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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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Wild Brickyard 400 helped underdogs shine

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Sunday’s Brickyard 400 wasn’t just a win for Kasey Kahne, it was also a win of sorts for several other drivers who enjoyed some of the best finishes of their season or careers.

With so many big names sidelined by mechanical failure or crashes, the 400 was a day for underdogs to shine.

Among the top underdog finishes:

* Matt DiBenedetto finished eighth, his best showing of the season (previous best was ninth in the Daytona 500). It was also his best non-restrictor plate finish since 19th at Bristol, and just two spots shy of his career-best showing of sixth at Bristol in April 2016.

“It’s pretty unreal what we’ve been able to accomplish this year,” said DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford Fusion. “I’ve worked so dang hard the old-school way to get here, countless late nights for these guys working, many sleepless nights in my career thinking it was over about 30 to 40 times and that’s not even an exaggeration, and to have these kind of races this year is just unbelievable.”

Go Fas Racing is one of the smallest teams in the NASCAR Cup series. But DiBenedetto and his team get a lot of pleasure by doing more with less.

“Obviously, being a smaller team we just try and get a good handle on our cars,” DiBenedetto. “We come here and dial in our car the old-school way, through communication.

“We have no simulation or nothing. We just have 15 guys and we work our tails off. … Because we had a good handling car, we were able to take advantage of everybody else’s mistakes by being competitive and being in front of a lot the guys that were racing, and being in the right place at the right time there a lot of times at the end.  Don’t get me wrong, though, we had our share of close calls.”

But the key was avoiding all those close calls that helped DiBenedetto get such a good finish.

“Over-aggression is an understatement,” DiBenedetto said. “ I don’t know if it just got dark and nobody could see out their windshields or what, but the thing is restarts are so important.

“That’s where you make up all your spots, and once it gets single filed out, it’s really hard to pass. So unfortunately you’ve got to really go on the restarts, which makes it fun and makes it exciting for the fans, but you’re also just hanging on for dear life and hoping you’re in the right place at the right time.”

* JTG Daugherty’s two drivers, Chris Buescher (ninth) and AJ Allmendinger (10th), finished next to each other. It was the second time in the last four races and this season overall that both cars ended with top-10 finishes in the same race (Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Allmendinger was eighth, Buescher was 10th).

Buescher earned his best finish of the season in the Brickyard 400. But it wasn’t easy: his car looked more like it had just finished a beating and banging fest at Martinsville.

“It felt like a battle more than a race today,” Buescher said. “Just an excellent job by our team to stick with it today. We had damage throughout a lot of this race and this Clorox team, they worked really hard to make sure we got it back to where it needed to be to be able to get some drivability out of it.

“We were able to miss some of that craziness there at the end and got ourselves a good finish out of it.”

For Allmendinger, it was his second-best finish of the season after his third-place finish in the Daytona 500.

“(It was) just one of those days you’ve just got to keep fighting and get a little lucky, fortunately missing all the wrecks,” Allmendinger said. “We’ve got to keep working on trying to get better and trying new things for sure.”

The recent performance lifts Allmendinger’s confidence of making the playoffs, with his best chance next month at Watkins Glen. It was there in 2014 that Allmendinger won and qualified for the playoffs.

* Cole Whitt finished 12th, one spot shy of tying his career-best outing in July 2016 at Daytona. Coming into Sunday’s race, Whitt’s best finish was 16th at Talladega this spring and his best non-plate finish was 20th earlier this year at Atlanta.

* Rounding out the top underdog finishes was Timmy Hill, who earned a career-best finish of 14th. Hill’s previous career-best showing was 22nd at Kansas in October 2012. His best finish this season before the Brickyard was 28th.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. to join NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR coverage in 2018

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Dale Earnhardt Jr., the motorsports icon voted by fans as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for an unprecedented 14 consecutive years (2003-16), will join NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR coverage beginning in 2018, it was announced Monday. 

Earnhardt will be utilized in a number of capacities on NBC’s NASCAR coverage, with specifics to be announced in the coming months. In addition, the agreement with NBCUniversal allows Earnhardt a wide range of opportunities in the company’s media businesses, including movies, television, podcasts, and other areas.

“We are excited to welcome Dale Jr. to our team – both on and off the track,” said Mark Lazarus, Chairman, NBC Broadcasting and Sports. “As a company, NBCUniversal allows for talent to stretch themselves across not just their field of expertise, but across other areas of their interests in the media world.”

Dale Jr. brings credibility, personality, and popularity to our already winning NASCAR team,” said Sam Flood, Executive Producer and President of Production, NBC Sports. “Giving him a chance to spread further within other NBC Sports Group properties and throughout the company is an added bonus.”

“It is a tremendous honor not only to join NBC Sports next year but to begin a new career alongside people who love NASCAR as much as I do,” said Earnhardt. “To be reunited with Steve Letarte, to be able to call legends like Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty teammates rather than just friends, to be able to continue going to the track and connecting with race fans, it’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. I will devote my heart and soul to this broadcast team and pledge my very best to the millions who watch it.”

NBC is also partnering with Earnhardt on some of his other businesses, including Dirty Mo Media and Hammerhead Entertainment. 

Earnhardt is a third-generation driver in a family forever connected to the sport of stock-car racing. The native of Kannapolis, North Carolina, has amassed 26 career victories, including the 2004 and 2014 Daytona 500. His 26 victories tie him for 29th on NASCAR’s all-time race winners list. His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., won seven Cup titles and 76 Cup races in his storied career.

Matt Kenseth: Brickyard 400 restarts ‘kind of ridiculous’

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Matt Kenseth came close to winning Sunday’s Brickyard 400, but ultimately finished fifth.

Kenseth called the race “kind of ridiculous” down the stretch because of the several restarts that brought about further havoc and wrecks.

Kenseth competed in his final Brickyard 400 for Joe Gibbs Racing. With his future uncertain and whether he’ll be able to continue racing in 2018, could Sunday have been the final Brickyard 400 of his career, much like good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is retiring after this season?

Check out the video above for Kenseth’s comments on the race.

Rick Hendrick on Kasey Kahne’s future: ‘Our plans are not set for the No. 5 car’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne has a contract for 2018 at Hendrick Motorsports but possibly doesn’t have a job next season.

Team owner Rick Hendrick confirmed Sunday night that “our plans are not set for the No. 5 car” after Kahne ended a 102-race winless streak in the Cup Series.

“There’s nothing concrete or done, and that hasn’t changed,” Hendrick said. “We’ll see how things shake out the rest of the year.  There’s a lot of things involved, sponsors and a lot of things we look at.  We’re going to try hard.  But there’s no decisions made at this time.”

Kahne felt the 18th victory of his career helped him make a case for staying in the No. 5 Chevrolet.

“I think this shows I still want to win races,” he said. “It shows I gave it all that I can to get a win and shows that I’m passionate about driving stock cars, and that I can still win races, too.

“I have a deal through 2018 with Hendrick Motorsports. I hear a lot of things, but it’s tough to say exactly what’s going to happen. I don’t know at this point and time. I know me and Mr. H will figure it out. I think this shows that I want to be and still have the drive and passion to do it, so I’m going to keep trying hard I know that.”

During a Sunday morning pre-race news conference to formally introduce Alex Bowman as the replacement next season for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick said he planned to run four cars next season but deflected a question about Kahne’s status (“that’s for another day”).

Xfinity Series rookie William Byron, who is under contract to Hendrick, would be an option for the No. 5 Chevrolet, but Hendrick said “we’re not ready to cross that bridge yet” when asked about Byron’s Cup future.

Kahne is ranked 22nd in the points standings with only four top 10s in 20 races this season.

“When you’ve had a rough road, your confidence gets down,” Hendrick said. “He said, ‘I know I can do it. The harder I try, the more it seems like I have this rough bad luck.’

“Something like this (win) can be really good for any guy to have, the whole team, to have confidence.  … All I can say about Kasey is he shows up, he shows up on time, and he shows up on time with his game face on, and he puts in the effort. Sometimes it just takes a break.  But he’s done everything.  I know in his heart he wants to do it.  He’s trying, so … ”