CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Joey Logano was sitting in his motorhome watching television when a shell-shocked Erik Jones was interviewed about his firing from Joe Gibbs Racing.
Logano knew exactly how Jones felt. Logano had been in that exact spot eight years earlier.
Logano sent Jones a text and Jones asked if they could meet for lunch. The two aren’t friends and really didn’t even have much of a relationship, but Logano figured he had the experience to help Jones make sense of his situation.
”Everything flashed back through my mind of what it felt like to have nobody have faith in you anymore,” Logano told The Associated Press. ”You can’t help but to start thinking about what’s next in my life? Am I even going to be a race car driver anymore? All my eggs are in this one basket and what am I going to do the rest of my life?
”I felt like I can relate to Erik better than anybody because his story is identical to mine.”
Logano was just 15 when he started moving through the Gibbs pipeline. He was in a full-time Cup Series ride at 19, rushed along in part because the team had to fill a seat after Tony Stewart’s unexpected departure. But Logano won just twice in four seasons and was let go at 21.
Jones got his start at 16 when he was discovered by Kyle Busch. He won a Truck Series championship, moved into the Xfinity Series and finally a Cup car at 21 years old. The organization told him earlier this month he’s out after four seasons, in part because the team needs his seat for Christopher Bell.
Jones had believed talks on an extension had been progressing well – and noted a clause in his Gibbs contract prohibited him from even talking to other teams about a job in 2021 – and was admittedly ”blindsided” to learn he was out.
His lunch with Logano gave him hope. Logano landed with Team Penske, and has won 23 races and a Cup championship since Gibbs cut him loose.
”He got moved on from JGR around the same age that I was and had to find a different opportunity,” Jones said. ”He went from not being 100% competitive at JGR to a champion. So I wanted to know what clicked for him after he left. I thought it was an interesting conversation I learned a lot from and I can apply a lot of things from that.”
Jones has admittedly been ”burning up the phone lines” since he learned he needed to find a new job. His task is much tougher than the one Logano faced during a very different market: Salaries have been slashed, budgets are much tighter and the most attractive drivers are those who either bring sponsorship or don’t command large paydays.
Jones has no personal funding and two wins in four seasons makes him a hard sell for top organizations. He’s also a late entrant into a crowded free agent market that spans a wide-range of talent and salary demands.
Bubba Wallace is piecing together his own sponsorship package that he can take with him if he leaves Richard Petty Motorsports. Kyle Larson will be a steal for a team owner if he’s reinstated by NASCAR after using a racial slur. The pool is deep and competitive rides may go to the cheapest drivers and not necessarily the top talents.
Jones isn’t giving up hope.
”There’s still a couple of opportunities out there that are winning cars,” Jones said. ”There are still some other dominoes I think to fall in the sport to make decisions for them and what they’re going to do, but I feel good about the couple of opportunities that we’ve got out there right now.”
Jones’ immediate focus, though, is on Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway, He’s trying to race his way into the 16-driver playoffs with Daytona, where he opened this season with a victory in the exhibition Busch Clash.
”I don’t think your season is over if you don’t make the playoffs,” Jones said. ”I think we’re capable of winning races in the playoffs, even if we aren’t in the playoffs. We want to get in Saturday night. I think we’re capable of winning races.”