TALLADEGA, Ala. – Could Kyle Busch return to the Sprint Cup Series much earlier than anticipated?
The possibility was raised Friday at Talladega Superspeedway when Erik Jones, the latest replacement in Busch’s No. 18 Toyota, was asked about his upcoming schedule.
Though a Thursday release from Joe Gibbs Racing said Jones would replace Busch “starting at Kansas Speedway,” Jones said the team has confirmed him for only the May 9 race.
“Beyond that, I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I’d love to run (the car) again. We’ll have to see how things go. I’ll do the best we can and see what happens.”
Because he is running the Camping World Truck Series full time and has picked up many of Busch’s races in the Xfinity Series, it would be reasonable to expect JGR would be plotting the logistics of having Jones hop between series while filling in for Busch.
But Jones, who fills the void left by current substitute David Ragan moving to Michael Waltrip Racing after Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, said JGR hadn’t provided him with any details on when Busch might return or if he might have the chance to continue in the car.
“Just Kansas at this point, that’s all I’ve heard,” he said. “I’ve seen it, too. I saw it on TV 20 minutes ago where it says ‘until (Busch) returns,’ but honestly, Kansas is the only one I know of right now.”
A JGR spokesman said Friday there was no timetable for Busch’s return, nor had the driver received medical clearance while recovering from the broken right leg and fractured left foot he suffered in a Feb. 21 crash during the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona International Speedway.
Busch said during a news conference last month that his goal was to return by at least the July 5 race at Daytona, and his injuries generally require a minimum of three months to recover.
The next Sprint Cup points race after Kansas is the longest of the season – the Coca Cola 600 on May 24 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The exhibition All-Star Race will be held May 16 at Charlotte.
Kanas will mark Jones’ debut in NASCAR’s premier series but not the first time he’s been in a Sprint Cup car. Without experience, he replaced an injured Denny Hamlin for the final 488 laps of the April 16 race at Bristol Motor Speedway, finishing 26th and staying out of the trouble.
The Byron, Mich., native, who scored his first Xfinity victory last month at Texas Motor Speedway and is ranked third in the truck standings, said a top 15 would be the goal at Kansas.
“It’s all seat time and experience,” he said. “Keeping our expectations realistic is a pretty big thing for us. If we can run top 15, I feel that’s a big win for us. It’s not going to be an easy step for anybody. I really believe we can run top 15. If we can do that, I think that’d be a good day.”
Jones, 18, has rekindled the debate over whether JGR put Joey Logano in Sprint Cup too early as an 18-year-old in 2009. Logano struggled for a few seasons before emerging as a star at Team Penske.
“It’s just a lot different situation altogether,” Jones said. “I’m stepping into a fill-in role. I’m running one race at Kansas, which is entirely different from Joey’s role, stepping in and trying to fill a full season. I feel comfortable about that.
“There’s a point you have to make the jump at some time in your career. Whether it’s now or a year down the road or two years down the road, I have to do it. I feel like this is probably the best situation to make that jump in a part-time situation like it is. It’s a great opportunity. It’s a top-flight car. So obviously, there are expectations to run well. But as long as I can keep my mentality that I’m just here to learn and make laps, I feel like it’s not going to hurt my development in any sort of way.”