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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Erik Jones

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Erik Jones thought nothing of Kyle Busch entering the 2012 Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

The 16-year-old was just hoping to get back on track in what had been a tough year. The family-owned team hadn’t won a Late Model race at that point, and he admits he wasn’t in a very good position career-wise for an opportunity in NASCAR.

“I ran some ARCA races, and they hadn’t gone well (either),” Jones told NBC Sports. “I had a crew chief in Late Models that didn’t work out very well; I only ended up running four or five races, and none of them went all that well. So throughout the year I was kind wondering and worrying some about what I was going to be doing the year after.”

The 2012 event was Jones’ first attempt at the Snowball Derby. Having paired back up with a familiar face, crew chief Rich Lushes, Jones went to Five Flags Speedway with the confidence that he’d at least have speed.

But contend with drivers like Busch?

“Going to the Derby, I didn’t know what to expect,” Jones said. “Looking at those guys (like Busch) entered, I think it was so far-fetched that I would even have a chance to run with them that I don’t think I really thought about it too much.”

Not only did Jones run with Busch, he beat him. The two waged a furious battle in the final 20 laps, with Jones never flinching as Busch hounded him. The victory brought Jones national attention while furthering Busch’s belief, having already worked with Jones a few months prior, that he was the real deal.

Suddenly, Jones went from thinking he didn’t have a shot in NASCAR to a quick rise.

In 2013, he started competing – and winning – on a limited basis in the Camping World Truck Series for Busch. In 2015, Jones was a champion. This year, he’s run full-time in the Xfinity Series for Joe Gibbs Racing, winning four races. Saturday, Jones will compete for his second NASCAR title as one of four drivers in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed

NBC Sports: How did you go from winning the Snowball Derby to getting five Truck races in 2013 with Kyle Busch?

Jones: There were so many pieces of the puzzle … My dad and I flew down to Charlotte on December 23rd of that year and met with a few different people; Kyle wasn’t the only team that we had met with. It was odd at that point because before winning that race I had one opportunity that had developed some but fell through a little bit before the Derby, but after (winning) I had multiple opportunities with a few different teams in front of me. It’s funny some of the other teams we were really considering at the time. A lot of people also forget KBM wasn’t what it is now. KBM hadn’t ever won a race without a Cup driver driving, so we ended up taking the KBM deal after getting back in touch with Kyle, mostly through my attorney, and then we ended up talking to Rick Ren at the time who was the GM there and getting that all worked out. They had some open races in the 51 truck and honestly, fortunately for me, that was the first year (NASCAR) had changed the age (requirement) – I was only 16 still at the time. So they changed the age that year to run on tracks under 1 mile, and that’s part of why the opportunity was there.

NBC Sports: After scoring your first Truck win at Phoenix, did you think it was going to help you take that next step or were you more focused on enjoying the moment?

Jones: The funny part about that race, I wasn’t even supposed to run it. Kyle was going to run it since the owner’s championship was so tight, but he had the motor issue at Texas and blew up and then said, ‘Well, we’re out of it now, you can run it, I’m not worried about it.’ That weekend I had gotten a commitment from Toyota that they would help the next year, 2014, in the Truck Series, so that was a huge moment for me, and I think honestly helped a lot with that weekend. It took a lot of pressure off that I didn’t feel like I was racing as much for next year and since we weren’t going for the owner’s championship either, I was just going out and racing and ended up winning.

NBC Sports: You went from local racer to being recognized for beating Kyle Busch to then winning a Truck race in your fifth start. Was there any adjustment to being thrust into the NASCAR spotlight and being connected to Kyle and Joe Gibbs?

Jones: Some of it was an adjustment. I didn’t really think about it too much in 2013 because we didn’t run too many Truck races. But after we won at Phoenix, it was somewhat of a change in the more opportunities that came up, and especially when I started getting some Xfinity opportunities, things started changing as well. But I was pretty well helped out by both my parents at that time, and they helped me really keep things in line and keep things in perspective. I never felt like I was overwhelmed by anything or anything I had to do, even last year when I was running so many races I never felt like there was a point it was too much or I was overwhelmed.

NBC Sports: Why did you make the decision to move out at 16 years old and take on your own responsibility?

Jones: It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to go out and be on my own, but it was a necessity to move down here and be closer to everything. I wanted to be closer to KBM, I wanted to be close to the shop, I wanted to be involved, and I was at the shop at that point almost every day. Every day I’d go up there right before lunch and get lunch with the guys, hang out until two, three, four o’clock when they went home, and I would go home. It was more out of trying to build that camaraderie with the guys and just have my face around, I didn’t want to be forgotten. I wanted to feel like I was putting in the effort to be involved and wanting to show that I wanted to be a part of it. Was it tough? For sure; I was still in school and trying to do all that at the same time, and I was living with a roommate who was working at KBM, but it’s still different. He didn’t cook, and I didn’t cook, so we went out to eat every night, and it was just totally different. It was a big learning experience, but at the end of the day, I think it was good for me. It was fun, what 16-year-old doesn’t want to go out and live on their own?

NBC Sports: Your website says you have an interest in one day owning a business. What do you have your eye on?

Jones: Someday, not anytime soon, but someday I’d love to get into some franchising stuff. It was kind of something my dad and I wanted to do together, and I definitely would love to still go out and do it. I think there’s a lot of opportunities there. (Fast food businesses) are always looking for franchising opportunities. Honestly, a lot of things in Michigan kind of interest me.

NBC Sports: You like to read athlete biographies and pick things out as lessons. What are some biographies that you’ve read and what did you take from them?

Jones: I’ve read a lot of them from every area of sports, football to basketball to golf and a lot of them honestly are guys that had some trouble along the way. I think it’s interesting to read about those guys and why they went down those paths and what happened. A lot of it stems from not necessarily being smart with their money, so I think that was the biggest lesson from all those books, for me was to keep an eye on that. I don’t think that will ever be an issue for me, but I think that’s where a lot of the problems stem from for those guys; they come from not having a whole lot to having a whole lot, and it changes your perspective.

NBC Sports: In a previous interview you’ve mentioned that you like to hand wash your cars, why is that?

Jones: Growing up we always had one nice car, my dad had some Corvettes, and my mom has a Mustang, and it was just kind of like a respect thing. Hey, you don’t take these cars to the car wash, you wash them yourself, and you take care of them. My dad was always big on that, and I picked that up. If you have a nice car, you don’t take it to the car wash, you take care of it and wash it yourself.

NBC Sports: What kind of cars do you have?

Jones: I have two. The one I drive more daily is the Lexus RC-F, and I also have a Viper I drive around on the side. I always pretty much take care of both of those by hand. We were always more classic cars growing up and always a respect thing for washing them.

Previous spotlight interviews:

Jeremy Clements 

Ty Dillon

Morgan Shepherd

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Daniel Suarez

Brandon Jones

Elliott Sadler

Rod Sieg

Chris Gabehart

Garrett Smithley

Brendan Gaughan

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

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Kyle Larson moving on from Bristol finish, looking to win again at Richmond

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After losing the lead with six laps to go and finishing second to Kyle Busch at Bristol, a frustrated Kyle Larson headed back to his motorhome.

He was greeted by son Owen, who had a question for him.

“Did you get me some Skittles?’ ‘’ Owen asked.

Even though the candy sponsors Busch, Larson admits he managed to smile at his son’s request.

‘That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it kind of lightened the mood, so it helps to get over it a little bit,’’ Larson said Friday at Richmond Raceway.

The runner-up finish for Larson marked the third time he’s finished second to Busch in a Cup race (2014 Auto Club Speedway, 2017 New Hampshire and 2018 Bristol).

Larson enters this weekend having won the most recent race at Richmond. He took the lead from Martin Truex Jr. with five laps to go on pit road and held on in overtime to win in September.

“Typically this hasn’t been a good race track for me, but for whatever reason, the last time we were here we were about a top-three car all race long,’’ said Larson, who starts tonight’s race fifth. “Truex was really fast. But, I was a little bit lucky there at the end with a caution to beat him off pit road and get the win. I think that adds a little bit of confidence coming back here.

“Even though I’ve struggled in the past, I enjoy this track because it is different than what we typically go to.”

Larson enters the weekend with three top-three finishes this season, including the Bristol result.

“I feel like our short track program has become really competitive over the last few years,’’ he said. “Aside from Martinsville, I don’t even know if our package is good or bad there; I think I’m just not very good there. But, for us to get a couple top-two finishes here at Richmond now the last couple of years, at a track that I struggle a lot at, I think says a lot about our short track program. Even Bristol, I think Bristol is my best race track, but a few years ago I would just kind of run around eighth to 12th. But now lately, I’ve been able to lead the most laps and get close to wins.’’

Larson’s Bristol race also included a spin after contact with Ryan Newman but Larson doesn’t blame Newman for the incident.

“I get along with Newman,’’ Larson said. “The line that I run in (Turns) 3 and 4 throughout a run is really fast, but I can get myself in trouble if people poke their nose in on me. That’s the second time I’ve gotten spun by running that line, so I think I just need to be a little more cautious. I don’t think he did anything wrong there. It was getting somewhat toward the end of the race. You’re trying to race for lead-lap spots. So, I cut it a little too close, I think, and ran across his front end.”

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Results, point standings after Xfinity race at Richmond

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Christopher Bell led a race-high 120 laps to win the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway. It’s his second career Xfinity win.

Bell beat Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Noah Gragson, Elliott Sadler, Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric.

Elliott Sadler won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

Click here for the race results.

Points

Elliott Sadler continues to lead the point standings through eight races. He has a 29-point lead over Bell.

Completing the top five is Tyler Reddick (-31 points), Daniel Hemric (-38) and Justin Allgaier (-48).

Click here for the point standings.

Christopher Bell wins Xfinity race at Richmond

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Christopher Bell fended off teammate Noah Gragson to break through and win his first Xfinity race of the year Friday night at Richmond Raceway.

Bell led the final 79 laps around the .75-mile track to score his second career win. He had finished in the top five in four of the first seven races this season.

“That was pretty special there, buddy,” Bell told Fox Sports 1. “Had to work for it. My teammate was really good and I knew throughout both practices that both of our cars were going to be really strong. Joe Gibbs Racing has been producing really, really fast Camrys for last couple of weeks and it’s really shown.”

Gragson placed second in his first career Xfinity start. He bounced back from an uncontrolled tire penalty early in the race.

He hounded Bell for much of the last 15 laps, but could never pull even with him.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Gragson told FS1 of his first series start at the short track. “I found a little something in the track, a little speed there at the end of the second stage on old tires. I kept it in my memory bank until the end and I told me team, ‘I got something, when it’s time to go tell me when.’ About 18 to go, I told them, ‘Can’t wait any longer, I don’t have any more patience.”

Gragson, who drives full-time in the Camping World Truck Series, led 10 laps.

The top five was completed by Elliott Sadler, Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric.

With his third-place finish, Sadler won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

Bell, Sadler, Tifft and Cindric will be eligible for the third Dash 4 Cash bonus next week at Talladega.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Daniel Hemric

STAGE 2 WINNER: Elliott Sadler, first stage win of season

MORE: Race results, points

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Austin Cindric earned his first career top five after starting from the rear for an unapproved adjustment … Matt Tifft earned his fourth career top five … Ryan Truex placed seventh to give Kaulig Racing its fourth top 10 of the year. It earned five last year … Jeremy Clements placed eighth, earning his first top 10 since he won at Road America in August.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: After winning Stage 1, Daniel Hemric lost his right front tire with three laps to go in Stage 2, but made it to the end. He finished 29th, four laps down … Justin Allgaier spun after ramming into the back of Spencer Gallagher with 86 laps to go. Chase Briscoe was also received damage in the incident. Allgaier finished 14th. Briscoe placed 26th.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “My wife’s already spent it.” – Elliott Sadler to FS1 after winning the Dash 4 Cash bonus.

WHAT’S NEXT: Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway at 3 p.m. ET on April 28 on Fox.

Starting lineup for Cup race at Richmond

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Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott will start on the front row for Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway.

Truex won his third pole of the season.

The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Kyle Busch, who is trying to win a third consecutive race, qualified 32nd.

Click here for the starting lineup.