Toyota Racing – Daytona 500 Media Day Quotes – Erik Jones – 2.14.24

LEGACY MOTOR CLUB driver Erik Jones was made available to the media on Wednesday prior to the Daytona 500.

ERIK JONES, No. 43 AdventHealth Toyota Camry XSE, LEGACY MOTOR CLUB

What’s possible this year? Is the sky the limit?

“Yeah, in a way. It’s kind of a long process right now. It’s been a big offseason of just hiring and building out new departments and positions, and getting people in the right place and taking the data that we are getting now and breaking it down and using it in a way that is going to beneficial for us. Overall, the possibilities are somewhat endless, but we still have to use the data in the right way and get things going in the right way. We’ve kind of done the work that we can do at this point, and now we have to get out and get racing and see where we stack up and go to work from there. That part isn’t much different than years past, but I think if we start on the wrong foot – we at least have a better direction and resources to be quicker.”

What does the impact of Jimmie Johnson doing several races have on the team?

“I think it’s good. I think on the sponsorship side it is good. Jimmie (Johnson) helps a ton with that. I think for him getting in there and having a feel for the car isn’t a bad thing at all. It is tough to hop in this car and try to run part-time – probably more than the old car was and he doesn’t have a ton of reps in the car in general in the first few years of it. It will be tough for him to hop in and be competitive right off the bat, just because he doesn’t have the reps – but I think it is overall a good thing for the company too.”

Will the expectations change as the season goes?

“It’s almost hard to set them. You want to set expectations high, just because things are better now than they have been for us, but they are much different too. We’ve relied on alliances since I’ve been in the 43 car. That’s a huge department in itself that we are currently building to fill that gap, but I wouldn’t say that it’s totally done yet. Everybody is still trying to learn their role and we are still working hard on the sim – I was on the sim all the way up to yesterday trying to work on stuff to get better for races past here and Atlanta. Things are still being built out a lot now, and we are getting going at this point. There is still a lot of work to do at this point, but it’s hard to set expectations, but I think you are right in saying that we will know better – once we are done with Vegas and Phoenix. We will have a good sense of where we are at. Vegas has been a good track, historically, for us. Phoenix has been a little hit or miss, but I think we will have a good judge of probably where our short track program is at. Excited to get there – no, but hope it is good too.”

How quick did you put the Clash behind you?

“Right away. It’s kind of easy I guess to compartmentalize for me. The team was disappointed. Dave (Elenz, crew chief) was probably more disappointed than me. You want to go and run well. You want to start the season off well, but it was so scattered with the weather moving in and the race moving up. Our group – it was a struggle – I think only one car in our qualifying group even made the race. It was easy to put behind. For me, I moved on the next day. We went in and did our debrief on Monday – knocked it out, and I felt like we had a good idea of stuff we could do better if we do it again. It was quick – it was easy to move on.”

What has Matt Kenseth brought to the team?

“Matt (Kenseth) has kind of come on at the end of the last year, I guess is when he started officially. I’ve gotten to know him better and better as we’ve been here. He’s not so much on the competition side as he’s maybe more of a liaison between the driver to the team and a little bit to Jimmie (Johnson) as well. Jimmie’s not in pocket all of the time, so he’s been a good bridge to that gap. I think he’s done a good job. He’s trying to settle into his role. It is sometimes hard to know and establish your role before the season gets going and see this is what we need to work on, this is where we need to get better. I think Matt is a good resource – just bridging the gap between the team and the drivers. Sometimes the team goes one direction, and the driver is thinking another direction and Matt’s going to be a good bridge for that gap.”

Is he trying to advocate for you guys?

“I think that is a pretty good way to put it. Matt (Kenseth) is not necessarily – he’s in competition – but he’s not on the car performance, kind of on our side – okay, what do you guys need to be better. How can we help you? The last few years we haven’t had any driver focus – we’ve just been trying to get our competition stuff better and we’ve kind of gotten that – where it is headed the right direction. Now we wanted to get the drivers – so we can get everything that we want, which is even more important, I would say for John Hunter (Nemechek) as a rookie and making sure he’s getting everything that he needs and going in the right direction. It’s not bad for myself either to just have checks and balances. You get doing it for a while, and you are set in your ways, and you think okay, this is how I do it and this is how this should go, and maybe it’s good to have another way to do it. Matt has kind of been bringing that to the table.”

How much interaction do you have with him?

“I hear from Matt (Kenseth) quite a bit. We try to go catch up, at least with lunch, every week or two. I hear from him a few times a week with just what is going on – whether it is that or I saw this on the sim or are you going to the sim or what’s going on? He’s pretty on it and stays connected with myself and with John Hunter (Nemechek) and with Jimmie (Johnson) too, staying tied in – just keeping everybody on the same page and making sure we are all rowing in the same direction. He’s been pretty involved.”

What has the homecoming with Toyota been like? What is the same and what has changed?

“I think a lot of familiarity. A lot of the same people in the same places. The processes are very similar. When I was with them last time, I was with a different group and a much bigger team. We’ve been expanding like crazy, and we’ve added a lot of people, which we needed to do – which has been good, but we have been in a race against the clock. As soon as the season ended, and changing the cars over, building out different departments. We’ve had to somewhat build out an aero department, a tire department, a simulation department – these are all things that when you take away an alliance with a bigger group, you have to take that in house and that doesn’t always fall on the manufacturer. They give us a ton of support and have given us a ton of support and are doing everything they can to help us hit the ground running, but some of it does fall back on us and that’s the big build right now.”

Do you think you are going to have the support you need from Toyota to take a step up on the competition side?

“I think so. It’s been a lot of working through simulation right now in the offseason and what they can do there – what their capabilities are, and they’ve been working hard to get us what we need. A lot of it is on the tire side. The tires in the sim are what keeps you up at night and what drives you kind of crazy. They’ve been helping us as much as we can there. Our engineers have been working hard to become tire guys and learn it and learn how to tune tires and get them better. We’ve had Corey Heim in there working hard getting stuff better. We’ve been working with Corey to get him better, and to get him where he needs to be. There has just been a ton of stuff in this offseason that we’ve been working on, and it is going to continue. It’s not over. We are in Daytona, and we are going racing, but there is still some work to be done, but Toyota has given us a lot. They’ve been an open book as much as they can be.”

How different does this preseason feel given the amount of changes and all of the resources now?

“Yeah, this year probably does (feel different) a bit. I think last year going in we were a little unsure and then obviously when we announced the change to Toyota, we knew it was going to be a long season. This year, it’s different. I feel like we’re starting probably not totally where we want to be because I don’t feel like we’ve had enough time and I think most people would agree with that in the shop. We just need more time to keep building these things out internally that we need to. I think that there’s a lot more anticipation and hope. We have a much clearer path and direction of where we’re going to end up and what we need to do to build and where we need to build. Obviously, we’ve got great partners now – AdventHealth this weekend, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree coming on. There’s a lot more resounding optimism from everybody starting the year off than there’s been in year’s past.”

How good does that feel as the driver to start the year off in a more settled place?

“It’s been interesting. It’s just been a long road for me in Cup and not just in the 43 car. Coming in, in the 20 and to the 43 and we’ve gone through so many changes with personnel, ownership, manufacturer, internally, team – so every year has been a grind. This year started no different. It’s a grind right now for us just because we’re working hard to try to hit the ground in the right direction. Every year has been that grind. This year doesn’t feel like a lost cause. Sometimes it feels like you’re just working and working and working and everything is pushing back against you. I feel like we’re working hard, and things are pushing for us, right? We’ve got a lot of people in our corner that are pushing and saying, ‘Okay, you guys are working hard. You’re putting the work in. We want to see you running well.’ Toyota wants us to run well. Our group internally obviously wants us to run well. I think the manufacturer support is the biggest thing. Having a manufacturer that wants you to go out and succeed can make a big difference.”

Do you wish that the team had an alliance with JGR and 23XI?

“That’s a good question. Right now, yeah it would be handy right? I’d be lying – I think anybody would be lying if they didn’t say that in our group, but in the long run man, you’ve got to be independent in my eyes. We’ve made those steps with the pit crew, we’ve made those steps with the team firing off without the alliance. It’s a gamble, right? Coming in with a new manufacturer and you’ve got a blank slate. All we’ve got to look back on is whatever little bit we’ve learned over these last couple years and trying to apply it with Toyota, which is not always very fruitful from manufacturer to manufacturer. It sure would be nice to have somewhere to start. That’s where a lot of the work has been right now, is getting that baseline. And it’s hard when you’re not racing or testing. We can’t go out and just create data. We have to have it live and happen. I have to do it to scale tires better for these guys. I can’t always bank memory back and say this is exactly what it drove like. I need to get out and do it again. It’s hard not having it, but in the long run I think being independent is the only way – you don’t see teams that – it’s very rare but you don’t see teams that are running off alliances that are winning championships. We’ve seen it before with Furniture Row, but it’s not a very often occurrence.”

How do you feel starting the season off with two speedway races?

“It’s tough. You look at it and at least in my mind, you’re thinking, ‘Man, that’s good odds to go out and have two bad races to start.’ You don’t want to go out and fire off with a couple of bad races. The opposite way is you can go out and have a good shot to have two races too. It’s just a big gamble. For me, I look to Daytona as it is what it is. You go out, you run hard and try to win. Obviously, if you kick your season off with a win at the 500 it kind of sets a great tone. Now, you always had a chance to go and kind of pick it back up the next week in Fontana or wherever we go – even when it was at the old Atlanta you had a chance there. But now two wild card ones and Atlanta is becoming an extreme wild card after being in the summer race last year. It’s tough, but at the same time, I think the best way you can look at it is a good chance for us where we are as a team right now with what we’re trying to build. Just fire off and gain a lot of points and then if we go to Vegas and Phoenix and struggle, hopefully we had two really good speedway races to start it.”

Has Atlanta turned into a hybrid or has it gotten more into Daytona and Talladega?

“The summer race was kind of a hybrid. You weren’t really running around there on the mat wide open, and the track was widening out like crazy. You were running up against the wall and all the way on the bottom and it was creating all different kinds of momentum which is much more like a mile and a half. Yeah, it’s changed a lot. I think this race will be pretty cold and you’ll see more of a speedway style of a race than what we saw in the summer. It’s aging quick and it’s widening out a lot. It’s definitely going away from being a real superspeedway race.”

Has the Next Gen made for more competitive intermediate track racing?

“It has. It’s funny, we’re in such a weird spot and everybody kind of sees it. We went from a car that was so good on short tracks and road courses and we stacked a bunch on the schedule or tried to, to now a car that’s good on mile and a half tracks that we were trying to get off the schedule. We’re in a weird spot now. The car is really good on the mile and a half tracks. It’s fun, I like racing it there. On the short tracks and road courses though, it’s a bear. It’s a challenge to put on a good show right now, but we’re working hard. We tried some more aero changes at the test at Phoenix that I was at a couple months ago. It’s definitely done that, but it’s took away from some too.”

Do you think those changes from the test will help at Phoenix?

“I hope. It’s hard to say. Phoenix is probably the toughest of all the short tracks that we have to make better because of the aero side of it. Yeah, I thought it was marginally better at the test. It was the most I felt like we could gain at the test with what we had available parts and pieces-wise, so we’ll see if it’s a step in the right direction. I think probably it will trend more that way with some other stuff so hopefully it is.”

What was your experience like at the Super Bowl in experiencing another sport?

“It was interesting. I guess the most interesting part to me was there were a lot of fans of the teams there, but most were just fans of the sport. I don’t know if that’s true for a race like the Daytona 500. I’ve never really sat in the stands for this one. That was the interesting part to me. I’ve been to a lot of Lions games – especially this year I went to one and the place was just rocking. Out of control because they were having a great year. But you go to that game and neither team had a ton of momentum but at the times when things would go one team’s way the place wasn’t that loud. So, that was the weird part for me. It’s like a lot of just sports fans there. I guess the other thing that I thought was cool though was the atmosphere. You feel the anticipation for it. The National Anthem comes on and it gives you chills. You feel the whole aura of the game. I tell people all the time about what a day like Sunday feels like at the 500 for us, and the feeling of it and the air just before the race and other big races in our sport and it shares that same moment in that sport. So, I thought that was cool. That was by far the biggest sporting event I’ve gone to besides ours. It was cool to share some similar feelings.”

You’ve worked with Denny Hamlin in the past, how talented of a race car driver is he?

“I think Denny (Hamlin) is just incredibly talented. He’s one of the best in the field in driving a race car. I worked around him for four or five years and when I first started working with him, I didn’t truly realize it because I’d been around Kyle (Busch) for so long and I thought man, Kyle’s the guy and especially at that time he was. He was winning at everything. Then I got around Denny and I’m like ‘Man, this guy is really fast.’ He was winning a lot and I started to work with him more and more and just his shear ability in the car is extremely high. His talent that he had at the time, especially on short tracks, when I worked with him it was hard to match. He ran a pretty different setup than us most of the time. His balance was quite a bit different than everybody else. His talent – I always thought – the more and more I worked with him I realized how good he was.”

What do you see that Denny Hamlin has done that the average fan doesn’t see?

“I think you have to look at his (Denny Hamlin) adaptability. I think you look at him in the Gen 6 car and you looked at what he was really good at and it was specific places right – Richmond, Martinsville, maybe at Homestead here and there. He always kind of won at the same places and then you look at the last few years and you look at the places he’s won at and it’s been very different. Then, we go to the Next Gen car, and you think he’s going to struggle now. He’s raced all of these years in the old car and he’s got his feel and his deal he wants to run, he’s not going to be able to replicate that. Well, all of a sudden,  he turned it on in that and he’s winning at that. You look at him on the road courses in the Gen 6 and he had a struggle for quite a long time. The Next Gen car, he struggled off the bat on road courses and then all of a sudden, now this guy is qualifying on the pole and racing upfront. I think that’s the easiest way from a 100 foot view to look at how quick he can adapt and get better and say if you can give him something like, ‘Hey, man, I think you need to work on this,’ and I’ve worked with his crew chief Chris and I know probably how he’s working in trying to mold Denny a bit and giving him things to work on. To see him go to work and all of a sudden get better at them, that’s not easy to do as a driver, right. Most guys, and a lot of the guys more from his generation and right at a turning point of when I came in, you’re kind of set in your ways. It’s hard to look at data and say, ‘I’m going to go and do that. That guy does it good.’ Denny’s very feel and drives the car to the tire and what he’s doing. For him to be able to switch and adapt and get better is very impressive.”

What has changed since the first time you were with Toyota?

“It hasn’t been a lot. A lot of the same people in the same places. I guess the only difference is working with a different team and right now a smaller team. So, we kind of came in with some different asks than what I had at JGR. We need different resources and different things from them, especially to get started. Coming off having kind of a blank slate and no real data with TRD from the last few years, a lot of stuff we’ve got to learn and figure out. Building out simulation programs, tire programs – a lot of that stuff has been a lot of man hours and heavy lifting right off the bat. Toyota has done a good job of helping us facilitate that. That’s the kind of stuff we didn’t have last time I worked with them. We didn’t have to work through that. It’s been kind of fun to see them put in the time for us and help us.”

What can we expect to see differently with the LEGACY group in its second season?

“That’s tough to say. We’ve built out a lot of – we’ve added a lot of people and obviously made a manufacturer change. We’ve done all the things we could do right now to make it better, but we need to go race. We don’t really know where we’re going to stack up to be honest. Right now, we just have to hit the track and see where we’re at and then we can make a plan from there. In the shop, you want to set your expectations high and we do have high expectations, but I think Dave (Elenz, crew chief) and I have talked a lot and said you’ve got to give us six months. We’ve got to get racing, see where we get going on these mile-and-a-halves, short tracks, road courses – see where these programs are at and then we can start to build and get them better. That gives guys time to fill in new roles, learn simulation. These guys are trying to figure out stuff right now and I commend them a lot in what they’ve been putting in the last month to try and get ready. It’s a lot of heavy lifting right now.”

Did not having Jimmie Johnson around for a good bit of last season affect the team?

“No, not really. I thought everybody did a good job. Honestly, our best runs were towards the end of the year. We started to run well in the Playoffs and got things better. We were able to keep going. We’ve got a good process in the shop with our guys. Joey Cohen (VP, Race Operations) is our competition guy, leading the way. We had a good process in place, and we were able to kind of dig in and figure things out. So, I felt like we kept rolling pretty good.”

How does it make you feel that they are saying you have a shot at making the Playoffs this year?

“It makes you happy. You want to be a guy that people look at to run well. This year it would be fair to say it would be a surprise, right? Eventually you want to be the guy that it’s not a surprise to run well. You want to be just fast enough and strong enough year after year. But the way things have gone the last couple years and with the huge change in the offseason to hop off the first year, hitting the ground running and having speed I would say would be somewhat of a surprise. I think we can do it and I think we can get there, but it is going to take time. There’s a lot of stuff these guys are working through right now and it’s a lot of work. But, yeah, we’re all excited about it. The potential to go out and have really fast cars when we hit on it is high.”

What are the similarities that you find between the Super Bowl and stock car racing?

“Just a huge event. Seeing the events around the event is probably the biggest thing I noticed. You go around Daytona this week and you see everything that’s going on and see everything that’s set up. See the people that are here that are not even attending the race but are watching somewhere out and around Daytona. The biggest thing that struck me is the similarity and also people that have been going forever. We ran into people that have been going to the Super Bowl year after year whether they’re fans of the team’s playing or not and that was neat to see as well. Probably the biggest things I noticed.”

Have you had the opportunity to hear the reception to the 43 being a Toyota now?

“Yeah, I have. Most people are excited, right? I think, I look back and Richard drove every manufacturer that was out there so yeah, I think they’re just excited to have the chance to be competitive consistently and that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve seen from them. When I first came to the 43 car, it was a huge welcome. There were a lot of 43 fans like you mentioned. After the announcement, most of the fans were just excited for the chance to hopefully be competitive. And look, they want to see the 43 win, they want to see us contend for championships and I think they all saw this as this is our best opportunity to do that.”

Would you ever have envisioned that the 43 car would be a Toyota?

“It’s different, right? You’re lying if you don’t say that. But I think we’re all – we want to be competitive, and we want to win races and I think the biggest thing that would make any 43 fan happy would be to see the 43 in victory lane multiple times a year. I think, if that’s with Toyota, I think everybody is going to be very happy about that. It is different for sure. I think anybody would be lying if you didn’t say that, but if you can go win some races, I think that makes it pretty good.”

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