Erik Jones/Austin Dillon Quietly Coming On Strong In Post COVID-19 Break

Both Erik Jones and Austin Dillon are in contract years with their respective race teams in the NASCAR Cup Series. While I don’t see Dillon getting let go from his family team at Richard Childress Racing, you know Jones has to be somewhat worried about his future. Jones, heard the noise last year. Then, he went out and won the Southern 500 at Darlington and was rewarded with a contract extension. The problem is, the extension was for just one season.

Now, here he is again staying at a full hotel with a shiny new young prize waiting to check in. Joe Gibbs Racing has Christopher Bell sitting there biding his time, just as Jones did back in 2017. Jones, moved up through the ranks with JGR in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series. They had no room though for him on the Cup level, so he ran his rookie season with Furniture Row Racing. For 2018, they brought his over to replace Matt Kenseth.

Jones, had a ho-hum start to his tenure with JGR though. He had reached victory lane only once. He never was a playoff factor like his teammates. Here he is in 2020, sharing a team with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. The trio combined to win literally half of the races run last year (18 of 36) and made it to the Championship 4. Jones, won just once and was bounced for the second straight year in the first round of the playoffs. This was a prove it year with Bell, having the same path as Jones to Cup, sitting there waiting at Leavine Family Racing.

Bell, finished ninth on Sunday in Bristol for his third top 11 result in his last four tries. You know JGR wants to move him over to their side soon, but who are you going to replace over there? Surely not Truex, Busch or Hamlin?

Pressure is on.

Jones, started out of the gates slow with finishes of 18th, 23rd and 28th in three of the first four races. He did get a 10th place run in Fontana, but COVID-19 hit in March bringing NASCAR to a grinding halt. We’d go 70 races between Phoenix on March 8 and NASCAR’s return at Darlington on May 17. In that break, Jones did some soul searching and came out firing on all cylinders.

He’d finish eighth and fifth respectively in the two races at Darlington, 11 in last Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 and now fifth on Sunday afternoon at Bristol. He’s scored four top 11 finishes in his last five starts on the season and making headway as a potential playoff sleeper.

“It was solid,” Jones said of his third career top five at Bristol in the Cup Series. “We had a pretty good Stanley Camry. At times, I thought we were better than others. We got a good finish out of it, which was nice. I got caught up in a wreck with the 4 (Kevin Harvick) car. He blew a right front, and we got some damage on the left front at the end. It slowed us down for sure. We just never really got the track position all day, never got where we needed to. We were fast enough during some of the runs that I felt like we could have maintained if we had been up in the top three, we just never got up there. Good day, good finish. Top-five is always rewarding, but you always want more.”

For Dillon, his grandpa’s team at RCR had a new prized toy too in Tyler Reddick. The young rookie won the last two Xfinity Series titles and has earned five top 15 finishes in his last six tries entering Bristol. Childress said at Homestead last November that he expected big things out of the organization for 2020 with this move to bring Reddick up as well as some organizational shifts. The turnaround would be coming.

So far, he’s right.

Dillon, finished sixth in Sunday’s race which comes after being eighth on Thursday in Charlotte. Last Sunday in Charlotte, he qualified in Row 3, was in the top 10 of all three stages and even restarting fifth in overtime but faded to 14th in the final two laps. The thing is, the No. 3 Chevrolet has had top 10 race pace in each of the last three races run. Dillon, has four top 15 finishes, three of which being in the top 11, in his last five starts on the season.

“P-6 for the No. 3 car,” Dillon said. “The Symbicort Chevrolet was good when it mattered. We worked really hard today; hard-fought battle. The car was tight; low right front. Goodyear said they didn’t know what happened to the tire. But we recovered and made some great adjustments. We were pretty fast there at the end. Justin (Alexander, Crew Chief) made a great call to take tires with 38 laps to go and it showed up. I can’t believe the 2 car won; just shows you have to stay in these races until the end. We were racing him right before that last caution, came out and he goes off and wins the race. We’re close, we’re getting there. Love how these races are playing out. Getting closer and closer.”

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