Erik Jones shares difficult story of father’s loss

Imagine this: You’re on a rocket ship to NASCAR stardom. After years of your family sacrificing time and money to help you make it, you’re finally close to racing’s big leagues. You’re on top of the world; your dream is within reach.

And then, just when things could hardly be better, you suffer a loss that takes away part of you — the type of loss that can never truly be healed.

That’s what Erik Jones went through last year and is still going through now — at only 20 years old.

Nothing has been easy in the past year for Jones, who lost his father, Dave, at age 53 last June.

“He was really my best friend,” Jones said Friday. “I didn’t have anybody I felt closer with or felt like I could share more with at any time.”

Cancer, that cruel and despicable disease, robbed Jones of being able to share his life’s greatest accomplishment with his father. So you’ll have to forgive him if it’s taken the better part of a year to discuss what he’s dealt with.

Before qualifying Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Jones sat in a room with a small group of reporters and shared his story, baring his soul to strangers.

The pain was so severe after his father died that Jones honestly worried if he’d ever win another race.

“I didn’t know if I’d even be the same person after going through something like that,” he said.

Getting the news

It was roughly a year ago when Dave Jones lost feeling in his arm one day. He went to the doctor, figuring it was a pinched nerve.

It wasn’t. Doctors told him it was lung cancer that would later spread to his brain.

Erik, then a 19-year-old Xfinity Series driver, took the news hard. Shortly thereafter, doctors told Dave he had only a year to live — at best.

Dave had been a central part of Erik’s career despite not having a racing background. After his son began moving up through the ranks, Dave handled the finances so Erik could focus on driving — this after once selling his ’65 Corvette to help fund Erik’s racing.

When Erik had a question or needed advice, Dave “always had the answer,” he said. He leaned on his father’s wisdom and guidance heavily, as any young son would.

One of the most important lessons Dave taught Erik: Never be afraid to see someone. If you’re afraid to see someone, it likely means you have an enemy; don’t have enemies and you won’t have to worry.

“He lived his life and he was never scared to run into anybody,” Erik said. “I always try to live by that same piece of advice.”

After the diagnosis, Erik started spending all his free time in Michigan. He needed to be with his family as much as possible. But hardly anyone outside the family were aware of what was going on.

“I holed up in my house and didn’t go anywhere,” Erik said. “I didn’t talk about it at the time to anybody. Most of my friends didn’t even know he was sick at the time.”

By April, when Jones won the Xfinity race at Bristol, things looked grim. The cancer had spread faster than doctors expected, and Dave was quite sick. Erik placed an emotional phone call to his father from Bristol’s victory lane, then told reporters about his dad’s condition.

Dave lived to see Erik win one more race — a month later, at Dover. Erik returned home after the race and can vividly recall their conversation.

“He was pretty sick, but he was still able to watch the race, and we got to talk about the race,” Erik said, breaking into a smile. “He was just pumped. It was a Dash 4 Cash race, so he thought that was cool we’d won a second one.”

Dave lived only a few more weeks. He passed away four days before Erik’s home race at Michigan International Speedway.

Dealing with a loss

The rest of 2016 was somewhat of a blur for Erik. He was numb at first, then closed himself off. He ignored some things he probably shouldn’t have. There were weekends he didn’t want to be at the track, but went anyway and — to his relief — won two more races.

It’s not like Erik has dealt with the loss and moved on. That’s not how these things work. As his career continues to take off, Erik thinks about his father daily and often sees him in dreams. He feels the absence frequently — like during the holidays and on pit road prior to the Daytona 500.

“I wish he could have been there to take it all in,” Erik said of Daytona.

A gesture from team owner Joe Gibbs helped give Erik some peace of mind. When Dave was ill, Gibbs unexpectedly dropped by the family’s home. Though the deal hadn’t been finalized yet, Gibbs told Dave that Erik would likely become a Cup Series driver in 2017 with affiliate Furniture Row Racing.

That allowed father and son to have a moment of celebration.

“I’m just really happy for you,” Dave told his son. “It’s going to be a great year.”

“It was cool in that moment to be able to sit down with him and say, ‘Hey, we did it. Next year, we’re going to be at the peak, man. That’s it,'” Erik said. “It was special to be able to share that moment; at least he knew it was all going to work out.”

Looking ahead

Though just a rookie, Erik was perhaps the best Toyota driver throughout last week’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He ultimately finished 14th, but it showed once again there’s a bright future ahead.

“There’s definitely times in the last few weeks I would have loved to call him and talk to him about racing in general and life,” Erik said. “I definitely think he’s proud.”

These days, Erik’s most cherished possession is a silver Shinola watch with a leather band, proudly made in Detroit. It’s the one his Michigan-loving dad wore every day after getting it one year as a Christmas present.

After Dave fell ill, he had it engraved for Erik. Now Erik never travels without it.

“It’s kind of the one thing I have that connects me back to him,” Erik said.

Actually, there’s one more thing.

Remember that ’65 Corvette his dad once sold to help Erik’s career? Well, Erik recently found the owner — and bought it back.

12 Replies to “Erik Jones shares difficult story of father’s loss”

  1. What a tough thing for that young man to deal with. He couldn’t have had a better team owner than Joe Gibbs to help him through those difficult times.

  2. Great story Jeff I’ll hope see more stories like this about other drivers , owners and crew chiefs. Keep up the good work.????????

  3. Having lost both of my parents at a young age, I recognized the void Erik was feeling after his Dad died even tho no one talked about it. I believe if it hadn’t happened, Erik would have won more races and even the championship last year – but I could tell that he was a bit off keel. I hoped that someone close to him recognized his need and was getting him some help. He doesn’t mention that, but I hope it is happening. I will always have a special place in my heart for him.

  4. Excellent writing from one on NASCAR’s best journalists. Look forward to reading more long-form articles this season. Thanks Jeff, good job.

  5. I’ve seen my parents die from cancer. It’s something that I’ll never forget. I try to remember the good times & still talk to them cause I figure they’re looking down seeing how I’m doing. I know your dad is looking down & he has to be proud how you’ve handled things since he’s been gone.

  6. My wife and I met Erik and his father, along with the rest of his family… back before he went big time.

    Just before the Winchester 400, in Winchester, Indiana… one weekend in Oct of 2011. My wife and I were on our way into the local Walmart and there was a race car and some people around it and they asked us if we wanted tickets and we said sure… they then asked if we wanted a picture with the driver… my wife and I both thought it was Dave. (Erik’s dad)…

    When they told us it was the 15 year old kid… we were blown away!

    We chatted with them a bit, we got our picture and our tickets! We went to the race that Sunday… and even though Erik didn’t win that race, he won over all in the points that year and my wife and I knew he was going places.

    We followed his races through the remainder of 2011… and when racing started back in 2012… he was the man to watch! (I can say in all honesty, racing is not my most favorite thing… but it is my wife’s… and I love it, because she loves it).

    But we’ve stayed in contact with Erik, his team and his family… every time he’s been back to Winchester, we sit with his mom and dad, his girlfriend, sister and PR team. We’ve turned a lot of people on to Erik… and we stay in contact through social media and have went to a few other tracks to watch Erik do his thing!

    He will be big!

    But more than the racing… what I dig is his family’s love for each other and the commitment they have for each other.

    Erik, his mom, dad and sister… put a high value on family! I very much enjoy being at the track and sitting with them… cheering him on with… HIS BIGGEST FANS… his mom, dad, sister, girlfriend, PR girl… and my wife 😉

    Erik, his family and his team have been good to us… making us feel like ‘part of team Erik’ we’ve got pictures, shirts, a signed wheel… but what I value most is the love they share for each other!

    They are all truly great people!

    When I found out his father was battling cancer… it hit me hard… as my father was ALSO battling cancer… and Erik and I lost our fathers close together!

    I very much know the pain and loss he is suffering from… the loss, too soon, of that most important figure in his life…

    It is a loss you don’t get over… you learn to deal with it differently! But I loved my old man… and I know he loved me… just as I know Erik loved his dad and Dave loved his son!

    Keep your head up… Keep turning left and your dad will be there, in the right… to help steady the wheel!


    Kristopher & Joni Bilbrey
    (Winchester, Indiana)

  7. Jeff you did a very good job writing this article with respect and thoughtfulness. As a Michigander living not too far from Erik`s family I am extra proud of him too. I lost my dad over 25 yrs ago and still feel him watching out and protecting me. Keep up the good work Jeff

  8. I hope he has built a closer relationship with his mom thru all this. They both need each other.

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