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.