The Erik Jones-Chris Gabehart relationship didn’t start with a January 8 press release from Joe Gibbs Racing.
Although paired together for Jones’ rookie Xfinity Series season, the two, in fact, go way back. To October 2012.
Jones was given what turned out to be the start of his big break. A mutual friend suggested to Gabehart, who was working with Kyle Busch at the time, to let Jones shake down Busch’s Late Model for the All American 400 at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee. Busch would need an extra hand since he was going to be traveling from Talladega Superspeedway.
“Of course Kyle loves racing Late Models and wants to win all the big ones, and that’s one he hadn’t won yet,” Gabehart recalled Wednesday during a teleconference ahead of the Xfinity Series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “But we had to be in Talladega. We were knocked out of the Chase, so we needed somebody to practice the car, and we had actually went through a few different names, names I think you all would probably know, and finally got to Erik as one who could do it and be willing to do it.”
Jones was 16 years old and had driven in very few Late Model races. He had also never been to Nashville before. Combine all that with getting behind the wheel of one of Busch’s racecars and Gabehart acknowledges the pressure that was put on Jones. But Gabehart easily remembers how fast Jones was and how well he dialed the car in.
“Just handled himself great,” Gabehart said. “Truthfully, that weekend while he didn’t get to race, was really the building block for the Snowball Derby. It allowed Erik and Kyle to get to know each other.”
Said Jones: “That was a cool experience for me. I remember going down there, and they gave me per diem, and I was like, ‘Man, this is pretty cool. I feel like I’m getting paid to drive a racecar.’ So that was a pretty neat experience and definitely one that I think played into getting my opportunity over at KBM.”
That’s where the Snowball Derby, run in December, comes in. Jones, in family-owned equipment, beat Busch in the most prestigious Late Model race in the country. Between that and the Nashville test, it appeared to be the tipping point for Busch in giving Jones a shot in NASCAR equipment.
“Erik did such a good job for us (in Nashville) that when we got to the Snowball Derby and Erik put up such a battle, David kind of beating Goliath there with 20 to go in a shootout, the foundation was already laid, and at that point Kyle was like, wow, this kid has got something,” Gabehart said.
Jones quickly rose through the Camping World Truck Series, winning four times in the 17 races he ran between 2013-14. In 2015, running full-time, Jones won three more times and took home the championship.
His move into the Xfinity Series resulted in a reunion with Gabehart, who was moved from a race engineer role in the Sprint Cup Series, to overseeing the No. 20 team. Jones and Gabehart have earned eight poles, led 624 laps, and won four races.
Saturday, they will be one of four teams competing for the championship at Homestead. Something that seems amazing to Gabehart when looking at how the two first met and how far Jones has come.
“It was really neat to be a part of all of that,” Gabehart said of 2012. “I think without any one of those little things going the way they did, there’s a good chance Erik Jones wouldn’t be where he is today, and that’s pretty special to be a part of.”