There’s a new hot property in NASCAR racing, and his name is Erik Jones.
The 18-year old phenom from the small town of Byron, Michigan burst onto the motorsports scene in 2012 by winning the prestigious Snowball Derby at Florida’s Five Flags Speedway; a win secured by driving around the outside of Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch in the race’s final laps.
Suitably impressed, Busch gave Jones a test drive with his Kyle Busch Motorsports Super Late Model and Camping World Truck Series teams, and the wins came quickly and often. In the span of just 18 months, Jones earned a full-time Truck Series ride with KBM, where he currently stands third in championship points. He was poised for Victory Lane Friday night in Kansas before running out of fuel with less than five laps remaining, relegated him to a season-worst 11th-place finish. He has also made nine XFINITY Series starts for Joe Gibbs Racing this season, winning at Texas Motor Speedway and earning three consecutive poles.
|Erik Jones: On the fast track|
Jones climbed the final rung on NASCAR’s developmental ladder recently, subbing for Denny Hamlin when Hamlin strained neck muscles and needed relief following a rain delay at Bristol Motor Speedway. Last week, he was named to replace the injured Kyle Busch in the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota at Kansas Speedway, and once again responded in spectacular fashion. He was ninth in the weekend’s first practice (first in 10-lap average) and set the pace in Happy Hour before qualifying 12th and racing among the Top-10 in the main event. At one point, he battled three-wide with former series champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, showing aggressiveness and poise despite his relative newcomer’s status.
His evening ended 70 laps early, when a bout with the Turn Four wall sent him behind the wall for repairs. But a 40th-place finish Saturday night did nothing to dull the luster on a young talent who is universally heralded – along with Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson – as one of NASCAR’s new, can’t-miss young stars.
“I learned a lot about racing up front and racing with these guys,” said Jones afterward. “It’s definitely nice to be as fast as we were. We had a great M&M’s Camry, but I just got loose off (turn) four and lost it. It’ss too bad, I had such a good night going. It's just a matter of trying to get a little better on my end and figuring out where the limit is. Unfortunately, we found it there."
“We had a good night before that. I’m ready to do another one (and) I hope I get another shot.”
|Jones "found the limit" in Kansas|
Unless Kyle Busch makes an unexpected return to competition this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jones will almost certainly get that shot. Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson told FOXSports.com at Kansas that the Michigan native is “not going anywhere,” adding, “We're going to keep Toyotas underneath him, somehow, some way.
“Whether Erik belongs in a Cup car full-time or an XFINITY car full-time (is) secondary,” said Wilson. “He hasn't gone through a complete season and raced for a championship. There's a certain discipline and mentality that it takes (to do that). His day job right now is to win a Camping World Truck Series championship, and from there, the sky is the limit.”
Wilson said Jones’ 2016 season is already mapped out, with TRD “working on the year after that."
Sources say he will return for a full XFINITY campaign next season, with an ascension to the Sprint Cup ranks virtually guaranteed for 2017. Where Jones will fit into Toyota's Sprint Cup Series lineup is uncertain at present, but sources say he is likely to find a home a JGR, rather than being farmed out to Michael Waltrip Racing or another Toyota affiliate.
That should make everyone in the current Gibbs lineup very, very nervous.
Photo Credits: KansasCity.com, Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports