Erik Jones can pinpoint when he went from a teenager with a stock-car dream to a NASCAR up-and-comer.
He was 16. He was in Pensacola, Fla. He entered a late-model race called the Snowball Derby …
And he beat Sprint Cup driver Kyle Busch.
Two years later, he’s a regular on NASCAR’s truck series and drives a part-time schedule in the Xfinity series.
He’s effectively a member of what you could call NASCAR Generation Next – the young guys in position to become Sprint Cup drivers.
Even in a sport where some race into their 40s and 50s, these careers don’t last forever. At 43, four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon will retire at the end of the season. He’ll head into Fox Sports’ broadcast booth to become a television analyst.
One of Gordon’s proteges, Kyle Larson, definitely belongs among NASCAR’s Next. So does Chase Elliott, who will take over Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. And so does Ryan Blaney, son of former NASCAR driver Dave Blaney.
Each of these guys is in Charlotte for Race Week, heading up to Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. Each has already made his Sprint Cup series debut. And each has a unique story about how he got here.
Ryan Blaney: Surrounded
Blaney’s upbringing was very different from Jones’ – from the earliest age he was surrounded by NASCAR.
“Racing has been my whole life. I’ve always been around the garage,” said Blaney, 21. “I knew the people and the environment. That helps.”
Blaney’s father, Dave, drove in 473 Sprint Cup races, most recently the night race in Bristol, Tenn., last year. That provided Ryan with quick opportunity – he started driving late-models on asphalt tracks when he was 12.
He never felt pressured to follow his father into this sport, quite the contrary as far as his father’s approach.
“He would often say, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ This was always about what I wanted to do,” Blaney said. “And yet he was very sharing with advice – always the first to tell me what I needed to hear, always first into that window net” after a race.
Blaney drives for Brad Keselowski in the truck series and a Ford Mustang for Team Penske in the Xfinity series. He has a partial Sprint Cup schedule with Wood Brothers Racing. If that sounds like a crowded schedule, Blaney says just the opposite. He needs the seat time those three different circuits provide.
“It’s hard to be fast if you’re not running in something every weekend,” Blaney said. “It’s like basketball; if you don’t pick up a ball for weeks, you get rusty.
“Going from trucks to Xfinity keeps you fresh. It builds up confidence. The easiest part of this is driving for Team Penske. It’s overwhelming how fast all this has happened.”
Chase Elliott: Fatherly advice
One of the things Chase Elliott loves about former Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott is that he always focused first on being a dad.
“He’s been very laid-back. When he comes to the track, he acts like a dad more than anything,” Chase, 19, says of his father, who won what was then called the Winston Cup title in 1988.
“I can count on one hand the number of my races he’s missed. Even when he was still racing, he missed very few. I’m thankful for that; he and my mom have always been that way.”
Chase is on NASCAR’s fast track. He drives in the Xfinity series for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Last year he won that circuit when it was called the Nationwide Series, and he’ll inherit the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet from Gordon.
He knows the family name helped him along the way, as did having a father who could be such a resource.
“He offers advice, but more as a take-it-or-leave-it deal. It won’t hurt his feelings either way,” Chase said. “But nine times out of 10 – actually 10 times out of 10 – you better listen.”
Auto racing is a little different from most sports in that it is so directly dependent on sponsorships. Chase Elliott’s career got a huge boost in December 2013 when NAPA agreed to sponsor a new Xfinity team at JR Motorsports.
He appreciates how fortunate he was to get that chance to drive regularly on NASCAR tracks.
“There are so many people out there who deserve opportunities more than myself. They just never had that good sponsor to go and race,” Chase Elliott said.
“There are people who deserve that way more than I do; that’s the painful truth. Some good racers who I hope get their chance someday.”
Erik Jones: 1st-generation racer
Unlike Elliott and Blaney, Jones is a first-generation racer. He started driving quarter-midgets at 7. He demonstrated talent but had no guidance in the sport.
Then Busch stepped in.
Jones knew Busch casually, occasionally practicing in his late-model car when Busch was shuffling between Pensacola and Sprint Cup obligations in Talladega, Ala.
When Jones beat Busch to win the Snowball Derby, Busch took notice. He hired Jones to drive five truck races, and Jones won one of those in Phoenix. That led to a 12-race renewal.
“When we beat him, it was so unexpected – out of the blue – that it was hard to comprehend at that time,” Jones recalled. “It was definitely a big turning point in my career. Up until then, I’d never really been on the map.”
Jones wonders if Busch hadn’t driven in that race whether he’d still be searching for a career path or be getting the seat time he needs to improve.
“A lot of this was luck. There was never anyone to guide us where to run,” Jones said.
Seat time, whether it be in a truck or an Xfinity car, is crucial to Jones right now because he’s still familiarizing himself with tracks that make up the Sprint Cup series.
“A golfer or a basketball player can practice his skills every day. We can’t – it’s only on weekends in the real deal,” Jones said. “I was in and out of the seat for weeks on end. That made it tough. I felt, like, if I’d been in the seat every week, I would have given myself a much better position.
“This year it’s very different – I’m in the seat every week and will run 50 races at the NASCAR level. That’s been just a huge advantage. I went from not being fully confident to now every time I step in the car – no matter what car, no matter what track – I have a shot to win.”
Kyle Larson: Jeff Gordon’s protege
Gordon lobbied hard for Hendrick Motorsports to sign Larson before Chip Ganassi Racing provided Larson’s Sprint Cup ride.
“Jeff has been bragging on me for a long time. I’m kind of used to it now,” said Larson, 22.
Larson was Sprint Cup rookie of the year last season. Though he has yet to win a race or qualify for the Chase, he had several races last season – particularly after the Chase started – when he contended.
“The whole Chase was a lot of fun. We weren’t in it, but we were championship-caliber throughout it. Hopefully we can find that speed this regular season to get into the Chase,” Larson said.
“It definitely boosted both our confidence and also expectations. That’s why we’re a little frustrated this year. We know we are capable of running up front like that every week.”
Unlike Jones, Blaney and Elliott, Larson didn’t get much stock-car experience growing up. He started out in open-wheel and was at one time pointed toward Indy Car racing.
Jones said he marvels at how quickly Larson adjusted.
“A stock car is a stock car – they’re heavy and slow compared to what I grew up racing,” Larson said. “It just takes you time to learn the little things, but I have a pretty decent handle on them.”
Larson says he does fine at the 1.5-mile tracks but still struggles somewhat at the short tracks and superspeedways because those layouts are so foreign to his experience.
“Mile-and-a-half are my favorite. They suit what I learned growing up in Sprint cars as far as momentum and dirty air – the aerodynamics,” Larson said. “ ... At short tracks, it’s always about braking and slowing down, then trying to get back up to speed as fast as I can. Very different from what I grew up doing.
“You only go to the short tracks a couple of times a year. And the superspeedways are tough because they’re so different. No other racing can get you ready for that.”