With both his words and his performance, Erik Jones has been “begging for a chance” to race in the Sprint Cup Series.
Now he’s getting it. Officially anyway. After acting as an emergency substitute for Denny Hamlin at Bristol Motor Speedway three weeks ago, Jones will make his first Sprint Cup start this weekend in the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Driving the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, Jones is the third replacement driver this year for Kyle Busch, who is recovering from a broken right leg and fractured left foot suffered in the Xfinity Series season opener Feb. 21 at Daytona.
“There’s been some talk of it all along of, ‘Am I going to get a shot? Am I going to be in it?” Jones told media Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. “To have it kind of all settle out and come together that I’ll be in it at Kansas is pretty cool.”
But it has been revealed that Busch tested a Late Model car in his recovery efforts last week and Jones is only scheduled for the Kansas race so far. Now there’s another question Jones can pester JGR about: is Kansas his only shot in the Cup series this year?
Jones told the Des Moines Register “it’ll be close” whether Busch will be ready to return by the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24.
“The plan is I’ll be on standby, at least (at Charlotte),” said Jones during a Goodyear tire test at Iowa Speedway. “I’m sure he’ll be raring to come back.”
If so, it doesn’t mean Jones will have a lack of racing ahead of him.
Since the beginning of the season at Daytona, the 18-year-old JGR driver has officially competed in 12 races between the Camping World Truck Series, where he’s earning points toward the driver’s championship, and the Xfinity Series, where he’s split time in JGR’s No. 20 and No. 54, the latter substituting for Busch.
“At this point in the season, it’s hard to remember where we’re running for a Truck championship,” said Jones, who is winless but third in the points, trailing leader Matt Crafton by six. “I’m up to I think 46 races now this year on my schedule – by far the busiest year that I’ve ever run. It’s never easy to balance that many races in between, but with having such great race cars it’s actually worked out pretty well. I think as a driver, it’s helped me being in the race car every weekend.”
The CWTS has only ran three races so far in 2015 and none since Martinsville Speedway on March 28. The series returns Friday night at Kansas Speedway for the Toyota Tundra 250.
Jones has a history of performing well in his first starts in NASCAR’s national series and quickly building off them.
His first race in the CWTS, in 2013 at Martinsville, saw the Michigan native start 19th for Kyle Busch Motorsports and finish ninth. Jones finished in the top 10 in all five of his races that year, winning the last at Phoenix International Raceway.
Jones’ Xfinity debut was in July 2014 at Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile track just like Kansas, where he started fourth and finished seventh. He found victory lane eight races later at Texas.
His goal for Saturday that’s believable under the circumstances is a top-15 performance.
“It’s a big step,” Jones said. “It’s not going to be an easy step for anybody, but I really believe we can go run top-15.”
If that pans out, but Jones doesn’t make another Cup start in 2015, the significance of the race isn’t lost on the driver who first turned heads by beating Busch in the 2012 Snowball Derby at 16 and has quickly put himself onthe sport’s biggest stage.
“If you would have asked me two years ago if I would be making a Cup start when I was 18 – no, I really don’t think I would have,” Jones said. “It’s an awesome opportunity that I never would have dreamed of to get to do at such a young age and definitely going to take it in stride and see what we can do.”