FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 04:  Erik Jones, driver of the #20 GameStop/Call of Duty Toyota, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR XFINITY Series O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway on November 4, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
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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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Brad Keselowski Racing announces crew chief assignments

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Brad Keselowski Racing has announced the crew chiefs that will be paired with both of its full-time rookie drivers this season in the Camping World Truck Series.

Austin Cindric, driving the No. 19 Draw-Tite Ford, will work with Doug Randolph. Randolph has been a crew chief for BKR since 2012 and has six wins, including three with Tyler Reddick in the last two seasons. Randolph also has four Xfinity Series wins.

Mike Hillman Jr. will be the crew chief for Chase Briscoe in the No. 29 Cooper Standard Ford. Hillman is a two-time Truck series champion as crew chief for Todd Bodine (2006, 2010). He has 20 Truck Series wins, the last coming in 2013 with Jeb Burton.

“Austin Cindric has already had success in various forms of racing, and has shown a lot of potential in our Ford F-150 race trucks,” said Keselowski in a press release. “I certainly believe that Chase is ready to take the next step in his career, and we’re excited to have him join the BKR family. He won the ARCA championship in his first full-time season, and he’s proven to have the ability to learn quickly and win races. We’re pleased to give both Austin and Chase the opportunity to compete full-time at a high level in NASCAR.”

Briscoe, 22, enters his rookie season after winning the ARCA Racing Series title behind six race wins.

“It’s an absolutely huge opportunity and such an honor to drive for Brad,” said Briscoe in a press release. “The competition level in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is so high, but I’m going to be in the best equipment out there. It’s really cool to once again be working with the Keselowski family. When I moved to North Carolina three years ago, I was helping Brian and Bob in their shop, so things have come full circle. I’m truly blessed with this opportunity, and I hope to make the most of it. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning races and championships, and that’s what I plan to do.”

Cindric, 18, is the son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric. He has six starts with BKR over the last two seasons. His best result is 15th last November at Phoenix International Raceway.

“This is a massive opportunity from Brad and everyone at BKR who trusts me and believes in my abilities as a driver to move on to the next level for a full season,” said Cindric in a press release. “2017 gets more and more exciting for me with every day that goes by. I’ve only done a handful of one-off races in my brief stock car career, so I’m really looking forward to having the same guys by my side week in and week out. I’ve spent a lot of time at the shop the last few weeks and I know everyone is really excited to get back racing.”

The Truck Series season begins Feb. 24 at Daytona International Speedway.

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Kurt, Kyle Busch come up short in Nations Cup finale at Race of Champions

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 04:  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch hugs brother Kurt Busch during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards show at Wynn Las Vegas on December 4, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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After early exits in the first day of the Race of Champion exhibition Saturday in Miami, Kyle and Kurt Busch returned on Sunday in hopes of winning the Nations Cup for the United States of America, but were swept in the finale by Germany’s Sebastian Vettel.

The brothers, representing Team USA NASCAR, were in Group A with USA IndyCar, USA Rally and ROC Factor Canada.

Kurt Busch’s struggles from Saturday continued in his first race against IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe. The Canadian driver beat Kurt Busch by .002 of a second. The NASCAR representative would bounce back in his next race, beating action sports star and former NASCAR driver Travis Pastrana.

In Kyle Busch‘s first race of the day, he faced and beat karting champion Stefan Rzadzinski of Canada. He followed it up by beating Scott Speed.

After six races, Team USA NASCAR and IndyCar had four wins each and faced each other in the semifinal round. But the Busch brothers prevailed over Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi from USA IndyCar to advance to the Nations Cup final against Vettel, who represented Germany by himself.

But Vettel swept the race, betting Kurt then Kyle Busch to claim the Nations Cup. Vettel swept all of his races, finishing Sunday with seven wins.

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NMPA names Jimmie Johnson Driver of the Year among annual awards

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 18:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 18, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
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Jimmie Johnson was named the Richard Petty Driver of the Year on Saturday by the National Motorsports Press Association as part of its annual awards banquet.

It’s the seventh time that Johnson – who was named on 62 percent of the ballots cast – has been recognized with the award. He previously won it in 2004, ’06, ’07, ’09, ’10, and ’13.

The award comes after Johnson became the third driver to win a seventh championship in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

The NMPA also named Al Pearce of Autoweek as its annual Pocono Spirit Award winner.

The award, sponsored by Pocono Raceway, “recognizes character and achievement in the face of adversity,
sportsmanship and contributions to motorsports.”

Pearce won for a four-year project that raised $13,000 through the auction of a racing helmet signed by the 20 living World Driving Champions and Phil Hill and Sir Jack Brabham prior their passing. Proceeds from the project went to the Victory Junction Gang Camp, the Kyle Petty Charity Ride, the Jimmie Johnson Foundation and the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation.

Dave Ferroni, the public relations representative for Furniture Row Racing,  was awarded the Ken Patterson Helping Others Award.

Involved in auto racing for more than 30 years, Ferroni was the publicist for the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. hockey team in 1980 before later serving working for Brainerd International Raceway and the National Hot Rod Association. His company, DMF Communications, has also worked with U.S. Army, Miller Brewing Co., Pennzoil, McDonald’s and Valvoline.

The Ken Patterson award is sponsored by Talladega Superspeedway, where Patterson served as the public relations director, and has been given out since 2004. The track will donate $1,000 in Ferroni’s name to the Kenneth Patterson Educational Trust Fund.

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NBCSN to broadcast NASCAR announcement at 6 p.m. ET Monday

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NBCSN will air live a press conference held by NASCAR industry stakeholders to discuss the upcoming 2017 season at 6 p.m. ET Monday.

The announcement will be attended by NASCAR executives, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers, NASCAR team representatives and NASCAR track representatives.

The press conference is being held at the Charlotte Convention Center.