ThatsRacin

NASCAR’s best young driver this season is the one least-talked about

NASCAR driver Erik Jones has always had potential to be great, but is finally earning the results to back that up.
NASCAR driver Erik Jones has always had potential to be great, but is finally earning the results to back that up. AP

If you’ve never heard of Erik Jones, you’re probably not alone — but you will soon enough.

Jones doesn’t get the same publicity Chase Elliott does, with his Hall of Fame dad to follow and one “Most Popular Driver” award under his belt. And no, Jones’ presence in the NASCAR Cup Series isn’t as historic as Bubba Wallace’s, given the latter is the sport’s first full-time African-American driver in decades. And being from Michigan, he doesn’t get any sort of “homegrown” bonus that William Byron and Daniel Hemric do as Charlotte-area locals.

But that’s all fine.

Because the one thing Jones does absolutely have going for him?

The kid can flat-out race.

And really, isn’t that what matters most?

Still just 22 — he turns 23 a few days after the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May — Jones is currently the best of NASCAR’s top young drivers this season ... even if he’s the one you’ve heard least about. He finished third at the Daytona 500 despite heavy damage, and then followed that up by finishing seventh at Atlanta. His 13th-place finish at Las Vegas last week was, comparatively, disappointing.

Never mind that a handful of his peers in age and experience don’t even have one finish that strong.

So yes, being tops among the young’uns is a point of pride for Jones.

“I mean, those are the guys you kind of set the bar against,” Jones told the Observer via phone this week. “You want to be the top guy out of that group. So for me, yeah, I look at them and try to set myself on that same level and want to be the best of that group.

“It’s nice so far to this point in the year to be atop that, so we need to keep it rolling, but it’s been good so far.”

Of Jones’ peers — Elliott (23), Wallace (25), Byron (21), Hemric (28), Ryan Blaney (25) and Alex Bowman (25), to name a few — he’s currently highest in the Cup Series points standings in ninth. That will fluctuate as the season progresses, but it doesn’t mean Jones’ hot start in his third Cup season should be neglected.

“We’re settled in at (Joe Gibbs Racing), which is nice. I feel good about things,” Jones said. “It’s a matter of putting it all together.”

Given the caliber of talent overall at JGR, it’s important that Jones has had some quick success to distinguish himself. Between former champions Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., not to mention Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, beating his own teammates is as challenging as anything else Jones does on a weekly basis.

Jones has just one win in his Cup career, last July at Daytona. But his early results and comfort with NASCAR’s new aero package (which he tested twice this offseason) fuel Jones’ confidence that he will quickly add to that total.

“You want to be a three-, four-win guy — that kind of signifies you as one of the top guys in the sport, I feel like,” he said. “Our teammates — Kyle has had some really good years the last couple of years, and now Martin being over here, Martin’s had some really good years — we want to be on the same level as them. They definitely are setting the bar for us, and we want to be in that same spot.”

Even if Busch and Truex start reeling off wins like they did last year, Jones figures to remain in the mix going forward.

If he does, maybe he’ll finally start seeing more headlines and well-deserved publicity.

Not that it matters much to Jones if he doesn’t.

“I’m more content with (letting my racing do the talking),” Jones said. “Kind of been like that always for me, since my early time in racing. I didn’t come from a racing background of any kind so I didn’t always get the press, so just always had to go out and race hard and make it work.

“Doesn’t really bother me.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.

  Comments