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.