Erik Jones and the No. 77 Sport Clips Toyota Camry team found out it doesn’t take much at Bristol Motor Speedway Monday to turn a strong performance into a “what-could’ve-been” afternoon.
The 20-year-old rookie was heading to a top-10, if not a top-five finish with fewer than 100 laps remaining in the one-day-rain-delayed Food City 500 when minor contact by a competitor on Lap 420 put the Furniture Row Racing entry into the outside retaining wall. Jones was able to continue on but had to settle for a 17th-place finish, one lap short of the full 500.
“We were passing the 23 (Gray Gaulding) and I don’t know if he got loose, but he got into us about halfway down the backstretch and must have cut the right front,” said Jones. “It’s unfortunate because I thought we had a really good car. If we could have got some track position and maybe got up front, I think we could have led some laps and had a shot at the win. I thought we were just as good as the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) for the majority of the day. We’ll keep working on it and we now have a good package to come back with in the fall.”
Jones started 14th after rain Friday washed out qualifying, setting the field based on owner points. He had moved the No. 77 Camry to eighth by the competition caution on Lap 60 and was second by Lap 94. He finished the 125-lap first stage 1 in third place, picking up eight valuable championship points.
The Byron, Mich., native ran between fourth and seventh the entire 125-lap second stage, crossing the line sixth at the 250-lap mark and picking up an additional five championship points.
The team’s performance in the third and final stage seemed to be setting up a run at the leaders. Jones started the 250-lap segment in ninth, quickly dropped to 14th but was eighth by lap 300. Adjustments made during a pit stop on Lap 326 helped the car’s handling as Jones moved into fifth on lap 333, fourth three laps later and third on Lap 382.
The Furniture Row Racing team made another stop under caution on Lap 384. Despite making no chassis adjustments to affect the car’s handling, Jones said right after the restart on Lap 395 that the handling was “super tight.” He maintained the eight position in the running order and was in the process of lapping the No. 23 car when contact was made.
“I thought it was going to be a really great day for us,” said crew chief Chris Gayle. “I felt like right before we got into the accident and cut the tire that we were actually going to have a shot to compete for the win here. I was looking forward to getting that next set of tires off and getting ready for the last 100 laps. It’s just unfortunate that a little contact cuts a tire and turns what could have been a really great day for us into just an okay points day.”
The silver lining in the afternoon was that Jones moved up two spots, to 12th, in the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series point standings.