An unscheduled green-flag pit stop put Erik Jones behind the 8-ball early in Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 but a bold strategy and determined drive by Jones earned the No. 77 5-hour ENERGY Extra Strength Toyota team a 13th-place finish at Michigan International Speedway.
A vibration forced Jones to pit on Lap 43 of 200 and play catch up the rest of the afternoon at the 2-mile ova. A long shot pit strategy by crew chief Chris Gayle saw Jones make consecutive right-side tire only stops in the third stage of the race, eventually running the final 108 laps on the same left-side tires.
The NASCAR Cup Series rookie is now in sole possession of 16th place in the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series point standings after 15 races. He is eight points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for 15th place and 52 behind Joey Logano for 10th.
“Yeah, just a long day overall,” said Jones, a native of Byron, Mich. “Just never quite had the car we really needed. We were fighting just being free and as the day went on we never really fixed that issue and that loose wheel early kind of got us pinned in a strategy we didn’t want to be in. I think we had 86 laps on our left side tires – and just couldn’t quite get it there at the end.”
Jones started the race from the outside of Row 7 after finishing 14th in Friday afternoon’s qualifying session. He took just right-side tires while pitting under caution on Lap 27, picking up two positions, to ninth, in the process.
He told Gayle of the vibration on Lap 31 while running eighth but the situation seemed to plateau. Just 12 laps later Jones was coming down pit road to the attention of his Furniture Row Racing crew to change all four tires.
The green-flag stop dropped Jones to 37th in the running order, one lap down to the leaders. He would finish the first 60-lap stage just one position higher in the running order.
Gayle kept the No. 77 5-hour ENERGY Extra Strength Toyota on the track during the caution period to start the second stage. Jones was 31st on the Lap 68 restart and moved up to 21st by Lap 92 when he came down pit road for a second green-flag stop. It was then that the team’s final set of left-side tires for the balance of the race were taken.
Jones was in the 17th position at the conclusion of the second 60-lap stage and back on the lead lap. Gayle called again for right-side tires only on Lap 123 under caution and Jones was running 13th when caution slowed the field again on Lap 150.
Gayle rolled the dice and again called for right-side tires knowing how important track position is at the high-speed 2-mile track. Jones restarted in fourth place on Lap 154 and stayed in the top 10 on worn out tires until there were fewer than 20 laps remaining.
A multi-car crash with fewer than 10 laps to go moved Jones into ninth place for the final restart with five laps remaining. The tires had given there all by that time, however, and Jones held on as best he could for the 13th-place finish.