Erik Jones has accomplished more than your average 24-year-old NASCAR driver. He's won a crown jewel race in the Southern 500 at Darlington and has even been to Victory Lane at Daytona in the Cup Series.
Jones was also the first driver ever to win Rookie of the Year in all three major NASCAR series (Cup, Xfinity and Truck). He landed a ride with Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 20 car that was made famous by Tony Stewart and later driven by champions Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano.
The 2015 Truck Series champion had expected to remain in that car beyond 2020, but after the abrupt shut down of Gibbs alliance team Leavine Family Racing, Jones learned unexpectedly that he would be replaced by fellow Toyota driver Christopher Bell in 2021.
CBS Sports caught up with Jones on his future plans to race in NASCAR and shared his side of the story when it comes to what happened with the No. 20 car. Read along with the conversation below.
CBS Sports: You're on one heck of a run right now coming off a second place finish at Talladega. You now have three straight top-10 finishes and three top-five finishes in your past five races. What's clicked for you recently?
Jones: "I think it's been a combination of things. Obviously I wish that we ran every race like this all year but for me I think looking at the last few weeks and what's been better is just some of the tracks we've gone back to now for the second time so we've had some notes. With no practice, that's pretty important, just having those notes to look back on and being able to make some adjustments coming back to these tracks for a second time. I think it's been a big part of it and I've been going to some of these places where we didn't have practice. It made it really tough not being able to adjust your car through the weekend and just kind of having to show up and really get a 50/50 shot. When you go to the track and don't have practice and get on the track for the race. You're either going to hit it really well or you're going to be missing something and trying to fix it during the race which is obviously challenging. So I think that's been a really big part of it."
CBS Sports: As you look towards the future, the success on the track should help impress sponsors. One sponsor you've done a tremendous job with is Craftsman, who is donating $100,000 to the Children's Miracle Network through the Ace Hardware Foundation. Talk to me about your work with Craftsman and this initiative.
Jones: "It has been really cool the last two years now working with Children's Miracle Network and the Ace Foundation getting some pretty cool things going on the racecar and being able to meet some pretty cool kids the last few years and also having them design the paint scheme. I think that's been the coolest part in that they've actually had a hand in designing what the car is going to look like for the race weekend. We did a partnership this year, was kind of the same thing, we had cool kids that designed what their superhero would look like and we got them on the racecar for Sunday. I got the chance to meet them on a Zoom call and do a virtual Mario Kart race which was pretty cool. Obviously me being a racer and having the chance to race against them I thought was pretty neat. They kind of showed me what was up on the Mario Kart but it was a lot of fun. That was really fun and we've got some cool announcements and stuff coming up with the paint scheme and what it's going to look like. Obviously getting on the track is going to be pretty cool as well."
CBS Sports: Flipping the switch to silly season, after the second place finish at Talladega you said that even if you had the success you're experiencing right now earlier in the season, Joe Gibbs Racing already had their mind made up to move on from you. Can you elaborate on why you think that?
Jones: "I guess I said earlier in the season. I would say more around the time that Leavine Family Racing shut down. I think that was maybe a month before I was notified that I wasn't going to be back in the 20 car. So I would say when that happened that's really what kind of changed their mind. I thought, from indications and everything that I was getting in talking with JGR, that we were gonna sign another one-year deal, which actually was my choice. I had an opportunity probably to sign for a few more years if I had really wanted to. Then, all of the sudden things kind of flipped. We hadn't heard from them for a couple weeks and I was told I wasn't going to be back. I think that made their minds up pretty quickly when that all happened and it is what it is. I totally understand it's a business decision and at the end of the day I don't know there was much I was going to do to change that. I wish we could have won a few more races here and there over the last few years but you can't really go back and change that now. So I would say once Leavine shut down, that's kind of when things slipped for me."
"I would say once Leavine shut down, that's kind of when things slipped for me."— Matt Mayer (@MatthewMayerCBS) October 6, 2020
Erik Jones said before LFR shut down, he was in talks with Joe Gibbs Racing to sign a one-year deal and that he could have signed a multi-year deal if he really wanted to. #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/vxMGieydJ4
CBS Sports: So you're saying if Leavine Family Racing never got sold, you think the situation would be a little bit different?
Jones: "Well I can't say that for sure right? I can't tell you right now that would be 100 percent and that things would be different but I would say that probably had a pretty big influence on the decision that was made."
CBS Sports: You did mention that you've been speaking with other teams for a while now. How far along are you in those talks and are there any offers on the table?
Jones: "Well we're getting pretty close now. I feel like in, hopefully, the next week or two we'll have something nailed down and ready to move forward on an announcement I hope. That's my goal but there has been a few teams that we've talked to over the last few months and have been working with and trying to get things together. Obviously there's a lot of moving pieces that you have to have fall into place and people we've got to make happy and be supportive of the decision from the team side, sponsor side and everything. I've been working hard on that. It's been very time consuming and very, not labor intensive, but a lot of time on the phone, Zoom calls and everything else. Just talking to teams and everything like that and trying to work things out. So it's been good. I think I'm pretty happy with the last week, the way that talks have been going with guys and the way things are moving along so hopefully, like I said, within the next week or two we can get something nailed out."
CBS Sports: Would you consider any of the teams you're talking to as being a top tier-team already or a team you would probably have to go to and make a top-tier team over time?
Jones: "I think there are definitely some teams that I feel like are pretty good quality that would be able to win races with the right pieces in place. So I feel confident that I can get in an opportunity next year where there will be chances to win races during the season. So I feel good about that. I don't think it's a situation where it's gonna be a total struggle for me as a driver so that's encouraging. You always want to be in a situation where you feel like you can go win so that's been encouraging for me over the last couple of weeks."
"I don't think it's a situation where it's gonna be a total struggle."— Matt Mayer (@MatthewMayerCBS) October 6, 2020
Erik Jones hopes to have a new team in the next couple of weeks and feels confident about landing an opportunity where he can win races throughout the season. #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/XjKK5boRmj
CBS Sports: Earlier in the season, when you were discussing your situation with Joe Gibbs Racing, you were also fairly confident that something would get done. When it happened, you said you felt blindsided. What did you learn from that whole experience?
Jones: "I think I learned a lot just racing in the Cup Series over the last few years is the biggest thing. As far as negotiations go and getting kind of blindsided with that, I always knew that there was that chance right? You're always hoping, you're kind of waiting for anything to happen. It's a pretty crazy sport and especially this year with everything going on and the next year or so making the big switch to next gen in 2022, there's a lot of moving pieces on the table and a lot of things that have been changed in the sport. So I kind of knew, I was like eh it's a pretty crazy year. So I always knew that was out there but I don't know. You always learn a little bit from each situation right? If I could go back, would I do anything different? Probably not. I don't know that there was really much at that point that I can do to sway that decision one way or another. I felt like we were always in communication with the team and what was going on as much as we could be and you know things just didn't work out."
CBS Sports: Thanks for answering these tough questions. One more tough one for you. Kyle Larson is the other big free agent out there in addition to you. If you talk about the two big drivers on the market in terms of talent it's you and him. Do you believe that he's going to wind up in a top-level ride next season and if so is that going to potentially come at your expense?
Jones: "That's probably the toughest question you've asked. I don't know. You hear everything, you know, something different every day right? Being in this sport, from different people, and what he's doing, if he's coming back, he's not coming back, he is coming back, where he's driving, where he's not driving, so you never really know. I don't know if he is coming back. I don't know if he's not coming back. I have no idea. I know he's worked hard to try to fix his mistake which is very admirable. You can't fault him for trying to fix what had happened but I know he's got a pretty tough road to hoe ahead to try to get back to the sport and to the Cup level. Not only that, but in a top-tier ride, so I hope he can work something out. I don't know that what his decision is will impact mine. I have no idea. I can't say for sure I know what he's doing so I hope something works out for him. Like I said I think he's worked hard to try to repair his mistake and make things better for himself but to answer your question at the end of the day I honestly don't know. I haven't heard what he's going to be doing."
CBS Sports: Moving on from the free agency questions, when you pitch yourself to sponsors and they ask what kind of guy you are, what do you tell them?
Jones: "That's a good question. You know, for me, I'm a pretty down-to-earth guy. I'm a pretty regular guy I guess for the most part. I grew up pretty rural in Michigan and my dad and business partner owned a Corvette parts company and sold Corvette parts for most of my life. I worked there growing up as a kid and it just happened that we started racing too and that kind of took off as a crazy dream and now I've come all the way to the Cup Series. It wasn't like my mom and dad were grooming me to be some NASCAR driver along the way. It was just something we did for fun and turned into something that I really enjoyed and loved and my dad and mom did as well. We were able to grow it into something that I don't think any of us saw coming. So that was pretty cool. I think that's a cool story to bring and for me during the week most of my time I've spent working around the house. Mowing the lawn, weed whacking, and doing stuff like that. Spending some time with friends and grabbing dinner, cooking at the house, grilling out. I'm a big music guy. Love music in general and really all kinds of music. So that's really most of my life. I feel like I'm really just a down-to-earth guy and pretty regular guy for the most part. I don't know that everybody in the Cup Series is like that. Some of them are a little more eccentric than I guess what I am."