No decision or rule change in the world of stock car racing happens in a vacuum. Whenever NASCAR implements a new policy, there is often a ripple effect that influences racing years later. One example of this effect is the circumstances of the XFINITY Series’ Rookie of the Year battle in 2016.
Amid the fight for Sprint Cup ROTY between Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, the XFINITY contest has gotten lost in the shuffle. In NASCAR’s second-tier series, the likely winner will either be Erik Jones or Brandon Jones. Fellow rookie Brennan Poole, who nearly won last weekend at Talladega, is also in the mix, as are Ryan Preece and Garrett Smithley. Chances are, however, that it will come down to one of the two Joneses (who are not related to each other).
NASCAR uses a separate system from its championship points standings to determine Rookie of the Year. The rookie points system is based on scoring a driver’s finish relative to the other rookies. In a given race, the highest-finishing rookie scores ten points, the second-highest rookie gets nine, third gets eight, and so on. Up to ten bonus points are awarded for each top ten a driver earns, depending on where that driver finishes within the top 10. In the XFINITY Series, only a driver’s best 16 races are counted. Eligible drivers must also attempt to qualify for at least eight of the first 20 races, and of course, declare points eligibility in the XFINITY Series. As of Talladega, Erik Jones leads Brandon Jones by 26 points.
Brandon Jones, a 19-year-old from Atlanta, is a rookie in pretty much every sense of the word. Not only is 2016 his first year of full-time competition in the XFINITY series, he had only run five NXS races before this year. He will continue to make his first trips to many of the tracks on the NXS schedule and stands a good chance of making the Chase.
Erik Jones’ situation is a little different. He appeared in 23 of the 33 NXS races in 2015, winning twice, and the Michigan native, who turns 20 later this month, has run 35 NXS races all together. That is just over a season’s worth of races.
So how is it that we have a Jones vs. Jones rookie battle when one Jones had a substantial, albeit part-time, presence in the XFINITY Series last year? The answer lies with a rule change that NASCAR implemented five years ago across all three of its national series.
Back in 2011, NASCAR made its biggest attempt to stop Sprint Cup drivers from dominating the XFINITY Series. The new rule declared that any driver competing in any of NASCAR’s three national touring series could only pick one division in which they would be eligible to earn points. The move was based on the idea that Cup drivers would have less incentive to run XFINITY races if they would not be able to collect points towards the championship. It was as far as NASCAR was willing to go without banning Cup drivers from the lower-tier races outright. Yet the way that the sanctioning body wrote and implemented the rule, the restriction wound up applying to all national series drivers.
The rule also stipulated that potential rookie drivers could only collect rookie points for their selected series in a given year, which was different from previous years. Throughout the 2000s, NASCAR allowed drivers who were new to a series to run up to seven races in one year and maintain their ROTY eligibility for another season. The rule prevented drivers like Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski from being ROTY challengers, since they both ran upwards of seven races in one year before moving full-time to the Cup Series. Under the new rule, a driver could compete part-time in another series and maintain ROTY eligibility for a different year.
It turned out, however, that there could be exceptions to the new rule. Trevor Bayne, for instance, made his Sprint Cup debut in 2010. He ran only one race that year and obviously did not exceed the seven race limit. When the new rules went into effect the following year, Bayne declared his eligibility for the XFINITY championship. He would do the same thing through the 2014 season, apparently preserving his ROTY eligibility. However, Bayne competed in 57 Sprint Cup races from 2011-2014. That number turned out to be too high for NASCAR, and Bayne was deemed ineligible for ROTY honors in 2015 when he finally declared Sprint Cup eligibility.
Circling back to the case of Erik Jones, his status as an XFINITY rookie is based on the grounds that 2016 is the first time that he has campaigned for the NXS championship. Jones did compete in 26 XFINITY races before the start of the 2016 season. That number would have made him ineligible prior to 2011, but 26 was apparently okay with NASCAR under the current rules. Jones, therefore, will have the chance to do what he did last year in the Truck Series, win the championship and ROTY in the same season.
Erik Jones’ rookie eligibility should not be questioned. He did, after all, follow the rules. If anything needs to change, NASCAR has to clarify how many cumulative races a driver can run in one series without sacrificing rookie eligibility. Regardless, it is still interesting to think that a rule change aimed at curbing “bushwhacking” resulted in a redefinition of what a rookie is. For now, that definition includes the Jones from Georgia and the Jones from Michigan, both of whom should be fun to watch as the season progresses.