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.”
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.