Eighteen-year-old Erik Jones started his first full-time season off on a positive note, avoiding several wrecks in his first career start at the "World Center of Racing" to bring home a runner-up finish in the season-opening event at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. Now, Jones and his No. 4 Tundra team head to Atlanta (Ga.) Motor Speedway, where the talented youngster hopes to manage another solid finish as he continues his quest to bring home Kyle Busch Motorsports' (KBM) first-ever NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Driver's Championship.
Saturday's Hyundai Construction Equipment 200 will mark Jones' first start in any series at Atlanta. After turning 18 last May and becoming eligible to participate on NASCAR's larger tracks, the Michigan native made two Truck Series starts on mile-and-a-half tracks. After running inside the top five for the majority of the June race at Texas, a combination of the handling going away and the race turning to fuel strategy left him with an 11th-place finish at the end of the race.
Jones second and final Truck Series start last season on a 1.5-mile track came at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway in September. For most of the race, he ran in the second spot behind KBM teammate Darrell Wallace Jr., who led a race-high 84 laps. With 13 laps remaining, Jones worked his way around his teammate and crossed the finish line 1.329 seconds ahead to earn his second win of 2014 and KBM's first at Las Vegas.
The win at Las Vegas was one of seven wins for KBM on mile-and-half tracks last season. Along with Jones' Vegas win, owner-driver Kyle Busch was victorious at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Chicagoland (Ill.) Speedway and the November race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, while Wallace Jr. earned his win in the season finale at Homestead (Fla.) Miami Speedway. The lone race on a 1.5-mile track that KBM did not win, was the June race at Texas, which was won by another Toyota Racing driver Matt Crafton.
Now Jones and the No. 4 Toyota team head to the first mile-and-a-half race of 2015 this weekend at Atlanta. The Georgia venue, which returns to the Truck Series schedule after a two-year absence, is one of just four tracks on this year's schedule where KBM has not collected a victory since debuting in the Truck Series in 2010. Busch was on the cusp of a victory in the 2012 event, but after leading a race-high 75 laps the handling of his Tundra went away and surrendered the lead to Ty Dillon with six laps remaining. Busch held on to finish second, the same result he recorded in the 2010 event.
Jones developed a knack for taking care of his equipment and preserving his tires coming up through the Super Late Model ranks that allowed him to win some of the most prestigious races in the country. To manage another solid finish to start the 2015 Truck Series season, the racing prodigy will need to employ that same skill set this weekend at Atlanta on an aged surface that is known to chew up tires.