Erik Jones might be a rookie in the NASCAR Cup Series, but when it comes to Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) the driver of the No. 77 5-hour ENERGY Toyota Camry has already graduated more than once, literally and figuratively.
Jones made his NASCAR Truck Series debut at the very fast l.5-mile Texas tri-oval on June 6, 2014. The then 18-year-old had to bypass his high school graduation ceremonies to participate in the event so Texas Motor Speedway conducted a personal ceremony for him on the pre-race stage. With Jones wearing his Swartz Creek (Mich.) High School red cap and gown over his firesuit, track president Eddie Gossage presented him with both his high school diploma as well as one for “graduating” to become age-eligible to compete at 1.5-mile tracks, something he wasn’t able to do just the week before his May 31 birthday. He went on to qualify fifth and finished the race in 11th place.
“The graduation ceremony Eddie Gossage and the track staff did for me was special,” Jones said. “It was the actual night of my high school graduation back home so it meant a lot to me for them to go out of their way to do something like that.”
Entering Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at TMS, the 20-year-old Byron, Mich., native is 13th in the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series driver standings after a second consecutive 12th-place finish last week at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Jones earned three additional championship points for finishing eighth in the second stage of the race. His 144 points place him two behind Kasey Kahne for 12th and 10 behind Kevin Harvick for 10th.
Jones’ record in NASCAR’s three national series at TMS includes one victory, three other top-five finishes, one other top-10 finish and two pole positions.. He made his second NASCAR Cup Series start Nov. 8, 2015, starting sixth and finishing 12th while subbing for Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry.
He also captured the pole position and earned his first NASCAR XFINITY victory April 10, 2015 in his series debut at TMS, and has gone on to earn a second and two fourth-place finishes in three other XFINITY Series starts.
“Texas Motor Speedway has always been a neat place for me, I’ve always done a lot of neat things there,” Jones continued. “It used to be the old worn our surface that made Texas so unique, how rough it was and hard it was to get your car to work over those bumps. But the repave and the changes they’ve made to the banking in Turns 1 and 2 makes it unique in a whole new way.
“The Furniture Row Racing 5-hour ENERGY Toyota Camry team has had a good season so far. We’ve had fast cars and run up front at times. The biggest thing I look at is if we’ve gotten better every week. That was the ultimate goal starting the year with a new team. We’ve managed to do that and now we just have to keep on that track, execute better at the end of the races and start to hammer out the finishes I know we’re capable of.”
In the five races since finishing 39th at the season-opening Daytona 500, the No. 77 Furniture Row Racing team has secured five top-15 results with an average starting position of 13.6 and an average finishing position of 12.2.
The 334-lap (501 miles) O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 will consist of three stages of 85/85/164 laps (laps 85/170/334). In each of the first two stages, 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.
Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 will air live beginning at 1 p.m. ET on the Fox network. Qualifying (multi-vehicle, three rounds) is scheduled for Friday at 6:15 p.m. ET on FS1.