At times, even NASCAR’s most elite drivers have occasionally struggled to keep up with the Joneses.
A Byron native and Swartz Creek Academy graduate, Erik Jones, who turned 19 on May 30, is arguably the sport’s fastest-rising star. He already boasts an impressive racing resume that would take other drivers much longer to build. Through June 20, Jones had five career wins and 19 Top 10 finishes in 26 Camping World Truck Series races and two wins and 11 Top 10 showings in 16 NASCAR Xfinity Series events. It took him just five starts to earn his first Truck Series victory and nine starts for his first Xfinity win.
Despite not racing full-time in NASCAR until this season, Jones has already amassed nearly $1.6 million in career earnings. His biggest career moments to date, however, came earlier this year when he experienced his first races at the NASCAR’s highest level – The Sprint Cup Series – revving his engine right beside his boyhood idol – four-time NASCAR season Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
“It’s been a pretty good season so far because we are racing every weekend, have had plenty of good results, led a lot of laps, got a win and have been really fast every week,” says Erik, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Bush Motorsports. “The Xfinity win was amazing and we’ve run very good every week in Trucks, but we’re still looking for the first win this season. Hopefully, there will be several more wins.”
“Racing more frequently really has not been too big an adjustment for me. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
This is the busiest season of Erik’s young career with 46 scheduled races. He is driving full-time in the Truck Series and in most Xfinity races. He now resides in Cornelius, North Carolina near Joe Gibbs’ headquarters, and wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, he has been living for the day when he could live his dream.
“Oh yeah, this has been so fun to race at least once every week and get behind the wheel of some fast vehicles,” he says. “Racing more frequently really has not been too big an adjustment for me. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
Once the season began, Erik did not have to wait long to experience his most head-turning, eyebrow-raising win. On April 10, he outdueled some of the sport’s biggest names to capture the Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway, crossing the line ahead of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Brad Keselowski. Joe Gibbs’ teammate Denny Hamlin was seventh. Together, the trio boasts a combined 134 Sprint Cup and Xfinity victories, but none was better than Erik Jones on that night.
“Coming out of a re-start, I was able to get good position on the bottom and take the lead for good, and then it was pretty much wide open the last few laps with me, Brad and Dale,” Jones recalls. “We had been running well in the races before then, so I liked my chances of winning, but to actually beat those guys was unreal. I was not even sure what to say or do afterward.”
Keselowski and Earnhardt, Jr. were impressed. “We raced side-by-side for about two laps but he cleared me, so that was good racing,” said Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR season champion, following the race during a Fox Sports interview. “I’ve watched Erik race in the Truck Series and he does a great job. This is certainly a notch in his belt and I’m happy for him.”
Earnhardt told Fox Sports: “When it counted, Erik took off and drove a great race all night. I knew he was good, and now everyone else knows.”
Just nine days later, Erik suddenly found himself competing in a Sprint Cup race for the first time. A day after finishing fourth in the Xfinity race at Bristol Speedway in Tennessee and ahead of 76-time NASCAR winner Kevin Harvick, Jones was back home relaxing on his couch watching the Sprint Cup race at Bristol when he received a text message. “The race was in a rain delay and I was about ready to take a nap when somebody from the crew texted me and said they might need me at Bristol because Denny (Hamlin) was having neck spasms,” he recalls.
Bristol is roughly 160 miles from his home, so Erik packed a bag and boarded a plane in nearby Concord, arriving about 40 minutes later. “At that point, they were talking like Denny was going to be fine, but when I got to the trailer it was a different story,” Erik says. “I walked in and the crew chief was like ‘suit up because Denny won’t be able to continue’.”
Erik had five minutes, meaning there was no time to adjust things like the steering wheel and seat, but he kept Hamlin’s car out of trouble and finished 26th. “I learned quickly how different Sprint Cup is,” he recalls. “I felt good about how I adjusted and finished in a decent place for the team. The extra speed is such an adjustment, from lift points to throttle pick-up points. It took time to get a good feel for it.”
Joe Gibbs had no complaints. “Erik did great,” he told FOXSports.com. “We threw him into something there. It’s unbelievable that he could handle a car like that under those circumstances.”
Erik’s most noteworthy career milestone came on May 9 – his first Sprint Cup start. Subbing for the injured Kyle Busch at Kansas Speedway, Erik was in the top 15 much of the race and even led for a lap until spinning out in heavy traffic on lap 196 and crashing into the retaining wall. He finished 40th. “I felt bummed for myself and the team, but it was such a dream come true to race against those guys,” he says. “I’ve always admired Jeff Gordon and to look over at the start and see him in his number 24 car right next to me was unbelievable.”
During the broadcast, Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip felt that “(Jones) did a phenomenal job. I probably was as disappointed as he was that he didn’t get the finish he was setting up for. He has the talent, drive and desire to make it.”
That desire was born at age seven when Erik began racing in quarter-midget cars. “My mom was reading an article about quarter-midgets and thought I might be interested,” he says. “I certainly was and that’s what started it all.” He worked his way from local races to the Automobile Racing Club of America circuit, becoming ARCA’s youngest-ever driver at age 15 in 2012.
Later that year, Erik’s big break came when he defeated Kyle Busch in the Snowflake Derby, a late-model race in Pensacola, Florida. Less than two months later, he was signed to Kyle Busch Motorsports and began racing part-time in the Camping World Truck Series. Though Gibbs’ stable is loaded with Busch, Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, Erik’s ultimate goal is to race full-time in the Sprint Cup series with the team.
“I want to take my time to work my way into that because I have plenty of things to learn, but hopefully that will happen in a couple of years,” Erik says. “I really want to continue racing with the Busch and Gibbs teams. I feel at home with those guys.”