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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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ThorSport Racing partners with Ford in Truck Series

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ThorSport Racing has partnered with Ford in a multi-year deal in the Camping World Truck Series, the team announced Monday.

The team’s announcement comes a week after it revealed the mutual decision to part ways with Toyota.

“With 23 years in the NCWTS, we look forward to our new partnership with Ford Performance in NASCAR,” team owner Duke Thorson said in a press release. “Our pursuit of wins and championships remains at the forefront of our objectives.”

ThorSport, based in Sandusky, Ohio, had been paired with the Toyota for six years, winning two titles with Matt Crafton.

“We’re excited that ThorSport Racing has decided to switch to a F-Series truck for the 2018 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports in a press release. “ThorSport is a proven championship-level team in the series, and we look forward to providing them the aero and simulation technical support that will ensure they remain at the top level of the Truck Series.”

In 2017, Brad Keselowski Racing fielded the only two full-time Ford entries in the series. That team shut down following the end of the season.

Crafton will be returning to ThorSport for his 17th season – and 14th consecutive – with the team. The rest of the team’s driver lineup will be announced at a later date.

The Truck Series season begins Feb. 16th at Daytona International Speedway.

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D.J. Kennington to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500 with Gaunt Brothers Racing

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Canadian driver D.J. Kennington will try to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Gaunt Brothers Racing for the second year in a row, the team announced Monday.

Kennington, a native of St. Thomas, Ontario, will drive the No. 96 Toyota sponsored by Lordco Auto Parts and Castrol.

The team, sponsor and driver combination made the 2017 edition of the race, making Kennington the first Canadian driver to compete in the Daytona 500 in 29 years.

Kennington started 28th and finished 36th following a multi-car crash at the start of Stage 2.

“Last year was an awesome experience for my sponsors, Lordco and Castrol, and me,” Kennington said in a press release. “We knew once it was over, we wanted to do it again. (Team owner) Marty (Gaunt) and everybody at GBR is pulling out all the stops for us this year. I’m looking forward to getting back behind the wheel of the Lordco/Castrol Toyota Camry and seeing the difference a year makes.”

The 40-year-old driver has five Cup starts with a best finish of 26th in last November’s race at Phoenix.

Gaunt Brothers Racing does not own a charter, meaning Kennington is not guaranteed a starting spot in the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

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Love’s Travel Stops returns as Front Row Motorsports sponsor

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Front Row Motorsports and Love’s Travel Stops have extended their relationship into a sixth year, the team announced Monday.

The company will sponsor the No. 34 Ford of Michael McDowell in 18 races, including the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

It will also be on the No. 34 for both races at Texas Motor Speedway, the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

“We look forward to kicking off another great season in Daytona with Front Row Motorsports and welcoming our new driver of the No. 34 Love’s Ford, Michael McDowell,” said Dave Frankenfield, vice president of marketing for Love’s Travel Stops, in a press release. “(Team owner) Bob Jenkins and (General Manager) Jerry Freeze continue to provide great value and flexibility in our partnership while working tirelessly to put a competitive car on the track each week. They also help create a unique race-day experience that allows our customers and employees to be a part of the Love’s race team.”

The team also announced McDowell, entering his first year with FRM, will be paired with crew chief Derrick Finley. The veteran crew chief has been with the team since 2011 and worked with David Ragan last season.

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New car buoys hopes for Chevrolet to avoid ‘unacceptable’ Cup result last year

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A Chevrolet executive calls it “unacceptable” that the manufacturer did not have a car racing for the Cup championship last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway but says he expects Chevrolet to have “at least a car or two” in the title race this season with the new Camaro ZL1

Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, made the comments Sunday after a luncheon at the National Motorsports Press Association Convention.

Chevrolet had no Cup car finish higher than fifth (Chase Elliott) last year and did not score a win in the 10-race playoffs — Toyota won eight races and Ford two. Toyota won the championship with Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing.

“If you look at the car count and just do a ratio of the car count, we were (seven) out of 16 going into the playoffs last year and to not have one make it in the final round was not good,’’ Suhy said.

“I expect us to have at least a car or two in the Final Four this year. There’s no reason we shouldn’t.’’

Suhy and others at Chevrolet are buoyed by the Camaro ZL1 and look to repeat the success Toyota had last season (16 wins in 36 races) with its updated Camry.

Suhy said a key to the Camaro ZL1 is that Chevrolet engineers found ways to move more downforce from the front to the rear of the car.

“As teams make more downforce, they tend to make more and more front downforce, they don’t gain rear downforce as much,’’ Suhy said. “With the old car, as they made more and more front downforce, it got more and more aero loose, so it got harder to keep the car from being too loose and unstable going into the turns.’’

Suhy said that while there were some Chevrolets that were strong last season — Kyle Larson won four races to lead the manufacturer — many teams had a challenge with the setup.

“I would say the loose to relative looseness of the car didn’t feel as comfortable getting into the corners,’’ Suhy said of last year’s car. “So I think a lot of it is really about driver comfort and how they feel going 210 mph down the frontstretch at Michigan and lifting and turning left and having the confidence that the car is actually going to turn left and not lose the front end. I think those are the things this car will help feel more settled, more stable and less twitchy.’’

Any new car can have its struggles. Despite its dominance last year, Toyota won only two of the first 17 races before winning 14 of the final 19.

“I think some of the things that we’ve done with our car and what we’ve done since it was approved, working together with our teams and with the teams working separately, I’d like to think that we’re not going to struggle that badly that early,’’ Suhy said. “I guess we’ll see. We’re prepared. If we do struggle, it’s not because of the fundamental design of the car, it’s really just a matter of more time development needed. We’re ready to address that if needed.’’

Chevrolet enters this new era without its NASCAR program manager. Alba Colon joined Hendrick Motorsports earlier this month to oversee the team’s competition systems group. She was among those from Chevrolet at the track most weekends who worked with the teams.

Suhy said he’s temporarily filling Colon’s job, along with his other duties, until a replacement can be found. Suhy said the team that developed the car remains and that Kevin Bayless, Chevrolet Racing NASCAR Chassis and Aerodynamics Program Manager, will play a greater role. Bayless will be at the organizational test Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Each Cup organization is allowed to have one team test. 

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