FORT WORTH – Erik Jones started his Friday in the Texas Motor Speedway media center playing a NASCAR video game with Miss Sprint Cup Madison Martin.
He finished the night back where it began, taking questions about his potential future in the Sprint Cup series.
Those questions came after Jones, 18, outran fellow Michigan native Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his first career Xfinity Series win.
Owner Joe Gibbs said they knew this was coming.
They knew at some point that Jones would make a statement and direct his path toward the top series.
“Tonight is always a big step when you win your first race,” Gibbs said.
That big step might help Jones drive Gibbs’ No. 18 Toyota in Sprint Cup while Kyle Busch recovers from a broken right leg and fractured left foot suffered in the Xfinity Series’ season opener at Daytona International Speedway.
Jones was initially a candidate for the job before David Ragan was given the nod. Sources told NASCAR Talk in late February the plan was for Jones to take over from Ragan at Kansas Speedway on May 9.
“As far as down the road, there’s no question that at some point very quick he’s going to be in a Cup car some,” Gibbs said after Friday’s Xfinity race. “I think we have a bit of a strategy there that we talked about. I think he’s ready to go at any time. We’ll just work with that as we go forward.”
Speculation about Jones taking over Busch’s ride naturally has stirred questions about when Gibbs brought Joey Logano to Sprint Cup as an 18-year-old replacing Tony Stewart. After struggling for most of his first four seasons at JGR, even Logano admitted he had been rushed into Cup.
But since leaving JGR for Team Penske in 2013, Logano has emerged as a title contender with seven victories, making the Chase the past two seasons, reaching the championship round last year and opening this season with a 2015 Daytona 500 win.
“I will say this of Joey right now, the guy’s a star,” Gibbs said. “Whatever happened in the past, it certainly paid off now.
“I think Erik’s situation is different from that. You look at it totally different, I think that you do learn from things in the past. We know that Erik’s on the fast track, so it’s just a matter of when.”
Busch’s injury already has expanded Jones’ NASCAR schedule this year, allowing the Byron, Mich., native to start all six Xfinity races while also running the truck circuit full time (the team expects Jones will drive in at least 20 Xfinity races).
It’s accelerated Jones’ learning curve against some major-league names. On Friday, he finished ahead of Earnhardt, Keselowski, Regan Smith and Austin Dillon — all former or current Sprint Cup regulars. JGR teammate Denny Hamlin finished seventh.
“The big thing is, he beat some big people,” Gibbs said.
Said Jones: “Racing against those guys is a big, big help. Seeing what they do, learning what they do … realizing how good they hard.
“Growing up and watching them on TV, you never realize how good they are until you get to race side-by-side with them. Then you really see it.”
Crew chief Michael Wheeler, who worked with Hamlin for the past 10 seasons as an engineer in Sprint Cup, said he believes Jones benefits from how those Cup drivers race him.
“Those guys probably aren’t afraid to lean against him just to see what he can handle,” Wheeler said. “I was really happy that even though Dale Jr and all the other guys were running him hard, he held his own and got past them.”