The headlines have spoken for themselves over the past few months. An 18-year-old has taken NASCAR by storm, and in a hurry.
Joe Gibbs Racing has found something special in this driver, incredibly rare in this era of sponsor-produced young talents. Not only is this teenager aggressive on the track, but his genuine demeanor outside of racing makes his personality even more likable.
Erik Jones’s story to stardom in stock car racing is well known after defeating Kyle Busch in the 2012 Snowball Derby. Now, this young man has a solid shot at winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title with Busch’s team, Kyle Busch Motorsports. Jones sits second in the standings, just 16 points behind Matt Crafton, and has had two near-misses on Victory Lane the last two races.
However, Jones’s career had already skyrocketed earlier this year, not in NASCAR’s Truck Series but elsewhere. After three consecutive top 10s to start his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Jones struggled to begin the 2015 season, with three finishes of 13th or worse. Then, one dominating performance last month suddenly turned it all around.
Leading 79 laps en route to a victory at Texas Motor Speedway last month, Jones not only earned his first win in NASCAR’s second-tier division in his ninth start, but he did so by defeating former Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski and other stars. Since then, the opportunities that he has received simply speak for themselves.
Jones replaced an injured Denny Hamlin at Bristol in the Cup Series on short notice, finishing inside of the top 30 without any prior experience in race conditions with the No. 11 team. A few weeks later, he earned the chance to run an event in place of Busch at Kansas. After having plenty of seat time throughout the weekend, the Michigan native had built a potential top-five finish in his Cup Series debut until he got loose and hit the wall. The stats sheet may have said 40th place, but the way Jones ran raised eyebrows across the garage and had people buzzing about him as a potential future Sprint Cup star.
Now that team owner Joe Gibbs can see what Jones can do, his seat time will no longer be limited. Running the majority of the season in the No. 20 car, along with a handful of races in the No. 54, Jones has plenty of shots to show he can win in the Xfinity Series.
Like Busch, Jones has shown clear consistency in the Xfinity Series, and is doing so while missing some races and running for a title in the Truck Series. With an average finish of 11th in 10 starts this season, he has been able to outrun the majority of the championship contenders. Even though he is not contending for a title, Jones’s 10 starts would total him at 333 points, which would put him fourth in the standings behind Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon and reigning champion Chase Elliott. Considering he had just three starts prior to this season, that performance is quite impressive.
If all goes well, Jones might get a chance to run for an Xfinity Series title next year. The team cannot afford to make the same mistake it did with Joey Logano, shipping him up to Sprint Cup too quick and the two have very similar success stories. Logano had only slightly more success in the Xfinity Series through his first 13 starts, with an average finish of 9.5 compared to Jones’s 10.1. There was little way of knowing back then that the eventual Daytona 500 champion would struggle in the Cup Series immediately. However, when it comes to Jones, it is clear after Kansas he’ll take a far different route.
A full season of Xfinity Series racing beginning in 2016 will give Jones the opportunity to run some Cup events while learning how to chase a title in a division that runs more than 23 weeks out of the year. His entire focus would be on his Xfinity Series team, which is not the case as of now. He is splitting his time between two divisions; considering that, his consistency in both is remarkable. If Jones continues to perform at this level, 2016 could mean a possible championship.
While it is still too early to speculate what will happen with Jones, it appears sponsors are pleased with his results. Moving forward, if he can win a race or two more, along with a solid top-three result in the Truck Series – if not a championship – Jones will get the opportunity of a lifetime to run full-time in the Cup Series within the next two years or so.
As Gibbs has stated multiple times, there is no rush for Jones to go to the Cup Series. It is not running away from him. He is still building relationships with his sponsors, and JGR has no room in its stable for another car unless NASCAR makes the unlikely move of dissolving the four-car limit in the Cup Series. But make no mistake, Jones is headed up the NASCAR ladder – and the Xfinity Series becomes the logical next step in his career.