Sometimes it’s not your weekend… even when it looks like it will be.
The weekend at Kansas Speedway was supposed to be huge for Erik Jones, who would be making his official NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut in the No. 18 Toyota, filling in for Kyle Busch who was injured in an Xfinity Series race earlier this season in Daytona.
Jones is the third driver to pilot Busch’s ride this season. Matt Crafton substituted in Daytona, and David Ragan had done so since. However, Ragan was given an opportunity to race the No. 55 at Michael Waltrip Racing through the end of the season, taking over for Brian Vickers, who is on medical leave.
Basically, Jones is the latest player in an installment of high-speed musical chairs.
However, the decision to add Jones was not just based on a whim or a gamble. Jones has already had an impressive 2015 season. Though he is officially running for points in the Camping World Truck Series, he has also competed in all nine Xfinity Series races this season. In NXS, he has one win and five top fives, with 90 laps led and an average finish of 11.9.
In CWTS, Jones has yet to win a race, but he has two top fives, three top 10s, 190 laps led, and an average finish of 5.8.
In other words, he’s doing pretty well for himself.
Additionally, Jones did have an unofficial start in the Sprint Cup Series this season. Denny Hamlin started the race at Bristol Motor Speedway last month, but began experiencing neck spasms while under green. During the long rain delay, Hamlin received treatment but was still experiencing symptoms. The team then opted to put Jones in the car for the remainder of the race.
Since Jones did not start the race, Hamlin was still officially scored as the driver when the final results were issued. Jones finished the race in 26th, six laps down, but the team overall seemed to be satisfied with how he performed. Bristol is a rather intimidating track even for veterans, let alone for a rookie who was thrown into the race unexpectedly in a car that is not set up to his liking.
It wasn’t long after that it was announced Jones would be in the car at Kansas Speedway.
Jones and Joe Gibbs Racing seemed to head into the weekend with optimism, and for good reason. Jones paced the final practice session for the Sprint Cup Series and won the pole for Friday night’s truck series race.
In the CWTS race, Jones was dominant and it appeared he would easily cruise to the victory. He led 151 of the 167 laps and usually had several seconds over the field.
However, as is often the case at many of these larger tracks, fuel mileage came into play. Jones was extremely close on fuel and desperately needed a caution so that he could pit without losing track position.
However, that caution never came, and Jones pitted with six laps to go. Crafton went on to win, and Jones finished 11th, one lap down.
As disappointed as Jones was, his performance in every event leading up to that still gave him reason to be excited for his official debut. Jones was all smiles as the race wound closer and the disappointment of the night prior seemed to be long forgotten.
As the green flag waved, it once again appeared Jones would live up to expectations. No one genuinely expected Jones to win, but based on the speed he had shown all weekend, a top 10 didn’t seem out of the question. Indeed, the No. 18 machine was inside the top 15 — if not the top 10 — for much of the night. At times, he was even within smelling distance of the lead. It wasn’t likely he would be able to beat the dominant drivers of Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and eventual winner Jimmie Johnson, but it appeared he would again put on a solid performance.
Again, though, it wasn’t to be. On lap 197, Jones’s car got extremely loose in turn four and tagged the outside wall. The car was severely damaged, and he would spend several laps in the garage area. He would eventually finish 40th, 25 laps down.
“I just lost it and it’s too bad, I had such a good night going,” said Jones. “We had a fast M&M’s Camry and 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 and we’ll try to get a little better and see if we can get another shot in this thing.”
JGR has not yet announced whether Jones will be in any additional races this season for the No. 18, and it was likely that some of the frustration stemmed from that unknown.
Despite the fact that Jones did not get the result he wanted, though, the truth is that he did not finish where he deserved. Yes, that’s racing, and that’s the way it works sometimes. There is no asterisk next to his 40th-place finish, no consolation prize for trying really, really hard. It’s 40th, and that’s that.
However, the result does not need to shatter his ego and I don’t imagine that JGR bears any ill will towards him. If anything, they are likely very pleased with his performance and are able to see the promise and potential that he holds.
Plus, it’s no coincidence that Jones is filling in for his CWTS owner Busch. Yes, it is Kyle Busch Motorsports that Jones drives for in CWTS competition.
It’s obvious that both finishes this weekend were a huge disappointment for Jones and his race teams, but he has no reason to be ashamed frustrated, or demoralized. In fact, he should be optimistic. In his very limited experience, he has already impressed the masses.
And he’s only 18 years old. Maybe we’d better get used to seeing his name more, not less, after this weekend.