Erik Jones Lands First Career Cup Series Pole At Pinty's Qualifying
At the track where he logged his first laps in a NASCAR Cup Series race as a substitute driver, Erik Jones achieved another career milestone Friday.
The driver of the Furniture Row Racing No. 77 earned his first Cup Series pole by lapping Bristol Motor Speedway at 128.082 mph in qualifying for Saturday's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.
"I was hoping we were going to be able to accomplish a few things this year and this one of our goals, at least one of my goals, for sure," said Jones, who has won two XFINITY Series races at Bristol, where he logged his first laps in a Cup Series race as a substitute driver for Denny Hamlin in 2015. "Pretty awesome, especially at Bristol. It's a cool place to get your first pole.
"Bristol has been really good to me over the last couple of years, especially in the XFINITY Series. To come here now in a Cup car and get a pole is just really sweet."
Jones' lap bumped Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson from the top spot. Larson utilized the high groove on his 128.057 mph lap in the No. 42 Chevrolet. In the spring race, he started from pole, led a bunch of laps and finished sixth.
Hendrick Motorsports drivers Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott qualified third and fourth. Four-time Bristol winner Matt Kenseth qualified fifth.
Saturday's race on the high-banked half-mile track could have major postseason implications for several drivers, including points leader Martin Truex Jr. The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing car qualified sixth and enters Saturday with an opportunity to secure the regular season championship.
To do so, he will need a 121-point advantage over second place when he leaves Bristol. The gap between he and Larson is 129 points entering the race. Bristol hasn't been one of Truex's best tracks but a stage win and eighth-place finish in the spring race should provide encouragement.
Truex owns four victories and 15 stage wins this season for a total of 35 playoff points. Should he claim the regular season title, Truex would receive an additional 15 playoff points.
In all, 14 drivers have won a race this season. However, Joey Logano's encumbered victory from the April race at Richmond Raceway does not count toward playoff eligibility.
If the season ended today, Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Kenseth would make the playoff field based on their position in the points standings.
"That is not a comfortable position to be in because there is always an opportunity for a guy on the outside to win a race and bump you back another position," said Elliott, who drives the No. 24 Chevrolet. "So, it's tight for sure where we are at. We feel like we need a victory to feel good about it."
A victory on Saturday would land him a playoff berth but also be his first in the Cup Series. A runner-up three times in his brief Cup Series career, Elliott has raced to one top-five and two top-10 finishes for an average finish of 8.7 through three starts at Bristol.
A win at Bristol is on McMurray's wish list.
"Until you can be locked in, you just never know," the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet said. "Another first-time winner changes it quite a bit."
Kenseth won't be back at Joe Gibbs Racing next season - Jones is moving to the No. 20 - and as of Friday said he has no firm plans for next season. Saturday will be his 36th career Cup Series start at Bristol.
"We've had really good cars here since I've been at JGR," Kenseth said. "We've had some DNFs, some bad things happen, but we've led some laps. We've been in position most races. Didn't run great in the spring but finished okay. So hopefully we can get our car to run like it typically does here and if we can do that, we're usually a contender more so than not."
A slip by Kenseth, Elliott or McMurray in the night race could open the door for Stewart-Haas Racing driver Clint Bowyer. Winless this season, he trails Kenseth by 31 points entering Saturday.
Bowyer has won at Bristol before - albeit in an XFINITY Series car - and finished second to Harvick in the Food City 500 this spring. He will start ninth.
Logano is in jeopardy of snapping a string of four consecutive playoff appearances. Judging by past performance at Bristol, he could score a victory on Saturday.
Logano will start eighth in the Team Penske No. 22 beside Hamlin and owns a 6.5 average finish over the past four Cup races at Bristol. That includes a victory in the 2015 night race. Between the Cup Series and XFINITY Series, Logano owns four career victories at the track.
Kyle Busch posted the fastest lap in the first round of qualifying but did not advance past the second round. A five-time winner in the Cup Series at Bristol, the 2015 Cup Series champion will start 18th in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson earned his second career victory in Bristol's spring race earlier this year. He will start 21st in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Defending race winner Kevin Harvick will start 29th in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing machine.
Like Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. all but needs a victory in the final three races of the regular season to make the playoffs.
Saturday will be bittersweet for Earnhardt fans in the stands. Set to retire from a full-time racing schedule at the end of this season, it will be an occasion to celebrate his career.
There is a planned card stunt before the race and fans are encouraged to stand and salute Earnhardt on Lap 88. Before the race, the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is scheduled to visit the Mountain Dew display at 4 p.m. in the Fan Zone.
Earnhardt did not advance past the first round of qualifying and will start 31st. Five-time Bristol winner Kurt Busch also did not advance to the second qualifying round. He will start 25th in the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41.
Hamlin and Ryan Blaney paced Friday's two practices before qualifying. The first practice saw drivers cling to the bottom groove, which again has been treated with resin. Drivers ventured to the upper groove in final practice.
Track operations staff planned to wait until after Friday's XFINITY Series race to determine whether or not to re-apply the resin before the Cup Series race.
"It does wear off," said Chris Buescher, driver of the No. 37 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet. "We saw it there late in practice, we were able to start using that top and run lap times within a tenth or two versus half a second or three quarters of a second that it was in the first practice."
McMurray is indifferent to the use of the tacky substance and believes the top will be the preferred route through the turns Saturday.
"Once the top gets rubbered in, that will be the fastest groove," he said.
Following the stage format, Saturday's race will be divided into three segments. The first will end on Lap 125 and the second will end on Lap 250. The final segment will be 250 laps.
What will it take for Jones to add another first by winning on Saturday?
"To win a race is going to take a good week of execution," Jones said. "It starts in practice. You need to practice well. You need to qualify well. You start up front and then go about the race.
"It's going to take a lot of patience from myself because the racetrack is going to change so much….It's going to be a tough race but I think we can definitely do it. This has been a good track for me and I feel like I have a decent idea of what it's going to take at the end of the day."