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.

Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman ‘clear the air’ about All-Star incident

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CONCORD, N.C. — Five days after Clint Bowyer threw several punches at Ryan Newman as Newman sat in his car after the All-Star Race, the two sat side by side during an autograph session at a Bass Pro Shops near Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Bowyer was upset with Newman for contact that led to Bowyer crashing after last weekend’s race. After Bowyer drove to pit road, he ran to Newman’s car while still wearing his helmet — earning a rebuke from his team owner for not removing his helmet. After reaching Newman’s car, Bowyer unleashed a number of punches.

Both drivers talked this week before they got to the autograph session.

“It was good to have a conversation about it,” Bowyer said Thursday night after qualifying eighth at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. “At the end of the day there were a lot of things that escalated very fast and obviously got out of hand.

“There’s one thing I can always promise you about something like that and it is unfortunate, and you hate having things like that happen, (but) that’s probably the best attended autograph session at Bass Pro Shops that I’ve had in a long, long time.

“Obviously I don’t want to do that every weekend. At the end of the day we all love this sport, we are all passionate about this sport and every now and then that shows a little brighter.”

Bowyer was asked if he thought Newman would retaliate.

“I don’t know,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully it’s behind us. We both have a little better understanding of how it escalated into that and you’ve just got to get stuff like that behind you.”

Newman said it was good to talk to Bowyer about what happened.

“It was good to kind of clear the air,” Newman said. “It is what it is. It’s the past. Just something you always remember. You learn about somebody in a situation like that.”

Newman was asked if he’ll race Bowyer differently.

“I try to race everybody the same way and that’s hard because that’s what I get paid to do,” said Newman, who qualified 18th for the Coca-Cola 600. “I try to give-and-take when I came. The way it works anymore with stage points, especially in the All-Star race, you don’t give and take. You take.”

Starting lineup for the Coca-Cola 600

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William Byron will start first and Aric Almirola will start second for Sunday’s 60th running of the Coca-Cola 600.

Byron, 21, is the youngest pole-sitter in the race’s history.

The top five is completed by defending race winner Kyle Busch, 2017 race winner Austin Dillon and two-time 600 winner Kevin Harvick.

Click here for the starting lineup.

William Byron wins pole for Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. —  William Byron won the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Byron claimed the top spot with a qualifying speed of 183.424 mph. At the age of 21, he’s the youngest Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter.

It’s Byron’s second career Cup pole, joining his pole in this year’s Daytona 500.

He beat out Aric Almirola (183.069 mph), Kyle Busch (182.933), Austin Dillon (182.766) and Kevin Harvick (182.741).

“This is awesome, a dream come true,” Byron told FS1. “Obviously, I grew up in Charlotte so I came to this race every year. It’s a dream come true to qualify on the pole next to Hendrick Motorsports across the street over there. … Can’t think of a better way to start the weekend.”

Byron has qualified on the front row five time this year and four times in the last seven races.

The pole is the 12th for Hendrick Motorsports in the 600, which leads all teams.

Busch has qualified in the top three for the last three 600s.

Corey LaJoie‘s No. 32 Ford failed pre-qualifying inspection twice, resulting in the ejection of an engineer.

Click here for qualifying results.

Joey Logano and family mourn their dog

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CONCORD, N.C. — Joey Logano provided a sobering update Thursday night about the family’s lost dog, Luigi.

The dog had been missing since Tuesday.

Logano’s wife Brittany wrote on a Facebook post for lost and found pets in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area that the family’s French Bulldog got out of their fence Tuesday night.

“Our little Luigi I believe he’s stolen, I think,” Joey Logano said earlier Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “We can’t really put a match to anything. We put a bunch of signs up and things on social media and we watched the cameras at our house and we see him running around the backyard and then you don’t see him again. Not really sure what happened there.”

“We’ve learned that Frenchies are one of the most stolen dogs around. It’s kind of sad that someone does that. It’s a member of your family. It’s a jerk move. Hopefully, we can figure it out.”