Normally, drivers strive to “keep it straight” at Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5-mile high-banked high-speed tri-oval where control is essential.
Wednesday was somewhat different for Erik Jones. Control was a relative term.
Jones, one of the bright young stars for both Joe Gibbs Racing and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, spent the morning on the edge, free-wheeling several tire-squealing Toyotas on the “Toyota Thrill Ride” outside the speedway’s frontstretch. Speedway President Chip Wile and area media members went along for the rides, during an event promoting the July 7, 60th annual Coke Zero Sugar 400 at DIS.
The Toyota Thrill Ride is an exciting and unique experience that Toyota provides race fans near the “Toyota Injector” at Daytona International Speedway on race weekends. Toyota is a Founding Partner at DIS and sponsors one of the five fan injector entrances into the speedway.
Jones, 22, took media on white-knuckle experiences in Toyotas on two different courses – an off-road course and a street course. Jones drove a 2018 Toyota XSE Camry on the street course, which includes multiple sharp turns including a 180-degree ‘J-Turn.’ The off-road course was negotiated in a Toyota TRD Tundra, Tacoma and 4Runner and features a hill approximately 30-feet high with 31-degree banking – the same banking as Daytona International Speedway’s famed turns.
Jones was the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year for Furniture Row Racing. He’s with Joe Gibbs Racing this season, driving the No. 20 DEWALT Toyota Camry. Jones is 14th in the series championship standings. In 2016, Jones was the top rookie in the NASCAR Xfinity Series; in 2015 he was the series champion and Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, becoming the youngest champion (19 years, five months and 21 days) in the history of the truck series.
In Monster Energy Series competition at DIS, Jones finished ninth in last year’s Coke Zero Sugar 400, then returned this past February to post an eighth-place finish in the Advance Auto Parts Clash, a third-place run in the Duel At DAYTONA and a 36th-place finish in the DAYTONA 500.
Overall, these are encouraging results that Jones wants to build on in the Coke Zero Sugar 400.
“It’s different [than the DAYTONA 500],” Jones said. “When you come down to Daytona [for Speedweeks in February] and the year’s just starting out, it’s a week-and-a-half event. When you come back for the Coke [Zero Sugar] 400 it’s more of a [typical] race.”
Differences between the two DIS events become somewhat blurred, however, when the engines are fired.
“It gets you in a different mindset showing up at DIS and then having to go out and go superspeedway-style racing,” Jones said.
Jones is part of a powerhouse team at Joe Gibbs Racing, which fields a foursome that also includes former Monster Energy Series champion Kyle Busch, former DAYTONA 500 champion Denny Hamlin and former Xfinity Series titlist Daniel Suarez. That’s serious company. Accordingly, Jones said it’s time to get serious.
“We’ve made improvements but we just need to be more consistent,” Jones said. “The biggest part we need to improve on is just closing races out. We’ve had fast cars capable of running up in the top 10 every week but we just haven’t sealed the deal a lot of weekends and finished where we’re capable of finishing. But at the end of the day, we’ve had good race cars.”
In addition to the Toyota Thrill Ride activities, Jones stopped in to meet with children participating in “Take Your Kids to Work Day” involving Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation employees. He also met with suite ticketholders for a fan question-and-answer session, while also stopping by the ISC Call Center to see employees.