Imagine being in Erik Jones shoes, 19 years old, fighting for an opportunity to compete under the Joe Gibbs Racing banner in the Sprint Cup Series. Embarking on his first full season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, he is attempting to secure the organization’s second title in the division.
Since the age of 16, Jones has been in the Joe Gibbs Racing wing, when Kyle Busch first noticed him while racing in the Snowball Derby at 5 Flags Speedway. Months later, Jones won a Camping World Truck Series race at the Phoenix International Raceway for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
The 2016 season marks the reigning Truck Series champion’s first full-time season in the XFINITY Series. While winning the truck title in 2015, Jones also competed in 23 XFINITY races, winning two of them at Texas and Chicago.
Jones also drove the No. 20 Sprint Cup car when Matt Kenseth was suspended for wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville last fall. The two drivers had a boiling feud that hit its climax in the fourth to last race of the season last year. It resulted in Kenseth being suspended for the next two events, putting Jones in the ride.
As Jones’ career has progressed, he understands he has solidified a ride with JGR when the time is right to move him up full-time to the Cup Series. There is no telling when that could be due to the stacked driver lineup in the Toyota camp of Busch, Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. But he knows he will soon get a shot in a top ride.
“He was really the first guy to invest in me and my career along with Kyle Busch back in 2013,” Jones told Speedway Digest. “It’s really cool to have this kind of support especially at this point in my career. There are not a ton of guys who get to have that support. It’s something I never really thought I would have.”
For Jones, it was a dream come true to work with Busch, who is the defending Sprint Cup champion.
As crazy as it may sound, when Busch started racing in the Cup Series, Jones was only seven years old. He is now following in the same footsteps as his mentor.
“That was really special,” Jones said of working with Busch. “He was always a guy that I kind of looked up to and was a fan of. I learned a lot, and to have a guy like Kyle take me under his wing and really get me into this sport and give me my first opportunity was definitely special.”
The future Cup Series driver for the Gibbs organization has aligned himself with some of the sport’s top stars. He is constantly picking the brains of the current drivers at JGR about what to do in certain situations on the racetrack. He has been able to build a relationship and friendship with all of his teammates, including Daniel Suarez on the XFINITY Series side.
Jones is not afraid to go up to some of his fellow teammates and ask for advice. He feels he can learn from any of the drivers because they are all different, but in his opinion all very good and have a wealth of experience.
“They just have the wealth of knowledge for everywhere and each one of them has their own little thing that they are good at,” he said. “I’ve been trying to take all of those guys and get out of them what they are really good at.”
Though many of his peers and people within the garage believe that Jones is the next big thing, he still wants to learn. Jeff Gordon stated last spring in Texas that he had never seen a talent such as the then 18-year-old.
As of now, Jones is not scheduled to run any Cup Series or Truck Series races this season as he is one of the favorites for the XFINITY Series title in the new Chase-style format. While only running 33 races compared to the 49 he ran among the top three series in 2015, he believes that he will have enough track time to keep him busy, at least for this season.
Jones believes that the Chase will test his team as well as prepare him for the Cup Series whenever the time comes to move to the NASCAR’s top level.
At Homestead in 2015, all Jones needed to do was finish 15th to win the Truck Series title. He won three times and posted 20 top-10 finishes. A part of the change to the lower two divisions in NASCAR came partially because of the way he dominated the Truck Series. The Chase ensures that four drivers will be in title contention come Homestead.
“It just gives you a little insight on what the Cup Series is like and how that playoff format is going to be,” Jones said. “I’m excited to see actually really what the intensity level is going to be like in the XFINITY Series. We see in the Cup Series how intense it gets in the last few rounds. I’m interested to see what it’s going to be like down here.”
Many drivers from Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and JR Motorsports believe that the No. 20 team will be the car to beat when it gets into the latter months of the season. In 31 career XFINITY Series races, Jones has 16 top fives and 24 top 10s, which is over 75 percent of the time, in addition to leading 309 laps.
Gibbs has seen this before. Back in 2008, Joey Logano was supposed to be the “best thing since sliced bread” and won in his second career race in the XFINITY Series. He made the jump to the Cup Series at 18 years old, a mistake that the Super Bowl champion car owner doesn’t want to make again, although he did predict that Logano would do well once he moved on from JGR.
“He’s going to blossom into one of the best,” Gibbs said to Sporting News back in 2012. “We didn’t want to lose him, but it’s just the way it will work out.”
Keeping Jones in the XFINITY Series might exactly be what the team needs. Though still competitive, Kenseth, 44, is toward the end of his career and in the midst of his 17th full-time season in the Cup Series. His first full year was just one year later than Tony Stewart, who is retiring at the end of this year.
Said Jones: “I think two years in the XFINITY Series would be good. If we did move up next year I think I would be ready, I think I can do it. More time in the XFINITY Series never really hurts.”
If Jones is in the XFINITY Series for two years he could become the division’s first back-to-back champion since Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in 2011 and 2012. But with the Chase format, the team must get to Homestead before focusing fully on a championship.
Jones knows that there will be a seat available at some point in the Cup Series under the Toyota banner. Until then he is caught playing the waiting game until the right opportunity arises.
“I think there is always that worry ‘am I ready?” Jones explained. “I think every driver worries about that. Looking back at what we did in the Cup Series last year – at least in qualifying and even in the race – we were consistently toward the top 10. I feel like I could have the speed. It would just be a matter of figuring out how to put myself in a position throughout those races to be in a better spot toward the end.”
Furniture Row Racing has openly discussed the possibility of expanding to a second car in 2017. After making the switch from Chevrolet to Toyota, the organization has created a close alliance with JGR. If all goes according to plan, it will likely be Jones’ new home, similar to Ryan Blaney’s deal with the Wood Brothers and Team Penske.
"Well, it was a really good effort. You know, Adam Stevens and all these guys, they come here well-prepared to start with, and had a good practice plan and everything, and we were able to set up our race car to my liking. Wasn't necessarily the fastest qualifier, but we knew we had a good race car, and the things that we did kind of worried me actually for about the first two-thirds of the race, just not -- the track wasn't necessarily coming to us, but then all of a sudden it took a shift and things did come to us, and we had a really good car there at the end. Adam made awesome adjustments all night long, though, and kept us in the game and kept getting us better and took us from probably being a sixth-, eighth-place car, something like that, to then being able to run up front in the top three, and barring different tire circumstances or different restart circumstances at the end, giving us a shot to win," said Kyle Busch in post-race media availability.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who scored his sixth top-five finish at Texas Motor Speedway, talked about his night. “Well, we had a great car. We didn't really know we had that good a car, but when the race started, we were real tight. We made some good adjustments to get the car handling well, and then really controlled the balance of the car the rest of the night with the track bar. We had about a second- or third-place car. Kyle put it on them at the end. He ran as hard as he could, and his car was there for him. Sucks for Martin because he had such a great car, but Martin has just got to remember that he's going to get that opportunity again. They've got a great team. That's it.”
Joe Gibbs Racing teams, including their affiliation with Furniture Row Racing and Martin Truex Jr., led an overwhelming total of 247 out of 334 laps in the Duck Commander 500. Hendrick Motorsports had all four of its team’s finished in the top-10 at Texas Motor Speedway, its first since this race last year.
Chase Elliott, the highest finishing rookie, talked about his first race at Texas in the Cup Series. “It was a solid night. Obviously I hated to have to start in the back, but I think having a good qualifying effort allowed us to get a good pit selection. I think that helped us to try to gain spots throughout the night, but the biggest thing was just having a good car. I was really happy with it, especially on the long run, and we made some gains throughout the night to try to help our short run speed. I thought we did that. Definitely still have some work to do on my end, and we'll keep digging at it. We're definitely not content. We know we have some work to do, and we'd like to be contenders. So we're going to keep working at it.”
There were no issues in post-race inspection. NASCAR is taking the cars of Ky. Busch and Earnhardt Jr. back to the R&D Center in Charlotte.
Unofficially, Kyle Busch leads Jimmie Johnson by six points in the championship standings, followed by Kevin Harvick (-7), Carl Edwards (-18), and Joey Logano (-25).
The start of the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was delayed by 1 hour and 50 minutes, and started under a green/yellow situation. The race saw 17 lead changes among eight different drivers. The caution flag flew seven times for a total of 41 laps. 16 cars finished on the lead lap. The time of the race was 3 hours, 37 minutes, and 16 seconds.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams will head to the “The Last Great Coliseum”, the .533 mile, Bristol Motor Speedway for the Food City 500. Action from Bristol Motor Speedway will begin on Friday, April 15th, at 11:00 am EST for the first practice on Fox Sports 1.
A win was in clear sight for Martin Truex, Jr. on Saturday night in Texas, but it all slipped away in the last stint of the 500-mile event. The No. 78 car came home sixth.
After leading 141 laps in the Lone Star State, Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn had a decision to make with roughly 45 laps to go when a late race caution came out when Greg Biffle got into the outside wall.
Truex and Austin Dillon were the only drivers to stay out, while the remaining 13 teams pitted for four fresh tires. Kyle Busch led the race off pit road.
On the restart Truex pulled away as Dillon faded back, and two laps later got spun, triggering a 13 car pileup on the backstretch.
For the second consecutive caution the No. 78 team decided not to pit, resulting in the oldest tires throughout the entire field.
The final restart came with 33 laps to go as Busch restarted on the outside of Truex and cleared him out of Turn One, driving away to his second consecutive Cup Series triumph.
“It was Cole’s call,” Truex said of the decision not to pit. “Our plan was to stay out and he called me in at the last second and I didn’t want to hit the cone. Had we went green the next restart we would have been okay. We kept getting caution laps and the tires would get more air in them, by the time we finally got rolling there we didn’t have the grip that everyone else had. ”
For the second time in the last four spring races at Texas Truex led the most laps, coming home on the short end of the stick. This particular racecar was hooked up on the long runs, where he would recapture the lead time after time.
Throughout the weekend it became clear that tires would be at a premium for every team. There was fall off up to three seconds in a given green flag run and in the end it cost the Furniture Row Racing team a shot at its first victory of 2016.
“It’s frustrating but that’s racing,” Truex said. “That’s the way it goes sometimes. Proud of my guys for the racecar they brought. That thing was so fast all night and we did everything that we were supposed to do except for that one deal there. It hurts. It’s tough, but we’ve got a lot to look forward to this year.”
The sixth-place finish snapped a skid of four straight finishes outside of the top 10. Though this is going to be a tough one to swallow, Joe Gibbs Racing has won three of the seven races this season and the No. 78 car is basically a fifth JGR car.
Kyle Busch wins the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway for his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win at the 0.526-mile oval. He also swept the weekend at Martinsville by winning the Alpha Energy Solutions 250 the day prior. Busch is the first driver to ever sweep a weekend at Martinsville. AJ Allmendinger finished second, followed by Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, and Brad Keselowski. Busch was able to lead 352 of the 500 laps in the STP 500.
Busch’s win at Martinsville leaves him with only three more tracks to win at in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He now has to win at Pocono, Kansas, and Charlotte. Today’s win was his 35th win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Busch also has led the most laps at Martinsville since Bobby Hamilton led 378 laps in 1998.
Busch was excited about the win and the car his team brought to Martinsville. “It was a really good car, obviously with practice and everything and learning some things about the car and the track yesterday, we were able to have a really good piece, and we knew that, understood that, and then we were able to come out here today and put it all together and have a really good piece all throughout the race, as well. Leading as many laps as we did, that was really good for us. It was a confidence boost for me as well, too, just being up front that much. I've never really felt like I've had a car to be able to do that in years past, but Adam and the guys were able to give that to me this time around. So pumped about the things that I learned here this weekend, let alone the years past or years prior that I was able to learn, and of course my teammates that helped me out a lot here over the years, so to be able to finally put it all together is pretty cool, and take home not one but two Martinsville trophies, Martinsville clocks is pretty awesome.”
Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch, talked about what this win means to him and the team. “You know, this is a big win for myself, for Kyle and this whole team. It hasn't been one of our strongest places, maybe for JGR, but not for myself and Kyle historically. I think we made some good ground last year with David Ragan's help in the spring and Kyle coming back in the fall, and I think his level of feedback really picked up as he really understood what he needed in his car, and that helped us as a team make better adjustments, and continuing through the race today, I think we got him dialed in a little bit better than he has been able to in the past because he could really identify what he was looking for.
Second place finisher, AJ Allmendinger, was pumped about where his team is at and his finish at Martinsville. “You know, Randall Burnett, first-year crew chief, Ernie Cope coming aboard, they've made a huge difference. My crew chief last year, Brian Burns, kind of going down back to his engineering role and Tony Palmer, that was the engineer last year, being kind of the second race engineer, everybody has just embraced their roles. It's made this team a lot of fun to be around, Tad and Jodi Geschickter, they've really put that extra effort into the race team this year to get the personnel. Anybody that saw our car, obviously get the sponsors, as well, and pit crew really stepped up. The last two weeks they've been awesome. Just a solid race.”
Third place finisher, Kyle Larson, who has had a dismal season so far, was excited to get his first top-five at Martinsville. “I was able to do double duty this week, and I think that definitely helped me get my rhythm early in the weekend and better myself each time I was on the track. Our car was way better than it has been here in the past. I felt like I learned a lot throughout that race. I was able to run behind great drivers here, AJ, Jimmie, Kevin, Kurt, Keselowski, there was a lot of people that I could learn off of. You know, this was -- in the past it's been my worst racetrack on the schedule, so to get a top-three finish here feels great, feels like a win to be honest, and hopefully this is a good momentum shift that we need. We've been struggling all year long so far and been working hard, but it hasn't paid off. It's nice to, like I said, be on the podium here and go on to Texas, a track where I've ran good in the past at and hopefully get a solid finish there, also.”
There were many drivers who were not expected to be towards the top of the leaderboard. Brian Vickers, subbing for the injured Tony Stewart, finished in the seventh position. Paul Menard finished in the eighth position. Although he is usually strong at Martinsville, Denny Hamlin will be credited with a 39th place finish due to an accident.
The STP 500 saw an average speed of 88.088 mph. There were 11 lead changes among five different drivers. The time of the race was 3 hours, 17 minutes, and 2 seconds. The caution flag flew eight times for 51 laps. The margin of victory was .663 seconds.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will head to Texas Motor Speedway for the Duck Commander 500, the first Saturday night race of the season. Coverage for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Texas will begin at 5:30 pm on Thursday, April 7th on Fox Sports 1.
Jimmie Johnson led just 25 laps en route to his sixth career victory at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday following a late race restart that moved the race to overtime.
In a car that was sponsored by the movie Superman, Johnson needed to use super powers in overtime while restarting in third, sitting behind Kevin Harvick on the bottom line with two laps to go. He pushed the No. 4 car passed leader Denny Hamlin and hooked the white line going into Turn 1 which allowed him to get the lead down the backstretch.
This was Johnson’s 77th career victory, but without Kyle Busch getting into the wall after cutting a tire with two laps to go, he would have been stuck outside the top five.
In the second to last stint of the race, the No. 48 car was on older tires, thus making him fall through the field after restarting as the race leader.
“I knew we had a great car and that caution fell at a bad time the run before,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t have the tires on the car to race with those guys. I got a great run off of 2 [Turn] and thought I had a shot at this thing that I didn’t expect to have. I cleared him and kind of got away.”
Harvick placed his Chevrolet second on Sunday after dominating the race, leading 142 laps. Coming off a victory at Phoenix, he had the best car on the short and long runs, something that the team worked on in practice on Saturday.
“It was the worst it had taken off on restarts,” Harvick said of the final run. “We weren’t good on restarts for four or five laps, unless we were all by ourselves. The 48 was able to hang with us and we just weren’t able to drive it in like I needed to and didn’t have the front tires turning.”
After leading on the green-white-checkered finish, Hamlin finished third. On the final pit stop the No. 11 pit crew gained four positions giving their driver the lead.
On the restart Joey Logano spun his tires, not allowing him to push Hamlin and race for the win. Hamlin led just two laps, not coming until after the scheduled 200th lap.
Logano came home in fourth, while Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. rounded out the top five. Chase Elliott came home just outside the top five in sixth as the highest finishing rookie.
AJ Allmendinger picked up his first top 10 since Pocono last August. He started shotgun on the field and raced his way into the top 10 in the first quarter of the race, where he remained there the majority of the afternoon.
Flat tires and pit road penalties were the story of the race. There were just under 10 flat tires on the afternoon the last one being Busch’s, but the biggest one coming on Lap 48. Kyle Larson cut a tire going down the backstretch, losing control of his car and pounding the inside wall. All four tires came off the ground.
“We were struggling all day,” said Larson. “We were really bad. And just on that backstretch, my left rear tire got cut and spun me to the outside wall and then spun me back into the inside wall. By the time I could hit the brakes it must have ripped the brake line and I had no brakes.”
All four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas had to serve pit road penalties during the 400-mile event. Carl Edwards, whom rebounded to finish seventh, had one with 80 laps to go, but played strategy late in the race where he led at one point with 40 laps remaining.
Hamlin had to serve two penalties, one for speeding and one for pitting too soon on Lap 25. The other top Toyota team, Martin Truex, Jr. had to serve a penalty late in the race. He finished the race 32nd after Logano put him in the wall late in the race. The No. 78 team was out front for 21 laps.
The other big incident came on Lap 120 as Kasey Kahne hooked Danica Patrick and sent her into the wall heading into Turn 1. Like Larson, the No. 10 car got airborne and she was not pleased with the driver of the No. 5 car.
The Cup Series will return to action on April 3, beating and banging on the half-mile paperclip, Martinsville Speedway.