The last thing a busy high school student wants to do is spend extra time in the classroom when everyone else is heading home. For one adolescent, he was not staying at Lake Norman High School past the final bell of the day because he was in trouble.
But this was not your ordinary high school student. Not even close. This teenager wasn’t focused on partying, getting ready for prom, or even graduation.
Come the weekends, Brandon Jones focused on racecars. By missing classes on Thursdays and Fridays, he had to make up time for missing so much class. Cutting two full days of school to race had its price, but it was one he was willing pay, preparing for a career in NASCAR.
“Usually, Thursday or Friday is when you have to leave to go to these places, so I missed those two days just about every week,” Jones explained to Frontstretch. “They had a system where they wanted me to make up time for what I missed, so I would stay after school to try to do all that. It was tough.”
The high school, which includes approximately 1,800 students, worked extensively with Jones, like it does with other young drivers that reside in the Mooresville, N.C. area. His grades did not suffer, nor did he plan on allowing his racing career to get in the way of his education.
However, Jones’ schedule was just as — if not more — intense as any other high schooler attempting to get their future on the right track.
When commencement came last June, Jones did not walk on the stage with his peers. Instead, he was at the racetrack, preparing to make left turns during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series spectacle at Gateway Motorsports Park for GMS Racing.
The Illinois track held a graduation ceremony for Jones prior to the 200-mile race come that mid-June Saturday evening. It was not as large as Erik Jones’ spiel from Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage the year prior, but in his eyes, it was just as unforgettable. However, he didn’t get a kiss on the cheek like the other Jones.
“That was tough,” Jones said about his busy schedule. “I actually graduated on the stage at Gateway [Motorsports Park] last year before the Truck Series race. It was tough, just getting back every week and trying to cram all of that stuff in before the race weekend again. They worked with us pretty well, though, in Mooresville and it was good.
“It is something that you kind of start dreading at the end. I was so wiped out from the racetrack, trying to get there all week while trying to focus that was pretty difficult.”
Finished with high school, Jones’ concentration is set on his career in the fast lane. As he took a sigh of relief, Jones explained just how happy he was to be finished with his high school career. But that does not necessarily mean his schooling is over.
Jones might go to college down the road. It is something he has discussed with his family and team. The team Jones drives for, Richard Childress Racing, supported Cup Series regular Austin Dillon when he started attending High Point University part-time in 2009.
But for now, Jones believes the opportunity to race exceeds that of attending college.
“I guess if you can make a career out of this, you’ll be pretty good,” Jones said. “But it doesn’t last forever. It’s kind of a young man’s sport in a way. You aren’t going to stay here forever. Trying to get skills out of this might transfer over to something after you stop racing.”
With college not in Jones’ plans for the immediate future, his education is materializing on the racetrack.
RCR announced last September that the Georgia native will pilot one of its XFINITY Series cars full-time in 2016. The move created some shuffling and re-branding within the organization, putting the rookie driver in the No. 33 car, one that had been split between the team’s Cup Series drivers since taking over Kevin Harvick, Inc. in 2012.
“It’s pretty cool to go out there and compete against the guys you grew up watching, like Kyle [Busch] and all of those guys,” Jones said with a wry smile. “You followed them as you grew up, and now you are door-to-door with each other. It’s a very neat experience for sure.”
Running five races for the Chevrolet-backed organization last year, Jones earned a top 10 right off the bat at Iowa Speedway, finishing eighth. His effort was followed by three straight finishes of 13th or worse during the second Iowa race, at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Bristol Motor Speedway. However, he ended the season with his first career top 5, leading 16 laps en route to a fifth-place result at Kentucky Speedway.
As the journey continues for Jones, his father, JR Jones, President and CEO of Rheem Manufacturing Company, is starting to take a step back. Throughout the first few years of his career, Jones’ cars were soaked in the Rheem black and red schemes, similar to that of Kevin Harvick and others in the Sprint Cup Series and XFINITY Series.
The elder Jones has not put his company’s logo on one of his son’s race vehicles since 2013 in the K&N Pro Series East with Turner-Scott Motorsports. While Rheem continues to sponsor RCR’s No. 2 XFINITY Series car with the elder Dillon, it will not back Jones. Last year, the company was the primary sponsor for 15 events with Dillon behind the wheel after sponsoring RAB Racing’s James Buescher for 24 events in 2014.
With Jones forced to find funding for his motor sports ventures, he is being schooled in marketing.
Through 10 races in 2016, Jones’ racecar has featured 10 organizations, including the Texas Rangers at Texas Motor Speedway in April. Partnering with Major League Baseball to cross-promote the vastly different sports, the teenager has created a focus on bringing new concepts to the NASCAR realm. As part of the joint-effort between the Rangers and RCR, he piloted a baseball-themed paint scheme and threw out the first pitch on April 6 against the Seattle Mariners — the third game of the Rangers’ season.
— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) April 6, 2016
“It was pretty sweet to have those guys to come out and have everyone pretty pumped up about it,” Jones said. “I got to throw out the first pitch in a game, so I think it went pretty well. We may actually start seeing some more sports take an interest in doing stuff like that, and come on board for a couple of races.”
Adjusting to the XFINITY Series this year, Jones is creating a brand for himself. Coming off a 17-race stint in the Truck Series last year, he has begun to create a relationship with key supporters. He is working with companies such as Nexteer and Thunder Coal, which have been around the sport with smaller organizations, but none with the activation power that Richard Childress Racing can bring to them.
Thus far into his rookie season, Jones sits seventh in the XFINITY Series standings. The No. 33 team has an average finish of 12.2 to date, with four top 10s through 10 contests.
Jones ranks fifth in miles completed so far this season, failing to complete just six laps — four of which came at Dover, where he finished 25th — his worst finish of the season.
“Competing full-time is pretty tough,” Jones explained. “You get a sense of how everybody is when you’re around them. When you don’t run a full-time season, you don’t know how everybody races. Running full-time, it does help in a way, knowing who you can race pretty hard and who you can’t.
“It is just getting used to these cars. There is a lot different of a spring package that the XFINITY cars run mile-and-a-half wise. The aero package is extremely different with the sideforce on those trucks. Balancing that out has been the biggest thing. These cars have a lot more speed than the trucks do, so finding that fine line of wrecking or being good has been tough.”
As Jones looks “to start making our cars a little bit better to get up there,” the Mike Hillman, Jr.-led group is looking for a bit more speed out of their racecars. Hillman, a 20-time winner in the Truck Series, including a pair of championships with Todd Bodine and Germain Racing, is helping put Jones at ease behind the wheel, something he says he needed entering this season.
“He was at Turner-Scott [Motorsports] when we started running the K&N East cars and he was on the Truck Series side,” Jones said. “I kind of knew him, but not a ton. I knew his name and heard of him, but it has been great so far. We have really close personalities, so it has been good.
“I think he is just so laid back. I think that has been the biggest thing. Some crew chiefs get so high strung when you get spun out, but he is just so calm in any situation.”
Moving forward, the plan is to take things one day at a time. Jones is no rush to advance to the Cup Series. His focus will remain on the XFINITY Series, along with a handful of Truck Series contests for Ranier Racing with MDM, which made its debut at Dover with Jones racing the No. 71 truck.
“I think it really is about getting more laps on the track,” Jones said while discussing why he opts to still compete in the Truck Series. “If you watch guys like Kyle Busch that run the trucks, XFINITY and Cup races all in one weekend, they just get so many laps during that whole weekend. I just want all that seat time, so that’s the biggest thing.”
Looking for advice everywhere Jones can find it, the 19-year-old hopes to drive his way into Victory Lane before the season ends.
Leading 36 laps at Talladega Superspeedway in late April, Jones came close to the winner’s circle, but he was denied a win after getting mired back in the pack during overtime.
When he eventually attempts to move up the rankings, Jones will have to squeeze his way into RCR’s Sprint Cup stable, assuming that’s where he wants to stay, or is able to stay, in the future. The team currently has Austin Dillon at the Cup level, with brother Ty Dillon expected to make the jump to full-time Sprint Cup competition in 2017. RCR’s third charter will be filled by one of its two current drivers, Ryan Newman or Paul Menard, depending on how silly season plays out. However, there is the possibility that the team will expand to four cars if it retains both Newman and Menard, who both have contracts expiring at season’s end.
As Jones plans out his future, the charter system in the Cup Series has thrown him a curveball. While he feels that running a few XFINITY Series seasons will help attract sponsorship for a future run in Sprint Cup, he understands that he needs to plan ahead of time given the nature of the charter system.
Jones will not attempt any Sprint Cup races this year or next, claiming that he needs to win at least one race in the XFINITY Series before even thinking about stepping foot in NASCAR’s premier division.
While Jones cannot say if he will be back or not with RCR in 2017, he hopes to begin negotiations and have a deal signed sooner rather than later.
“I think we need to be in the XFINITY Series for a couple of years,” Jones continued. “Right now, we’re looking at running a couple of Truck Series races next year like we’re doing this year. I’m just looking forward to doing that a few times. I like that idea of winning the championship and then you can go on to the next level.”