NASCAR’s Erik Jones driven to exceed high expectations – USA TODAY
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. âÂ Despite the attaboy pats on the back, proud words from his father and congratulatory text messages lighting up his phone, 19-year-old Erik Jones was bummed.
As the substitute driver for Joe Gibbs Racingâs No. 20 car while Matt Kenseth serves a two-race suspension, Jones finished 12th Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway in just his second Sprint Cup Series start. And completing that 500-mile race âÂ the longest of his life âÂ capped a triple-duty weekend which also saw him extend his Camping World Truck Series championship lead with a win.
Normally, a 12th-place finish under those circumstances and in spite of a flat tire late in the race would be reason for a young driver to celebrate.
âWe should have finished seventh or eighth, so I was bummed,â he said. âItâs hard for me to take that if things would have been right, this is what should have happened. Thatâs how Iâve always been.â
No one, it seems, has more expectations for Jones than Jones himself. Not JGR, who plans to promote him to a full-time Xfinity Series schedule next season. Not Toyota, which is counting him among the drivers who will become the manufacturerâs future. Not Kyle Busch, who discovered Jones after getting beat by him in the prestigious Snowball Derby Late Model race.
Just below the surface of a smiling, floppy-haired teenager is a perfectionist racer who might get carried away with competitiveness at times but makes no apologies for it.
âAt the end of a day, I canât think of a single person iÂ the world that wants to finish second at something,â he said.
Jones certainly doesnât, and he made that clear over lunch with USA TODAY Sports this week in the midst of the busiest stretch of racing heâs ever had. He ran three races at Texas and has three more on the schedule this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway âÂ all while trying to wrap up the Truck Series title in his first full season (he currently has a 17-point lead over defending champion Matt Crafton).
But the Michigan native appeared relaxed despite the stressful schedule, chatting casually between bites of burnt-end mac and cheese at an upscale barbecue restaurant a few miles from the JGR shop.
Jones said he knows he canât win every race but sees no reason he shouldnât contend in every race âÂ even with a relative lack of experience.
âWhy canât we?â he said. âThatâs the way I look at it: Why not me?â
That approach is how Jones, driving for his familyâs Late Model team, got noticed by the NASCAR world âÂ specifically Busch âÂ in 2012. Jones first caught Buschâs eye when the youngster blew by during a race at Watermelon Capital Speedway in Georgia âÂ âI was like, holy (crap)!â Busch said). His victory over Busch in the Snowball Derby later that year was all the JGR driver needed to see.
Shortly after the Derby, Busch called Toyota executive Ed Laukes and left an enthusiastic voicemail emphasizing the need to get Jones on the manufacturerâs roster.
âIt was about three minutes of F-bombs from him going, âI canât believe this kid! Weâd better figure out a home for him immediately!ââ Laukes told USA TODAY Sports. âHe was going crazy. I called him back and said, âI never heard you so excited about a young driver.â He said, âThe kid is great. Heâs going to be a champion.ââ
Busch grinned at Laukesâ version of the story and said it was only a slight exaggeration. Though he races against young drivers in Late Model races all over the country, Busch was particularly impressed by Jones due to his success in a family-owned car that didnât have the resources of top Late Model teams.
âItâs always really hard to see kids succeed in those situations,â Busch told USA TODAY Sports. âThat to me was really cool to see the family operation was doing really well.â
In other words, Jones was winning in spite of his equipment âÂ not because of it. And his parents had no experience in racing other than watching it on TV. Though a sign hangs in his fatherâs barn that says âDave Jones, Racing Championâ thatâs only because it was given to him as a gift when he was young.
But it wasnât Dave who first got his son into a car. Erik only started racing after his mother, Carol, read an article about Quarter Midget racing (where many kids get their start) during a plane flight. They put Erik in a Quarter Midget at age 6, and he immediately took a liking to it.
He tried other sports, like baseball, football, basketball, wrestling and track âÂ but racing was the one that stuck. As Jones came through the ranks, he studied how to improve by watching hours of racing videos on YouTube.
But his success in Late Models guaranteed nothing, even after winning the Snowball Derby. At 16, Jones was starting to think about college âÂ where would he go? what would he major in? âÂ when the phone rang. And so it came to be that just 20 days after the Derby win, Erik and Dave were in North Carolina to meet with Kyle Busch Motorsports about a partial Truck Series schedule.
âAll the sudden it was like, âHey, youâve got a shot to be a race car driver,ââ Jones said. âLike, for real.â
When Erik and Dave watched races together at home in tiny Byron, Mich. (Population: 600), Dave always wanted his son to stay tuned to the post-race show.
âIâd be ready to watch something else and heâd say, âWait, you gotta watch the interviews,Â thatâs the best part!ââ Erik said.
Through those years of TV viewing, Jones made up his mind: If he ever made it as a driver âÂ no, when he made it âÂ he wanted to be known as a nice guy instead of a villain. But he also didnât want to be vanilla.
âI never wanted to come across as the guy who just rattles off a bunch of sponsors,â Jones said. âI could never stand that when I was younger and watching races on TV. I donât want to be that guy;Â I want people to hear what I really thought.
âBut at the same time, I know thereâs a balance. I donât think Iâve found the balance yet.â
The balance is particularly tough for Jones, who âÂ like his mentor, Busch âÂ can take a loss pretty hard. As a longtime Jeff Gordon fan, Jones admired how the four-time champion was able to show his emotion while still conducting himself with class âÂ something Jones would like to emulate, he said.
At the same time, it can be a challenge. After losing a heartbreaking photo finish to Kasey Kahne during a Truck Series race at Charlotte in May, Jones briefly walked off before composing himself and doing a TV interview.
âI was upset. Thereâs no other way to put it,â he said. âThe biggest thing for me is really knowing how hard those (crew) guys work. To feel like I gave it away at the end of the race, thatâs what makes me the most upset or the most frustrated.â
Busch, obviously, can relate. Heâs been criticized over the course of his career for storming off without comment at times.
âYou see him just like me after races when you get upset because when you lose in a close finish, thatâs just our mentality,â Busch said. âI totally understand and respect that. Itâs frustrating when youâre the best guy all day and all the sudden at the end of the race, you get beat. That hurts. So I sympathize with that. A lot of people donât like that, but theyâre not under the scrutiny and pressure that we are, either.â
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