Erik Jones says low-downforce package "more challenging to drive"

Erik Jones has never shied away from a challenge.

Erik Jones says low-downforce package "more challenging to drive"
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota, Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Chris Gayle, crew chief of Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota race winner
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in trouble
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Race winner Erik Jones celebrates

At the recently reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway, the 20-year-old Monster Energy Cup rookie faced his latest task — his first test with the newly formed No. 77 Furniture Row Racing team in a redesigned Toyota Camry.

Overall, it was nice to get the group together to get everybody in sync 

Erik Jones

Although Jones has worked — and won — with crew chief Chris Gayle in the past, this week’s two-day exercise offered the team its first opportunity to gather trackside.

“We learned a lot during the two days at Phoenix International Raceway,” Jones said. “We made a lot of gains as a team, and I made a lot of gains in getting familiar with the 5-hour ENERGY Toyota Camry.

“This is the second time I’ve driven the low-downforce package, so it’s quite a bit different, in general. It’s a little more challenging to drive than what the XFINITY cars are or what the previous package was on the Cup cars that I drove in 2015.”

Gayle was promoted to NXS crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. After two seasons with Elliott Sadler, he moved to the car that featured an array of all-star JGR drivers. Gayle worked with 11 different drivers in 2015 and 2016 combined — and amassed 19 wins in the two seasons, including Jones’ victory at Chicagoland Speedway. Last summer, Gayle was recruited by Furniture Row Racing.

Increased confidence after test

Following the two-day test, Gayle was encouraged by the team’s first outing.

“The Camry was really good on long runs and had really good speed at the end of long runs,” Gayle said. “It was a good test to have the guys work together. That’s the thing about a first test with an entirely new team. You want to have good speed to start, but it’s also all the other things you don’t think about like getting a group to work together well and actually be out of each other’s way in the garage.

“So it was nice to get a view of how all that worked, and I think we’ll go back to the shop and we’ll talk about some things we can improve on as a team. The car’s speed was there. Now we can work on it and improve the overall setup.”

Jones has quickly climbed through NASCAR’s top touring series since his Camping World Truck Series debut in 2013. He tested the Cup waters in 2015 as a sub for Joe Gibbs Racing. At Kansas, Jones filled in for Kyle Busch, who was sidelined with a broken leg and foot. Later that year, Jones piloted the No. 20 Toyota during Matt Kenseth’s suspension. Although his best finish was 12th at Texas Motor Speedway, Jones qualified seventh and finished 19th at Phoenix.

Limited Cup experience

But the 2017 Cup cars have changed significantly since the last time Jones sat behind the wheel nearly 15 months ago. He wasn’t sure how valuable his feedback would be to the new team.

“My experience in a Cup car is totally different than what they drive like now,” Jones said. “So I don’t have a lot of experience to lean on. They’re not looking for a whole lot of feedback on the body from us. They do so much in the wind tunnel now and so much with their simulations and really learn what they need to know through that rather than driver feedback.

“Obviously, I’m really trying to help with the handling aspects of the car and breaking down some of the data they’re getting off of the car and trying to interpret that for them a little better. That’s my biggest job — as well as trying to learn these cars better and figuring out how they’re going to drive. This is the first time we’ve had this package on a short track. Just trying to learn as much as we can to hopefully apply it to other short tracks that we go to throughout the year.”

A solid record at Phoenix

Still, PIR has been a solid track for Jones during his short tenure in NASCAR. Jones’ first Camping World Truck Series win came at the 2013 Phoenix race in just his fifth career start. He won from the pole there the following year. Although Jones never won at Phoenix during his five XFINITY Series starts, his average result was 5.2. He never finished worse than 10th.

Jones feels the team will have a good baseline when they return for the Good Sam 500 on March 19. More important, Jones feels the opportunity to work with the new squad will accelerate his learning curve when the season kicks off at Daytona International Speedway in three weeks.

“Overall, it was nice to get the group together to get everybody in sync and everybody now has a better feel for exactly what they’re going to be doing at the track,” Jones said. “So that’s out of the way, and now we can focus on Daytona.”

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