuff kind of came around to us. After that, I felt like we had a pretty good car.”
However, his race began to turn around as the team installed a patch at Lap 125, followed by taking four tires on Lap 137 while some of the leaders elected for fuel only. Jones was able to gain ground as the laps wore down, passing fellow Championship contender Justin Allgaier for the lead with 44 laps to go. Unfortunately, a slow pit stop due to a hangup on the right front under the caution two laps later for debris resulted in Jones dropping back two spots to third.
Jones wasn’t set to give up, though, keeping close with Suarez and Allgaier, passing Allgaier for second with 20 laps to go. He was then able to chase down Suarez and looked poised to possibly complete the pass for the lead when the caution flew with 10 laps to go for Ray Black Jr. spinning.
“Right there at the end the sun went down, and the track cooled down, and the car came around a little bit, and we were able to run the 19 (Daniel Suarez) down, and if the caution didn’t come out, I think we had a pretty good shot at getting around him there,” Jones said.
Jones elected to take four tires, coming off pit road third behind Suarez who also got four. Sadler led the race off pit road after taking two, while Whitt elected to stay out from the 15th spot on old tires.
The restart came with three laps to go, with Whitt not going, backing up the outside line and Jones as Sadler and Suarez were easily able to skate away. Jones fell back through the field, ultimately finishing ninth.
Jones stated after the race he wanted the chance to talk to Whitt and his team to see why they chose to restart at the front of the field.
“Well, I think there’s a lot of ways you can look at it, but at the end of the day, I don’t know,” he said. “I guess he just wanted to stack up the top line. I don’t know; maybe he’s never started first before. I don’t know. It’s just kind of insane really. I’ve never seen anything like it. He didn’t even attempt to go. He didn’t spin his tires. He just sat there and stacked the top line up.
“It was pretty disrespectful, really, and I strongly hope that somebody is able to talk to him about that. I’d really hate to see something like that happen again. It’s a pretty unfortunate thing to happen. You know, you’ve got four guys running for the championship, and they’re all up front racing for it, and then you’ve got one guy that’s been running 18th all day that just stacks everybody up. It’s just kind of unfortunate.”
Whitt, who finished 18th, apologized for what happened, stating he spun the tires and didn’t mean to mess up the race for the contenders.
“We didn’t expect everybody to come in like that, and next thing I knew I was like this is going to be handful,’’ Whitt told NBC Sports. “I thought if I was on the outside, I would have the most room for them to go underneath me if anything happened and I couldn’t get going.
“With (Jones) hitting me, I couldn’t get going. It was just making me spin the tires worse. If you could redo it, you would change the way you did it. It was not like we were out there to screw anybody over. I hate that it worked out that way. I was just following what I was told to do and that was just stay out because we were out of tires. It’s not like you meant to do it. I think the one thing you can say at least we were out there to run good. I only had two weeks to work with this team and come out here and do all right. We were tying to run good for our team.’’
Jones heard the apology, however, remained dumbfounded upon Whitt’s actions as he stated Whitt didn’t even start to go as they reached the end of the restart zone.
“I mean, you can’t pass before the start-finish line. It would have been one thing if he would have got up and started rolling, but you can’t go anywhere before the start-finish line,” he said. “You know, it’s really frustrating. I don’t mean to bag on the guy so much, but it’s like, hey, we’re up here racing for the championship, and maybe we don’t even win it if he pits and lets us move up, but at least we would have had a fair shot at it. I feel like we kind of got robbed of at least our chance to race for it. Yeah, it’s just unfortunate. It just wasn’t a great situation altogether.”
The end of the race actions seemed to add to the frustration Jones was already experiencing in how he felt competitors battled him all race long.
“I didn’t honestly see a lot of respect out of some of the guys that weren’t racing for the championship,” he said. “I had a lot of guys that were running me really hard for no reason when we were back in the pack. It was probably a product of we haven’t seen this Chase format in the XFINITY Series yet, so some of these guys don’t exactly know how to race around us, the guys that were in the Final Four, but it is what it is.”
While he didn’t get the result he intended today, the frustration will subside after awhile. Jones knows his future looks bright, as he will move up to the Sprint Cup Series next year with Funiture Row Racing as a teammate to Martin Truex Jr.
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