As if the anticipation of his inaugural Daytona 500 wasn’t enough for Erik Jones, the driver of Furniture Row Racing’s No. 77 5-hour ENERGY Toyota Camry prepared for the 59th running of the Great American Race by experiencing a completely unique sensation of speed, horsepower, g-forces, and patriotism: a flight with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds.
Jones, 20, and fellow NASCAR Cup Series competitor Ryan Blaney took one-hour flights Tuesday in F-16 Flying Falcons from Yelvington Jet Aviation at Daytona Beach International Airport. He flew on Thunderbird No. 8 piloted by Captain Erik Gonsalves, who has logged more than 1,600 flight hours, including more than 500 hours of combat experience. The flight pulled as many as 9.3 g’s during the flight.
“Saying that I just enjoyed the flight would be a huge understatement,” said Jones, a Byron, Mich., native. “It was really cool to see the capabilities of the F-16 from the rear seat. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time so I really appreciate the ride from Captain Gonsalves and the effort of everyone involved with the Thunderbirds. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”
With both feet safely planted on terra firma, Jones’ sole focus returns to Daytona International Speedway and its 2.5-mile high-banked strip of asphalt. The Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender is teamed with first-year NASCAR Cup Series crew chief Chris Gayle and an experienced but entirely new group of crew members on the second premier series team from Furniture Row Racing out of Denver, Colo.
“Driving Daytona by yourself is fairly easy but Daytona in a pack is a whole different story,” said Jones. “There’s a pretty high level of mental focus more than anything, keeping yourself in the right position to be where you need to be at the end of the race. It’s definitely something I don’t have a ton of experience with, and have never done it at the Cup level, so there will be some learning to do throughout the week to figure it all out. I’m just looking forward to getting the No. 77 5-hour ENERGY Toyota Camry on the track with a pack of cars.”
Jones will also benefit greatly from working with and learning from Furniture Row Racing teammate Martin Truex, Jr., who finished second in the 2016 Daytona 500 by one-hundreth of a second, the closest Daytona 500 finish ever.
“Working with Martin and the Furniture Row Racing team is definitely encouraging,” Jones noted. “As close as he came to winning the Daytona 500 last year, there’s a good feeling that the cars are going to be fast again so that gives me confidence going into the race. If I play my cards right we can hopefully put ourselves in a good position to be up front and have a shot for the win. It will be a fun race. It will be interesting to learn throughout the day and figure more about superspeedway racing with these cars, in particular, and staying up front.”
Jones wheeled the No. 77 5-hour ENERGY Toyota Camry to a lap of 191.693 mph which was good enough for 20th overall in his first Daytona 500 qualifying effort. Jones will line up 10th, on the outside of the fifth row, for the second Can-Am Duel qualifying race on Thursday, Feb. 23. The winner of each Duel will get 10 points down to the 10th-place driver, who will get one point. There are no playoff points awarded in the Duel races.
The Daytona 500 will consist of three segments of 60, 60 and 80 laps. In each of the first two segments drivers finishing in the top-10 will receive championship points (10 to 1) with the winner receiving one playoff point. The overall race winner will earn 40 championship points and five playoff points. Playoff points accumulated during the season will carry through the first three of the four playoff rounds.
The 2017 Daytona 500 will air live Feb. 26 on the Fox network beginning at 2 p.m. ET.