Erik Jones knew going into the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 that he was only guaranteed one shot at proving his Cup potential to the powers-that-be at Joe Gibbs Racing, because the return of Kyle Busch following his injury earlier this season is imminent.
Apparently, the 18-year-old driver took his role to heart. He made every effort to impress the masses during the weekend, including strong runs in practice, where he was at the top of the board, to a surprising 12th-place qualifying spot for the race. His qualifying effort even impressed his crew chief, Adam Stevens.
“It’s a bit of a surprise, a pleasant one, but you know, you come to expect big things out of Erik,” Stevens said. “He is a great talent and certainly has a bright future.”
When asked what Jones thought would be a good run for him, he said he was shooting for a top-15 finish.
“That is a pretty lofty goal for somebody who hasn’t run a race with these guys, especially at an intermediate, for sure,” Stevens said. “If we can do that, it would be a good day.”
Well, Jones didn’t have a top-15 finish, but at one point during the race he was running up front with the leaders and got as high as third before he spun coming out of turn 4 with just 70 laps remaining. The M&M’s Toyota Camry snapped around and Jones backed it into the fence.
It was an anti-climatic ending for a young driver that had fans, and media members alike, wondering if he would pull off an upset. Jones wasn’t so much upset about his run more that he was disappointed that he lost a good racecar and ended his chances at a good finish. But he took it in stride and fell on his sword, accepting full-blame.
“I just got loose off [turn] 4 and lost it,” Jones said. “All my fault, guess I have to go back and figure it out. You know, we had a good night before that. Something to take from it. I’m ready to do another one – I hope I get another shot.”
And that is the $64,000 question. Will Jones get another shot? The obvious answer is, “yes.” But when will that come? Already, there are rumors that Jones is being stalked by Chevrolet. The bowtie brigade would love to see the up-and-coming driver behind the wheel of one of their cars. Toyota, however, knows it has a talented driver and should stay in the Camping World Truck Series to continue to hone his driving skills.
It’s a safe bet that Jones will be a future star of the sport but there is a lot of discussion just where he will end up and how long it will take him to get there. The GM stables appear to be full and, aside from the Penske cars, Ford isn’t showing us anything spectacular. For now, Jones is safely in the Toyota camp, but what will he do if someone comes calling with an offer to put him in the Sprint Cup Series full-time? Only time will tell.