Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Mailbox: Can Erik Jones Be Considered a Legitimate Title Threat?

Saturday night’s (July 7) Coke Zero Sugar 400 proved to be a night to remember for Erik Jones. The 22-year-old scored his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win after a thrilling three-wide pass with two laps to go.

Jones has built momentum recently; that victory was also his third consecutive top-10 finish. After moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, he was expected to be a front-runner all season long, but it took until midseason for him to break through. Daytona could be a turning point for Jones going forward.

Meanwhile, the phrase of the race Friday night during the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Daytona was “double yellow line.” Justin Haley made a thrilling pass coming to the checkered flag for what he thought was his first career win in only his second ever start. But Haley found himself doing donuts on the tri-oval for… nothing.

His pass was deemed illegal after the No. 24 car’s left-side tires barely crept below the yellow line. Kyle Larson was awarded the victory instead while Haley fell back to the last car on the lead lap.

This rule is always a topic of conversation every time NASCAR visits a restrictor plate superspeedway, whether it’s Daytona or Talladega. Does it need to be changed?

That’s all part of this week’s NASCAR Mailbox with questions asked by you, the fans. Have one you want me to answer? Simply email frontstretcheditors@googlegroups.com and you could be in this space next week!

Q: Do you think Erik Jones is legitimate this season after the Daytona win or will it turn out to be a fluke? –Doug B., San Diego, CA

A: I’ll start off by saying that going into the 2018 season, I thought Jones would be one of the top drivers all year long. After an impressive rookie campaign with Furniture Row Racing, he was bound to take the next step in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and win multiple races. It, unfortunately, has not been that easy for the 22-year-old sophomore.

After taking over for Matt Kenseth, Jones was in prime position to become a legitimate title threat. Being in the Joe Gibbs Racing shop was going to help him, especially with veteran teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

Jones has also adapted very quickly to everything he’s driven in NASCAR. In the Camping World Truck Series, he won the championship in his first full season driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports. In the XFINITY Series, he won his first race in only his ninth career start. Then, in his first full season (2016), he made it into the Championship 4 and was arguably one restart away from winning the title. Now, in the Cup Series, it took him 57 races to score his first career win.

Obviously, the transition from the two lower series to Cup is very challenging. Some have adapted more quickly than others. Jones has not had a bad season, but it hasn’t been the one many expected up to this point. 

Jones has to show a little more to be a legitimate threat for the title. He does have momentum on his side, though, with three straight top 10s. That includes a seventh at Sonoma where he struggled mightily most of the race. As the series begins to head back to many tracks for a second time this season, he and crew chief Chris Gayle have their own notes to fall back on. Being locked into the playoffs now is huge for the team, too. They may take more chances for wins now instead of having to race for points like they had been. Keep in mind they were on the bubble before Daytona, a bad race or two from being knocked out of the postseason.

I will not say Jones is going to make the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami or that he’ll go on a tear and win three or four more races. But with a little more consistency, this young driver can transform himself into a title contender. And now that he’s got that first win under his belt, we’ll see whether Jones can harness some momentum.

Q: What are your opinions on the yellow line rule after Justin Haley had his win taken away on Friday night? –Ellen N., Little Rock, AR

A: Controversy is never fun to deal with in this sport; we can all agree on that. Let’s face it, NASCAR had a very tough call as to whether Haley went below the yellow line to make his pass for the win.

Larson wound up being declared the winner after the pass was deemed illegal. Many fans and a select amount of drivers did not agree with NASCAR’s call, and it leads to the question of whether the rule should be changed. It is a very, very difficult position for NASCAR when it comes to this rule. We have seen on multiple occasions wins get taken away and black flags given out because of passes made below the line.

The rule has been in place since 2001 after the death of Dale Earnhardt. Funny thing is, he was the one to say the sport needed an out of bounds line during Daytona Speedweeks in 2001. Wins being taken away is never going to be popular in this sport, period. We can debate all day on why someone can keep a win after a car is ruled illegal during post-race inspection and why someone gets a win taken away for putting a wheel below a painted line. It is a problem that will exist as long as the rule remains as written.

But as much as I want to say every pass should be legal on the last lap, that would not be the right move, either. Why should a yellow-line dip be legal then and not the previous 150 laps or however many laps the race is? It basically goes against what the rule is made for: safety reasons. So should we eliminate all safety the second the white flag waves? Should we have drivers blocking all the way to the grass and possibly causing a wreck? No. That is why I don’t think NASCAR will ever make it legal on the last lap or ever.

The rule is going to stay in place, and I think it should. Drivers are well aware they cannot go below the line to pass and if they do, they are going to be black flagged. Ask Regan Smith or Denny Hamlin, who have both had wins taken away due to passing below the line.


Arguably, you can say Smith was forced below the line, as well as Hamlin. But the rule is the rule: you cannot pass. They do state that if you are forced below, then it is legal, but we have seen cases where the black flag may still be displayed.

My point here is: I do not like the rule, but the language to me is very clear. It is a part of NASCAR I have gotten so used to, I cannot even argue about it. NASCAR teams are used to it, too.

That said, it was such a close call on Friday night with Haley. I understand both sides and I would have hated to be in NASCAR’s position.

We may not like it, but safety is important in the sport and NASCAR does all it can to prevent on-track injuries. So even though the decisions related to the yellow line rule can be subjective, it’s something we all have to learn to the live with, whether we like it or not.

About the author

Brandon is a 22-year-old from NY and has been a passionate follower of motorsports for 14 years now. He recently graduated from Molloy College on Long Island with a BA in Communications. Working within NASCAR has been a dream for Brandon for a while, and he hopes to be able to live out the dream in the very near future.

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