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Erik Jones navigates NASCAR Cup rookie season without father

(AP Photo/Terry Renna)

By MIKE CRANSTON

Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) When Erik Jones climbs into his NASCAR Cup Series car Sunday, an important watch will be stowed away in his nearby motorhome.

Jones reached the pinnacle of stock-car racing this year amid a void. His father Dave, the watch's owner, died of cancer last year. Since then Jones hasn't gone anywhere without the silver Shinola.

"It's kind of the one thing that I have that connects me back to him," he said.

The 20-year-old Cup rookie spoke about his father's passing for the first time at Las Vegas Motor Speedway ahead of Sunday's Kobalt 400. Jones is one of NASCAR's hottest young drivers, going from Truck Series champion in 2015 to the Xfinity Series rookie of the year in 2016 to a job with Furniture Row Racing when it added a second Cup car this season.

"There were definitely times over the last few weeks I would have loved to call him and just talk to him about racing and general life," Jones said about his dad.

Dave Jones was as proud of his Michigan roots as his son. The Shinola watch was made in Detroit. The elder Jones also sold another Michigan-made product, a 1965 Corvette, to help fund his son's racing career.

"I never had to worry about the money I was making or bills I was paying or anything else," Jones said. "I would call my Dad and say, `Hey, man, I've got this problem or that problem and what do you think?' And he would have an opinion or a solution. He always had the answer, I felt like. And all of a sudden you lose that so quickly."

Jones was at his North Carolina home last March when his mother called. His father had lost feeling in his arm and went to the doctor thinking he had a pinched nerve. The diagnosis was devastating: lung cancer that had spread to his brain.

"It was just tough to see someone kind of fade away over a few months," Jones said.

As his father got weaker, a surprise guest showed up to his Michigan home: car owner Joe Gibbs. He wanted Dave Jones to know the news before he even informed his son. Gibbs had brokered a deal for Jones to race in NASCAR's top series in 2017.

Jones fondly recalls the ensuing conversation with his dad.

"It was cool for that moment to sit down with him and say, `We did it. We're here and next year we're going to be at the peak, man,'" Jones said.

Dave Jones passed away at 53 in June, the week of his son's return to Michigan to race at his home track. Erik Jones insisted on driving, and he acknowledged it took him a while to adjust to life without what he called his "best friend."

"It's too bad. I definitely thought about it at Daytona, standing out on pit road, wishing he could have been there to take it all in," Jones said.

He had mechanical issues in the No. 77 Toyota at the season-opening Daytona 500. Jones started 34, crashed, and ended 39th. He showed improvement with a 14th-place finish at Atlanta last week and qualified eighth for Sunday's race.

And with Jones' career on the rise, he's earned the financial security to make a sentimental purchase: his father's old '65 Corvette.

"I had finally gotten to the point about a year ago when I said, `Man, I can finally start thinking about buying this car back for him.' And he got sick," Jones said. "But I found the guy and got the car back.

"Now it's just hanging out."

Here are some other things to watch as NASCAR begins its three-race Western swing at the 1.5-mile oval Sunday:

HARVICK'S MIND: How will Kevin Harvick respond after leading 292 laps at Atlanta, only to finish ninth because of a pit-road speeding penalty?

"It doesn't sting any more than anything else," Harvick said. "It's not the first time I've blown a race or lost a race or had something happen. And I've been on the other side of that, too, and capitalized on other people making mistakes."

WATCH YOUR SPEED: There's apprehension about NASCAR's new pit road timing lines. Jimmie Johnson was also penalized twice at Atlanta.

"This weekend will be brutal because we've never had these timing lines at Vegas and Vegas is notoriously difficult on speeders," Daytona 500 champ Kurt Busch said.

FRONT ROW INTRIGUE: Brad Kesewlowski, who won at Atlanta last week and at Las Vegas last year, will start from the pole. Martin Truex starts second, but had to sit out 15 minutes of Saturday's final practice session after his car failed its first two trips through the template station before Friday's qualifying.

Truex had to start from the rear in the Daytona 500 for having a car that was too low in the qualifying race.

Updated March 11, 2017

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