There are several candidates out there who might be NASCAR’s next big thing. One of them is driving Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota in this season’s Xfinity Series.
Erik Jones, who at age 19 became the Truck Series’ youngest champion in 2015, seems to have all the tools.
“We look at Erik as a big part of our future,” team owner Joe Gibbs told SiriusXM Radio last year. “We’ve got a plan laid out.”
That plan, Gibbs said, is for Jones to run a full Xfinity schedule this season with a handful of Cup races thrown in. It all starts for Jones with Saturday’s Powershares QQQ 300 at Daytona International Speedway.
... I think we’ve got a good opportunity in the Xfinity Series this year to go out and win a championship.
“I think it’s definitely exciting and definitely a huge compliment to me,” Jones said of the expectations he’s feeling. “There are a lot of things coming down the road and I think we’ve done a lot of things here in the past few years to put ourselves in a good position to try to make a run at it. So, we’ll see as the years go by, but I think we’ve got a good opportunity in the Xfinity Series this year to go out and win a championship. It’s been fun and it’s definitely cool to have guys like that making those remarks.”
One of “those guys” is Kyle Busch, who first noticed Jones, then 15, at the 2012 Snowball Derby in Pensacola, Fla. Busch noticed him after Jones blew past him in the final laps to win.
The next year, Jones was driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series, where at 16 he became the youngest race winner in series history.
In 2014, Jones won three more races. In 2015, he was the Truck champion.
At age 19, Erik Jones became the youngest Truck Series champion when he won the title in 2015
“Erik has done a lot of growing up I think in a short period of time, and it’s also in the limelight,” Busch said in the days after Jones won the title. “With the great people that have been around him, that we’ve had surround him, that’s brought him to the level which he raced those final 15 weeks and top-10’d it each and every week to end the season.
“I never discounted our team or our trucks or Erik’s ability or anybody. I just knew that sooner or later it needed to turn the corner, and fortunately they did that.”
Jones grew up in Byron, Mich., and started racing at his mother’s suggestion. She read an article about racing in a magazine and thought it sounded like something fun for her son. Soon, Jones’ dad was driving Erik around to Street Stock and Late Model Sportsman races.
“It was definitely a family sport,” said Jones. “But it was funny that my mom got me started.”
2 Career Xfinity Series victories for Jones
Jones drove three Sprint Cup races for Gibbs last season, subbing for the injured Kyle Busch at Kansas (finishing 40th) and suspended Matt Kenseth at Texas (12th) and Phoenix (19th). He also won two Xfinity races in 2015.
Busch, who started driving in the Truck series when he was 16, continues to be a mentor for Jones.
“I have a really good relationship with Kyle … and everything he’s done for me in the Truck side of things,” Jones said. “He’s been kind of the guy I always go to ask questions and what he went through when he was my age coming into the sport – we’re in kind of the same position he was at the same time and the same age. It’s interesting to kind of hear what he did and the things he would change and have done differently at the time, so he’s been probably my biggest resource throughout the last few years just to ask those kind of questions.”
Xfinity series: What to watch for
▪ Chris Buescher and Chase Elliott -- who finished 1-2 in last season’s Xfinity standings -- have moved up to the Cup series.
▪ Mexican-born Daniel Suarez was rookie of the year in 2015. Next step for Suarez is winning a race. He came close several times last season, with eight top-five finishes.
▪ Like the trucks, the Xfinity Series will adopt a Chase playoff format similar to what the Cup Series uses. The 12-driver Chase will include three rounds, with the final, four-driver round coming at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
▪ Ty Dillon was remarkably consistent in 2015, with 25 top-10s (about 75 percent of the 33-race season). He didn’t win, however, which probably cost him a shot at the title. David Scott