Erik Jones thriving with Furniture Row despite family tragedy

One year after the death of his father, Erik Jones is hoping to take him back to Victory Lane as a rookie in the Cup Series

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Erik Jones

CHARLOTTE — Erik Jones has been blazing his own trail as one of NASCAR’s top young drivers for years. He just never imagined he’d finally achieve his dreams without his biggest supporter in his corner.After an arduous month of May, Jones capped it off with his best finish in the Monster Energy Cup Series just two nights prior to his 21st birthday. In a way, finishing inside the top 10 in the Coca-Cola 600 — NASCAR’s longest race — was a rite of passage for the rookie driver.”I think everybody looks forward to turning 21,” Jones said. “… You want to be able to hang out with [other drivers] and do the stuff they’re doing, so I definitely feel like that’s big, for sure.”It was a positive note prior to what promises to be yet another difficult month for different reasons entirely. At 21, Jones has already endured more triumph and tragedy than most drivers will in their entire career.Now a full-time driver at the Monster Energy Cup Series, he took on a massive challenge with a brand new crew and rookie crew chief. He’s also still trying to figure out his life after losing his father exactly one year ago.One-year anniversaryWhile so much has changed in the last year for Jones, it’s impossible for him to forget about the past.One year ago on Wednesday, Dave Jones, Erik’s father, lost his battle with lung cancer. Dave was given one year to live when he learned the diagnosis, but he didn’t even make it halfway through his prognosis, passing away just three months later.”It changes the way you look at everything,” Jones said. “Going to the racetrack is different. Living my life is different. Not having that guy to ask questions and lean on, I’ve had to learn a lot of things in the last year that I didn’t think I’d have to for a long time. Whether it be on the business side or personal side of life.”It’s been a learning experience, but it has truly made me a stronger person.”Prior to his father’s passing, Jones made sure to prove how much his support meant to his career. Erik tracked down and purchased a 1965 Corvette that Dave sold when he was “10 or 11 years old” to fund that same fledgling career.While he has driven countless stock cars over the years, no car means as much to him as that 52-year-old Corvette.”That car meant a lot to me and him,” Jones said. “Just getting in it, it had the same smell that it had when I remember being a kid and riding in it. So when you get in and fire it up, it brings back a lot of good memories and good times I had with him.”It’s definitely something I hope to never lose.”Dave’s passing came in Jones’ first full-time season with Joe Gibbs Racing at the Xfinity Series level. When Erik needed it the most, Gibbs was there to help him every step of the way as he battled for a championship and his father battled for his life.Gibbs was not just helpful from afar, though. He was at the hospital with Erik and Dave throughout the entire processThe week after Dave’s passing, Erik was due to race at Michigan — his home track — but was told by Joe Gibbs he didn’t have to start the race. Erik not only traveled to Michigan, but finished fourth with 18 laps led with his father’s name stenciled above the door of his car.”They were definitely there for all of it and supportive of everything,” Jones said of JGR. “They were 100 percent OK with me not running [in Michigan]. If I didn’t want to race, I didn’t have to …. They were there for the whole ride and helped me with anything I need.”‘He didn’t take the easy road here’For years, Furniture Row Racing was looking to add to its single-car program based in Denver. Erik Jones was looking to make the next step, but the JGR stable was full with veteran drivers nearing the end of the 2016 season.Last August, the two teams took on a massive challenge. A new car. A new team. A new driver. A new crew chief. None of it would be easy, but both sides were ready to build from the ground up.It hasn’t been a seamless transition. Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle have struggled to put together complete races, but still have two top-10 finishes and seven top-15 results in the first 13 races.”He’s in a position right now that, if he wanted to be, he could be very upset,” Gayle said. “This hasn’t been the easiest road for him. Think about the situation he’s gotten himself into. A brand new race team, rookie crew chief, rookie team members and he’s a rookie.”He didn’t take the easy road here. … But it’s going to be twice as easy for him later.”While there have been some bumps in the road thus far, Gayle has no doubts about his young driver. After working with drivers like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin at the Xfinity Series level in recent years, the rookie Cup Series crew chief sees a bright future for Jones.”Just having conversations with him, you understand that he’s way wise beyond his years,” Gayle said. “I’ve had plenty of conversations with 24 or 25-year-old drivers that I walked away from there going, ‘This guy doesn’t get it.’ I think it’s come from racing at a very young age and a lot of it is instilled from his dad. Just a calmness and a quiet confidence from him.”That quiet confidence was evident during the Coca-Cola 600, as Gayle and Jones were involved with a dispute with Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. Despite the war of words on pit road, he still captured his second top-10 finish of the year.A huge part of that is landing with a team in Furniture Row that has a partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing. That combination of speed and experience from both FRR and Gibbs has made for a perfect proving ground for the newly minted 21-year-old driver.”You hope to be in this spot, but you never know how it’s going to work out,” Jones said. “It’s definitely went a little quicker than probably what I even imagined. I’ve been fortunate to — every step of the way — be with good teams, good crew chiefs and just good people.”It’s really no different in the Cup series. … I’m just lucky to be in a fast car here right off the bat.”‘I just wish he was going to be there forever’Erik’s first Cup Series race in Charlotte was spent with family and friends, including his mom Carol and sister Lindsey. With the family relocating to Charlotte for his racing career and Lindsey now at High Point University, the Coca-Cola 600 was like a reunion prior to the green flag.The only person missing, of course, was Dave. Had it not been for his faith and assistance in everything from funding his early career to helping pay bills over the previous 19 years, Erik might not have been sitting on the grid for one of NASCAR’s crown jewels.”He wasn’t the one who necessarily got me into [racing], but he was always the one who supported me and helped me,” Jones said. “I think as we got into it more, he kind of got to live vicariously through me. Just going to the track and seeing me enjoy it and have success was really exciting for him and really thrilling for him because he loved to go to the track and go to Victory Lane.”Prior to his father’s passing, Erik took his car to Victory Lane 11 times. Dave was able to be there for the first nine — seven in the Trucks Series and twice in the Xfinity Series — along with the rest of the family during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, including the 2015 Trucks Series championship.After he was diagnosed, Dave was unable to make it to the track with Erik and missed the final two victories before his death. Erik announced the news to the public after his win at Bristol. He then won again at Dover and fell one position short of a victory at Pocono three days prior to his father’s passing.Prior to his death, Dave Jones knew before his son that Erik would climb into the No. 77 machine this season. While he won’t be there when Erik eventually earns his first win at the Cup Series level — and he will, soon — he knows it will be thanks to his father’s sacrifices.”He got to go to Victory Lane a lot of times in not a lot of years, so that was pretty awesome,” Jones said. “I just wish he was going to be there forever. I don’t know when that first Cup one will be, but I know he’ll be riding along.”