Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones was made available to media via teleconference prior to NASCAR’s return to the track at Darlington Raceway on Sunday:
ERIK JONES, No. 20 DeWalt Atomic Thank You Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
What have you done to keep physically in shape to prepare for the upcoming races?
"That’s been one of the hardest parts. In general, we all try to keep ourselves in good shape, but at the same time a lot of our workout just comes from being in the car. There’s so many muscles you can’t really work out that you use in the race car in the seated position that we’re in, and what muscles we’re using during the race. So, it’s tough. A lot of it, I hope, has been just from working around the house. I’ve been really busy here. I moved right before Atlanta and I’ve been working like crazy outside pretty much every day. Been hoping that’s going to keep me in shape and been doing a normal workout as well with that. Really, at the end of the day you’ve got to get back into the race car and get back into racing shape as well. As much as you’re in shape out of it, there’s still I believe kind of a racing shape that you have to be in as well."
What’s your interaction been like with your crew chief Chris Gayle over the break?
"A lot over the phone. I haven’t seen Chris (Gayle, crew chief) since Atlanta which is really odd. I don’t know if I’ve ever gone that long not seeing Chris in the last four years. It’s a different normal. Obviously, the communication has been ramped up the last few weeks with them getting back to work at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) and getting obviously ready for Darlington this weekend. I’ve definitely talked a lot with him this week and last week just trying to get prepared, determine what the plan is and what the protocols are. Things we have to go through that are going to be different this weekend than what a normal weekend would bring for us. I’ve been talking to him a ton. Not only Chris, but my engineers as well. I was in the Toyota simulator on Monday just trying to get a feel for the car again. Working on what we’re going to unload with and race with. Trying to work with them as much as I can to do the things that we can to help through the weekend. It’s definitely a different communication than what’s normal, but I have been talking to them quite a bit."
How much pressure will it be not to screw up during the first stage of Sunday’s race?
"I think that pressure if there every weekend that we’re racing, whether it’s this weekend at Darlington where we have a unique situation. We haven’t raced in two months and we don’t have any practice or qualifying, but at the same time all 40 of us are some of the best drivers in the world. We wouldn’t be in the Cup Series if we weren’t capable of being there. Obviously, you’re going to be a little bit rusty when you hop back in and I think in your mind you use caution. You can’t barrel off into Turn 1 wide open on the first lap after being on a dry run basically. The caution is going to be there, and guys are going to be trying to settle in and find their groove. Darlington is not an easy race track and especially when it’s green. It’s dusty and dirty and sandy around that area. The track is going to take a long time to get cleaned up, so I think everybody is just going to kind of take it easy until that first competition yellow and ride and figure out what their car has got and go from there. And, we know that we’re on a big stage this weekend, right? There’s not really any other sports out there. I know UFC is back, but we have a huge opportunity on Sunday to bring a new group of fans in and people that maybe have never watched NASCAR to tune in this weekend and give them the opinion to put on a good show and hopefully they say ‘Hey, this is pretty neat. I think I could watch this again.’ That’s all on our mind. The pressure is there to keep it clean and put on a good show for them."
Can you describe the challenges of returning to the track Sunday and how do you work your way through all of that?
"It is tough. There’s a lot of things other than just racing like you mentioned during Sunday. You have to have green flag pit stops and getting in and out of pit box. All of those things. And, there’s little nuances that as the year goes on that you naturally do, and a lot of things you probably don’t think about if you’ve been out of the car this long. How the cars drive in traffic, how you navigate certain traffic situations, how to keep yourself out of bad spots. There’s a bunch of little things that you don’t always think about when you’ve been out of the car this long. You have to watch a lot of film and really try to just remember those things and what you did during that time to be competitive, but also not put yourself in bad spots. It’s not easy. I think it’s kind of like riding a bike for a lot of us, as we get going, things will start to click for everybody, and you’ll remember things you should do or shouldn’t do I guess more than that. So, I don’t know. It’s unique. None of us have been out of a car for probably this long since we started racing — however long ago that was for anybody so it’s going to be a pretty unique situation."
Do you have a sense for what the lead up to the race will be like compared to a normal race day morning?
"It’s going to be different. I mean, that’s the easiest way to put it. We normally have such a routine, right? Every driver is a little bit different. You normally wake up, do your appearances and then come back to the drivers meeting, eat lunch, get 20 or 30 minutes to kind of relax by yourself and think about the day and what you’re going to have to do and then intros and go race. What we’ve got now, it’s going to be you all by yourself at the track, which is going to be unique in itself. I don’t know that I’ve ever just went to the race track by myself to race without either family, friends or even motorhome drivers. They’re normally there if nobody else is there. That’s going to be really unique just walking out to the grid and hopping in the car. There’s not going to be anybody by the car other than us and maybe the interior guy to help us get the window net up. So, yeah, it’s going to be odd and it’s going to be unprecedented in what we’ve always done. It’s a weird feeling. A new normal for right now and what we’re normally used to. But, hey, as long as we’re getting to race, I think most of us can manage to find a new normal for a little while."
How confident are you that NASCAR can pull this off without anybody getting the virus and are you confident in the procedures if someone does get it?
"I feel good about it right now. Obviously, we haven’t done it yet, right? We haven’t been to the track yet to see what the protocols are like. I know NASCAR has worked – not to sound like a PR guy for NASCAR but – day in and day out the last couple of months trying to just get us back to the race track. Trying to rework on the schedule and trying to work with dates and what they’ve got opened up to get us to the race track on these dates. From my opinion, we’re doing everything we can. I don’t know what else we can possibly do to be any safer with what’s going on right now than what we are. As far as if somebody does get sick, probably above my paygrade, but I think they’ve got a plan in place for that. We wouldn’t go back racing if we didn’t have a plan in place for a situation if somebody did test positive and had been in contact with ours. I feel confident if that did happen, they’ve got something that could keep us racing. I don’t think that would shut us down by any stretch right now. It’s a day by day thing though. It’s very fluid. It changes by the day. We get different updates each day as things progress and move forward and how things are working and going. I know we’re all hoping for the best and hoping that we all stay safe and follow the protocols and nothing will go wrong. We’ll kind of have to see how it goes."
How confident are you in how your pit crew can work together after having such a long break?
"I feel good. They’ve been able to get back in the shop and practice a little bit. It’s been very staggered with what we’ve got to do with following the social distancing polices that we’ve got in place at JGR. So, it’s been real staggered pit practice and it’s not really what they do to practice normally. Will it be rusty? Yeah. Every year when we go to Daytona the first race of the year, we’re always a little rusty, the pit crews are. And, it’s not just them, it’s us and the crew chiefs and everybody is a little rusty. These last two months have obviously been a little longer than our normal offseason, but they have got back to practice a little bit. I mean, I feel confident. Will there be slow stops and maybe some issues here and there? Yeah, but I think that will be everybody. But, I have confidence in my guys. The good thing is there’s a lot of pit stops at Darlington, so they’ve got several opportunities to go in and get it right and have a lot of practice. They’ll be rusty at first, but I feel like they’re going to get the hang of things here and get in the swing of things pretty quickly."
How much will it matter to you during the race to not have fans in the grandstands?
"You don’t notice it really too much during the race. With us being in the race cars, obviously it’s really loud and you’re pretty tunnel vision as far as what you’re doing on the race track — what’s in front of you and what’s behind you. You won’t notice it then. At times you’ll really only notice it in pre and post-race, getting in the race car and not having any fans. Especially for the winner having your celebration. Obviously, a big part of winning the race is celebrating not only with your team but with the fans as well, so getting out and doing the interview that we’re going to do on the front stretch after the win will definitely be unique. If you’re doing a burn out, it will be unique as well. During the race you don’t notice it a whole lot but pre and post is when things will definitely be a lot different than what we’re used to."
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