Get ready, because Erik Jones is here.
Don’t know him? That’s probably because you don’t follow the Xfinity and/or Camping World Truck series – which is fine, you’re not missing a whole hell of a lot in NXS at least. Jones has been touted as one of the young guns to watch in the sport ever since joining Kyle Busch Motorsports at just 16 years old two years ago, running the Truck Series races he was able to drive as a sub-18-year-old racer. He became one of NASCAR’s youngest winners in the process, possesses a staggering one-in-five win record in a 20-race series career and scored his first NXS victory at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this year.
Now he’ll take on his toughest task yet: running a Sprint Cup Series race, as he subs for the injured Kyle Busch in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18.
Not that he has zero Cup experience. Jones was introduced into the series canon as the substitute driver for Denny Hamlin at Bristol Motor Speedway, doing so after Hamlin could not continue once the race returned from a rain delay due to reported back spasms. Trial by fire? A little bit; there had been no indication Hamlin’s problems would occur, so he didn’t have much time to prepare. But he came out of there with a 26th-place finish, not terrible considering the circumstances.
Things will be different starting at Kansas Speedway next weekend. Jones will be piloting one of the top cars in the series, one that David Ragan and Matt Crafton have been keeping warm while Busch continues to recover. Certainly not a championship winner, at least not since 2000, but the No. 18 team is still considered one of the best, and while win after win cannot be expected from Jones immediately, there is a certain level at which he’s expected to perform, contrasted with, say, Chris Buescher, who’s a definite talent but has been driving the somewhat underfunded No. 34 for Front Row Motorsports in his brief foray into the Cup Series this season.
It’s not simple to predict how Jones’ season will go because it’s not known what the circumstances of his No. 18 ride will be – as in, what happens if and when there is a conflict with the Truck Series schedule he is racing full-time, or if Busch returns before the end of the season? Will he only run a handful of races to retain rookie status, or will he nix that since, let’s face it, it’s a fairly meaningless award these days?
If he were to run most, if not all of the remainder of the schedule, here’s where you can possibly most expect Jones to succeed, plus the tracks where experience is a must because he either hasn’t driven a stock car/truck there or not at all.
Phoenix International Raceway: This one only works if he finishes the season in the No. 18, but if he’s on the entry list, you NEED to watch out. Phoenix is where Jones won his first NASCAR national series race, in the Truck Series in 2013. He followed that up by winning there from the pole a year later, pacing the field for all but 12 laps. Not too shabby in the Xfinity Series either – sixth in 2014, fifth earlier this year. A top 10 or 15 doesn’t seem out of the question at all.
Pocono Raceway: Jones has one start at the track in the Truck Series last year, finishing sixth, and add to that a runner-up result in 2013 in the ARCA Racing Series. Hasn’t blown the roof off the track or anything, but it’s one of the few he’s visited that he may have a decent shot at driving in the Cup Series if Busch comes back before the end of the year, since the first one is run in June.
Daytona International Speedway: The reason Ragan is running the No. 18 this weekend is probably partly because Jones hasn’t run Talladega Superspeedway yet, but come on, the tracks aren’t much different and it’s a treacherous course known for swallowing up rookies and spitting them back out. You’d be more likely to see Jones run Daytona, where he finished second in the Truck Series race earlier this year.
Martinsville Speedway: Another where he’s gotta make it way, way into the season, but if he does, expect a solid showing. Jones has an impressive streak at the track: two top fives and three top 10s in four races. Probably won’t grab the elusive victory there, but he’s definitely one of the drivers to beat in the Truck event later this year there, and he could be hungry for more come Sunday.
Texas Motor Speedway: Again, if he makes it this far into the season. Why not root for Jones once Cup returns to Fort Worth? After all, he only won there in the Xfinity Series – and while the trucks may not be as akin to the Cup cars, NXS machines are much similar.
Kansas Speedway: Let’s start with Kansas, where Jones will make his Cup debut and has never actually raced. He does have a start at Chicagoland Speedway in the Xfinity Series under his belt from last season, finishing a solid seventh, so while you probably shouldn’t expect too much from his first start (look at Chase Elliott), this may not be a disaster.
Sonona Raceway: Jones may just hit up Napa Valley for some road racing, which might end up being an interesting spectacle – unless Gibbs decides to put in a road ringer. We can say he finished third at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in the Truck Series last year, so his road-racing record on a national level has been fine so far.
Charlotte Motor Speedway: Remember that Jones has not been 18 for even a year yet, so much of his experience comes on shorter tracks. One new circuit will be Charlotte in a few weeks. But make no mistake: one of Charlotte’s closest cousins is Texas, at which he won his first NXS race earlier this year. He’s probably gonna be just fine. Actually should be interesting to see what he can do in the Sprint Showdown.
Dover International Speedway: Another new haunt for Jones, but given its mile-long stature and short track feel, it’s not unreasonable to expect a decent showing from the rookie here. He’s already proven his short track game is nothing at which to wag one’s finger.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Years ago, Jones would only be preparing for an entry at Indianapolis Raceway Park, at which he has one ARCA start. Instead, he’ll be gearing up for some Brickyard action, and there’s really few tracks out there that can prepare him. If he has a good showing at Pocono and Daytona, might as well expect a good run here, too, though.