Teenager Erik Jones showed the skill and patience of a veteran throughout Saturday's Kroger 250 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, bringing home an impressive ninth-place finish in his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut. Jones, the first 16-year-old to compete in a Truck Series event since his owner Kyle Busch did so in October of 2001, raced side-by-side with crafty veterans and other up-and-coming stars for much of the afternoon, advancing from his 19th starting position to as high as the fourth spot in the second half of the race. The Michigan native was closing in on a top- five finish with under 10 laps remaining, but lost a handful of positions in the closing laps after he found himself on the wrong end of a Martinsville bump-and-run.
"Our Toyota Tundra was fast from the beginning and stayed a strong truck all day," Jones said. "That second set of tires that we put on -- we lost a little bit of forward drive, but that was about it. Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) did a good job of getting it back to where it needed to be. That last set of tires that we put on -- we had to start back in the field, but we got lucky and started on the bottom and drove back up into the top-10. We were running sixth and got rooted off the bottom and fell back to ninth, but I can't complain with it being my first truck race and getting a top-10 out of it. Happy to come home with the truck in one piece and ready to head to Rockingham."
After getting a feel for his No. 51 Tundra by turning 108 laps around the .526-mile oval in Friday's lone practice session, the Michigan native qualified 19th Friday afternoon with a tight-handling Toyota. In the early stages of Saturday's event, Jones ran just outside the top 15 as he got a feel for the aggressive nature of a short-track Truck Series race.
As the race progressed, he became more and more comfortable with his Toyota Tundra and began advancing forward near the halfway mark of the event. He made his way inside the top 15 for the first time on lap 80, where he ran until the race was slowed for the fifth time for a debris caution on lap 112.
Crew chief Rudy Fugle summoned his young driver down pit road, where the No. 51 over-the-wall crew administered a four-tire and fuel stop, making minor repairs to a crinkled right-rear fender in the process. Due to the time spent making repairs, the team lost several spots on pit road and Jones returned to the track scored in the 21st position.
The high school junior had made his way back inside the top 15 just before the next caution occurred on lap 145. Several crew chiefs elected to bring their drivers down pit road, while Fugle decided to gain track position and save his tires for a later stop.
Jones took the lap-150 restart from the fifth position and just five laps later had advanced into the fourth position, where he remained for the next 20 laps. As the race proceeded caution free for another 20 laps, the Michigan native began surrendering positions to drivers with fresher tires and by the time the next caution occurred on lap 196 had subsided to the 11th spot.
When pit road opened, the KBM over-the-wall crew put its final set of Goodyear tires on the No. 51 Tundra, filled it with fuel and returned Jones to the track scored in the 14th position. On the lap-207 restart Jones got stuck on the outside lane for several laps, falling back to the 18th position before he was able to squeeze his way into the inside lane.
From there, the young driver began his march back towards the front, maneuvering into to the 14th position by the time a one-car spin slowed the field for the final time on lap 229. After the race went back green, the teenager continued to move forward in the closing laps. He returned to the top 10 just two laps later and then with five laps remaining, the youngster had positioned his Toyota in the sixth spot.
Jones was tucked in behind KBM teammate Darrell Wallace Jr., who was scored in fifth, when he fell victim to a "Martinsville Bump-and-Run" from the seventh-place competitor. By the time he was able to right his path and fall back in line, his No. 51 Tundra had subsided to the ninth position, where it remained for the final three laps.
"Erik did an excellent job today -- we had a plan to make sure that he took care of his tires over the first 15 laps of a run and with him being as young as he is you're not sure how he will react, but he showed a lot of patience and was aggressive when he needed to be," Fugle said. "We moved forward all day long. I couldn't be happier with his performance -- he kept his nose clean and did everything we needed him to do."
Johnny Sauter became just the second driver in Truck Series history to open the season with back-to-back wins, equaling the feat accomplished by Mark Martin in 2006. Matt Crafton finished 1.888 seconds behind his ThorSport Racing teammate in the runner-up spot. Jeb Burton finished third, while Timothy Peters and Wallace Jr. rounded out the top-five finishers.
There were 11 caution periods for 71 laps. Seven drivers led a lap, exchanging the lead 13 times. Six drivers failed to finish the race.
The No. 51 Tundra team, which has posted top-10 finishes in each of the first two events of the season, leaves Martinsville ranked third in the Truck Series owner's point standings. Jones will be back behind the wheel of the Toyota for next Sunday's N.C. Education Lottery 200 at Rockingham (N.C.) Speedway. Live television coverage of the 200-lap event begins with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Setup Show at 1:30 p.m. ET on SPEED.