Ryan: Erik Jones’ Sprint Cup ‘debut’ will be remembered even without the official recognition

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – At roughly 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Erik Jones was lounging on his couch in Cornelius, N.C., plotting a nap during a Sprint Cup rain delay, when the text arrived.

Could the teenager hustle to Bristol Motor Speedway to be on standby for an ailing Denny Hamlin?

The next six hours mostly were a blur for Jones, who packed a bag, hopped a 35-minute plane flight to Tennessee, helicoptered to the track and entered Hamlin’s No. 11 team hauler to meet with crew chief Dave Rogers 20 minutes before the race returned to green at 6:50 p.m. after a nearly four-hour stoppage.

“I’ve never talked to Erik in my life before he walked in the door, and I said, ‘Hi I’m Dave, crew chief of the 11. Change into your firesuit and let’s go racing,’ ” Rogers told NBC Sports after the race, smiling broadly while standing beside his team’s mostly unblemished Camry. “He looked at me and said, ‘Are you serious?’ I’m dead serious.

“He had no clue. I had my engineer tell him the chance was 15 percent he would drive. He thought he was coming up to watch Denny drive.”

Jones scrambled into a firesuit, signed a Sprint Cup license and climbed into the No. 11 Toyota. There was time to hear roughly 15 seconds of advice from Hamlin, who was out with neck spasms after completing 22 laps.

It was the first time in Jones’ life he’d been behind the wheel of a Cup car.

No tests. No practices. No laps.

And so began what could be an illustrious career in NASCAR’s premier series – though the record won’t reflect it.

Because Hamlin started the race and was credited for the finish, Jones wasn’t recognized in the official box score for the Food City 500 In Support of Steve Byrnes. But for Jones, who broke through with his first Xfinity Series victory a week earlier at Texas Motor Speedway and has four Camping World Truck Series wins, it might have been a career highlight.

Jones piloted Hamlin’s car to a 26th-place finish while being indoctrinated in the unfriendly confines of Bristol, the high-banked 0.533-mile oval that requires lightning-quick reflexes while navigating a physically punishing and incessantly treacherous environment.

Oh, and while battling a field of stock-car superstars

“It’s literally the comparative of playing college football vs. the NFL,” said Jones, who will turn 19 next month. “Obviously you have 10 cars that can win in the Xfinity Series. In this deal, you have 20 to 25 cars. It’s a totally different level of competition. It’s really cut-throat. Nobody gives you an inch. Nobody gives you a break.”

If that weren’t enough to overcome, there also was a matter of getting comfortable in the cockpit. Though they are roughly the same size, Hamlin’s steering wheel painfully pinched against Jones’ arms.

Dropping from fifth to 37th for the restart, Jones quickly fell two laps off the pace and was rear-ended by Brett Moffitt while trying to weave through the stop-and-go traffic that is a hallmark of Bristol.

But after about 100 laps, his lap times stabilized and began to accelerate. Rogers radioed during a caution on Lap 169, “You’re doing a remarkable job. I can’t think of a worse position to put you in.”

“I’m really proud of Erik,” Rogers said. “He did a phenomenal job. I think the biggest thing was to manage our expectations, and he met all of them. He got faster throughout the race. He moved around. He learned different lines. You could see the confidence growing all race long.”

Said Jones, who finished six laps down: “I learned a ton. I wish we could start the night over and do it all again. I can’t wait to hopefully try it again.”

The Byron, Mich., native likely will have his wish granted soon. As reported by NASCAR Talk in February, Joe Gibbs Racing’s plan is to have Jones in Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota for a Sprint Cup debut May 9 at Kansas Speedway.

Busch remains indefinitely sidelined by injuries from his crash in the Xfinity season opener at Daytona International Speedway. Under contract to JGR, Jones already has picked up many of Busch’s Xfinity races, and team owner Joe Gibbs strongly hinted last week that Jones will be in a Cup car soon.

He sounded even more assured after Bristol, where Jones dodged several multicar wrecks and finished ahead of Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano. Rogers said Jones saved the car at least three times from spinning.

“To see somebody that young get thrown into that situation, he handled it very good (and) smooth,” Gibbs said. “On the radio, he was really good, and I think it was a real experience for him. But I thought he handled all of that exceptionally well.

“We know Erik has a very bright future. It’s going to be fun to work with him.”

For 15 minutes after the race, Jones lingered in the pits outside his car as several JGR crewmembers and team executives wandered by to offer hearty congratulations and encouragement. Several reminded him he had held his own while making a leap up to face world-class competition on a moment’s notice.

“He showed a lot of heart to jump in that car and do that,” Rogers said. “To think about it, it’s crazy.”

The wildest part might be it’s as if it never happened, according to the history books.

Jones became the first driver to make a midrace de-facto Sprint Cup “debut” since Truex, who also wasn’t credited when he took over for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. during a July 2004 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“I don’t know why, but on the plane, I thought of it,” Jones said. “I’m like, ‘Huh, I’m not even going to get the credit for the start.’ It’s not a big deal to me. It’s just a stat. I know I ran the race.”

So did everyone else, which is really all that mattered.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Kansas preview, Kevin Meendering interview

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to preview this weekend’s races at Kansas Speedway.

Marty Snider hosts with Steve Letarte and Landon Cassill from Charlotte.

On today’s show:

  • We’ll react to the penalty handed down to Kyle Larson that makes advancing to the Round of 8 even more challenging.
  • As cut-down day approaches in the Round of 12 for the Cup Series, we’ll look back at drivers who kept their title hopes alive with victories in elimination races.
  • Dillon Welch talks to crew chief Kevin Meendering, who is set to become Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief in 2019.
  • Joey Logano may be racing for a championship, but one of his other main goals is a far more important one: helping the lives of others, especially children. We’ll look at the story behind the Joey Logano Foundation.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Bubba Wallace named to Ebony Power 100

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Bubba Wallace has been named to Ebony Magazine’s Ebony Power 100 for his accomplishments as a NASCAR Cup series driver.

Listed as an “MVP,” Wallace joins other athletes such as Antonio Brown, Stephen Curry and Venus Williams as well as former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama. 

The list was created to recognize leaders of color who have positively impacted their community.

“This is quite an honor to be recognized with others in the African-American community,” Wallace said in a press release. “It’s humbling to join a list of the other star athletes, artists and community and national leaders. I’m just trying to be the best driver that I can be and focus on winning races for Richard Petty Motorsports and our partners. To be recognized for some of our accomplishments this season is an honor and I’d like to thank Ebony for the recognition.”

Wallace gained the honor based on his on track performance early in the year, including a second-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a top-10 finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

His off-track accomplishments also played a role in the selection. Wallace has been a notable influencer on social media. Earlier this year, Facebook posted a “Behind the Wall: Bubba Wallace” docu-series that earned more than five million views.

“We are proud of what Bubba is doing both on and off the track for our race team and our partners,” said Brian Moffitt, CEO of Richard Petty Motorsports, in a press release. “We know that we have something very special with him and he continues to break barriers outside our sport to be a first-class athlete, spokesperson and inspiration to many.”

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K&N East champion to make Truck Series debut at Martinsville

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Tyler Ankrum, who won the NASCAR K&N East Pro Series title on Oct. 6, will make his Camping World Truck Series debut next weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

Ankrum, 17, will drive for DGR-Crosley’s No. 54 truck. Ankrum drove for the team co-owned by David Gilliland in the K&N East series.

Driving the No. 17, Ankrum earned four wins and nine top fives and led the standings for the final 12 races of the season.

The native of San Bernadino, California, had an average finish of 4.8.

Next Saturday’s race will be Ankrum’s second at Martinsville. He competed in a Late Model Stock Car race there in 2014.

“Making my Truck Series debut at Martinsville is huge. So many big names in the sport have made their national series debut at Martinsville,” Ankrum said in a press release. “I’ve been dreaming of this day for so long now, I can’t believe it’s actually happening. It’s going to be really cool having (crew chief) Seth (Smith) and my K&N guys there with me.”

Kyle Larson loses 10 points, car chief suspended for Talladega penalty

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Kyle Larson‘s Cup team has been penalized 10 driver and owner points and loses car chief David Bryant to a one-race suspension for a L1 penalty at Talladega Superspeedway.

Crew chief Chad Johnston was also fined $25,000.

The No. 42 team violated Section 10.9.9.d in the rulebook, which notes “Damaged vehicle repair, regardless of how the damage occurred, is permitted to have original body parts removed or reattached in their original location with fasteners and/or tape only.”

Larson spun with seven laps left in Stage 2 due to a flat tire.

Larson, who finished 11th in Sunday’s race and called it “embarrassing at times”, is now 36 points behind the cutoff spot on the playoff grid, making this weekend’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway a must win for Larson.

This is Bryant’s second suspension this season. He missed two races in May for a rear-window violation at Kansas.

NBC Sports has asked Chip Ganassi Racing if it will appeal;there was no immediate response from the team.

John Klausmeier, crew chief on Aric Almirola‘s No. 10 Ford, was fined $10,000 for an unsecured lug nut on the race-winning car.

NASCAR also issued three fines to crew chiefs in the Camping World Truck Series for the same L1 penalty.

Chad Kendrick (Austin Hill‘s No. 02 Chevrolet), Graham Bruce (Stewart Friesen‘s No. 52 Chevrolet) and Joel Shear Jr. (Johnny Sauter‘s No. 21 Chevrolet) were fined $5,000 for violating Section 20.4, which notes “Air is not allowed to pass from one area of the interior of the vehicle to another or to the outside of the vehicle.”

NASCAR also issued an indefinite suspension to Christopher Justin Chase for violating Sections 12.1.a and 2.11.a in the rulebook, a behavioral level violation.