The past two seasons Erik Jones has enjoyed a small taste of a NASCAR championship.
Now, he’s flying solo.
Jones, 18, begins his first full-time season in NASCAR’s Truck series in Friday night’s NextEra 250 season opener at Daytona International Speedway, driving the No. 4 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Running a partial schedule the past two seasons, Jones has helped KBM’s No. 51 team win consecutive owner’s championships in the series.
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But team owner Kyle Busch ran the majority of races in both of those title runs. Jones is now going into battle on his own.
“The last two years my main focus each week was going out and trying to win the race,” said Jones, who already has four Truck wins in 17 career starts.
“This year, there will be times where I have to change my mindset a little bit and at times not be as aggressive and think about the big picture.”
Busch believes Jones is ready for the challenge.
“I expect a lot from Erik Jones, and I think Erik Jones knows that, he sees that and sees the potential that he carries,” Busch said. “I just hope he still fits in his helmet as people talk about him and to him over the course of this season – how successful he can be and what his potential is.
“I think it’s very high.”
That’s strong praise from one of the series’ top performers. Busch has 42 Truck wins and last season won seven times in 10 starts.
“Erik has a great regard for his cars, for car control, for the trucks or whatever it might be,” Busch said. “I see nothing less than him winning rookie of the year and being a champion in the Truck Series this year.
“That’s what we’re set out to do, and that’s what he feels like he’s ready to do. I’m excited to see him go to the next level.”
Although Jones lacks much NASCAR experience overall, he has amassed an impressive resume of racing highlights already in his career.
In 2011, Jones won the prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race in Pensacola, Fla., by outdueling Busch in the closing laps to secure the win. The following year he became the third driver in the 45-plus-year history of the event to earn consecutive victories.
Jones’ win in the Truck race in November 2013 made him the youngest winner in series history at the time at 17 years, five months and nine days old.
There is still much to learn for Jones, including his first start in any series this week at Daytona.
He insists he is ready to meet the new challenges but admits he may have to temper his approach.
“Matt (Crafton) has won the championship the last two years by being very consistent,” Jones said. “We know that if we are going to beat him, we need to make sure on the days where we don’t have a winning truck, we don’t try to make something happen and have it bite us.”
That’s an experienced approach for a relative newcomer.
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter