Erik Jones is a future star, but you already knew that.
Last weekend at the Rhino Linings 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the 18-year-old Kyle Busch protege scored his third win in the Camping World Truck Series. The victory was his second of 2014 and came in just his 14th start; Jones hasn’t run a full season in the series yet, previously having been too young to compete on larger tracks. Now, he’s old enough, but is running a part-time schedule for Kyle Busch Motorsports — through the end of this year, at least.
And yet here he is, a part-time competitor in the Truck Series, and he’s got three wins in 14 starts.
Is it pertinent, then, to call Jones the brightest star in the series — and in NASCAR as a whole — in a long time?
There’s really only one main argument against consideration: his circumstances. Jones didn’t start from the bottom national series-wise. He came in with Busch’s team, one of the top competitors on the circuit. In his newfound schedule in the Nationwide Series, he’s raced with Joe Gibbs Racing, again a choice organization.
And then there’s the potentially damning observation that, yes, he’s won three races — but all of those were races in which Kyle Busch, of course a harrowing, tough-to-beat presence in the series, didn’t compete.
But first things first: part of the reason Jones has a ride at all in Busch’s truck is because the youngster beat him at the Snowball Derby in 2012. He may not have had to compete his owner in Truck Series competition per se, but he’s got that to flaunt.
Still, three for 14 — a .214 batting average — is nothing to scoff at. To be able to say that you’ve won one in five of your races in any series is a tall order. Keeping it up is of course a whole other concept, but props so far.
Especially because the only drivers that have ever produced this kind of output in their first 14 (or less) Truck Series races are in a different class entirely.
Taking a peek at the list of drivers in the Camping World Truck Series’ history that have at least three wins gives one a fairly substantial look into the history of the series as a whole. With Jones’ addition last weekend, 40 drivers have won at least three races in the series, with Ron Hornaday, Jr. still at the top of the heap at 51 victories.
Of them, only five others besides Jones have been able to win three times in their first 14 races — or, again, less — in the series.
By no means does Jones have the best track record as far as wins go in that span of time at the beginning of one’s Truck Series career; three wins pales in comparison, for instance, to the six picked up by both Mark Martin and Mike Skinner. Then there’s the five rattled off by Hornaday, four from Ted Musgrave and Kasey Kahne (in five starts total, no less, on the latter) and Clint Bowyer, who has started 13 races, and his three.
Certainly there’s three overarching categories into which one can set those five. First, Martin, Kahne and Bowyer were and are Sprint Cup Series drivers who came down to the series to run a part-time schedule when their own schedules permitted it. We’re talking the equivalent of Cup drivers dropping down to the Nationwide Series, though the trucks are arguably a bit lower on the totem pole and the upper-tier drivers tend to show up less. You can talk about them as greats in the series if you’d like, but for purposes here they’re a bit separate, gaining their acclaim when they were already established competitors higher up.
Consider Musgrave, too. He’s one of the many drivers in the series’ history who came back after a career in the upper regions to be reborn as a bona fide contender at 45 years old in 2001 (save for three starts he made in 1995 and 1996).
Then there’s Hornaday and Skinner, who are more up Jones’ alley. Neither was a star when they started driving a truck for a living and both found success immediately.
But again, they’re a little removed from what Jones has accomplished. Both drivers won frequently in the inaugural season of the series as the dominate forces in 1995. Skinner ended up with the championship, while Hornaday finished third.
Plus, look at age. Skinner was 38 that year and had a combined 17 races in the higher series under his belt, not to mention success in other lower series. Hornaday was equally more of an elder statesman at 37 and also had found some success elsewhere. Both were not necessarily considered prospects because they were already older, stripping them of the potential title of the hot new prospect.
So there’s a lot of questions that come from comparing Jones and the rest of the crop. In all, it seems like it’s most fair to line him up against Hornaday and Skinner, two drivers who were coming in to run a NASCAR national series full-time for the first time and were using whatever success they gained to be able to move up the ranks. In that way, they’re quite similar; the only difference is that their entry into the series involved immediate full-time competition, whereas Jones has been forced to make intermittent starts in the series rather than run each week — which could arguably impact overall performance because one is unable to grow accustomed to his team and the series as a whole because he might go weeks, maybe even months without a start.
However you want to look at it, one thing’s for sure: Erik Jones is having one of the best starts in the series’ history. Better, even, then his team owner Busch, who scored two wins in his first 14 starts.
It’s a potential setup to an abundant career in the Sprint Cup and XFINITY series, but it could also become the start of a glorious career in the Camping World Truck Series if Jones does one day run full-time there. Currently he’s beating legends of the series in terms of early wins, drivers like Todd Bodine, Matt Crafton, Busch and even Jack Sprague, who didn’t win even once in his first 14 starts.
At the very least, given the careers of the drivers whose company he now shares, he’ll either be a fairly prolific winner — even champion — in the Truck Series or will go on to much success in the Sprint Cup Series.
And that doesn’t sound half bad.
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