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Jones catching on quickly in Nationwide Series

August 21st, 2014 10:48 pm by Jeff Birchfield

Jones catching on quickly in Nationwide Series

Erik Jones is making the most of his grand opportunity.

The 18-year-old from Michigan is competing in Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday after making NASCAR history last season.

Last November, Jones became the youngest winner in the history of the Camping World Truck Series at age 17. It came in a No. 51 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports, which the company’s namesake has served as a mentor to the teenage driver.

“Last year, I got to drive five races for him and this year I’m up to 12, splitting the schedule with Kyle,” said Jones, who added a second career win at Iowa earlier this season. “It’s been a great experience, learning from Kyle. I try to talk to Kyle before every race, especially when I go to a new track. Having a guy who knows what to do there, that’s been a big help to me. He’s raced trucks for the last 8-9 years, so he really knows what they need at these places.”

Jones will now try his hand in the Nationwide Series, piloting a No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Food City 300. It is his second series start after a seventh-place run at Chicagoland.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to run some Nationwide races this year with Joe Gibbs Racing,”  Jones said. “Since I wasn’t able to run a full season this year, adding to my Truck Series schedule was something I’ve been working hard on. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be partnering with a team like JGR and have the chance to get behind the wheel of the No. 20 Camry. They are always a threat in the Nationwide Series. I have high expectations.”

That includes the high banks of Bristol where the Gibbs organization swept races last August. Busch won both the Truck Series and Nationwide races, while Matt Kenseth won the IRWIN Tools Night Race for the Sprint Cup Series. 

Jones added that everyone in the organization gets stoked when they talk about Bristol.

“It’s a really cool track, one that everyone looks forward to,” he said. “It’s really what NASCAR is all about, that short-track feel with the high banking and just getting after it. Everybody wishes we could race there every week.”

Jones’ path to Bristol began by racing quarter-midgets as a young boy. He began racing stock cars at age 13 and became the youngest winner ever of the Oktoberfest race at Lacrosse, Wisconsin, in the ASA Series which is famous for producing legendary drivers like Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Alan Kulwicki.

He added to a stellar background in late model stock cars with two wins in the Snowball Derby in Florida and the Winchester 400 which counts Wallace, Martin and Busch among its former winners. With Winchester a high-banked track often compared to Bristol, it’s no wonder Jones has been looking so forward to this week.

“The short-track stuff is what I’ve run so it feels more natural to me,” he said. “I really enjoy being able to go out and have a lot more control over your car. That close side-by-side racing is more fun too.”

Still, life isn’t all a bowl of cherries for Jones or any young driver. While he scored top-10 finishes in all five Truck Series races he entered last year, he started out this season with runs of 18th, 11th and 23rd. He was leading at Gateway when taken out by German Quiroga. Jones said it’s just part of it and a driver has to quickly move on.

“It’s pretty tough not to get discouraged after a bad day,” he said. “But race car drivers have to have a short memory. You have to move on as soon as you can to the next week. At the same time, you want to go back and fix it and wish you would have done better. But, you don’t want to dwell on it too much. You just have to figure out what you did wrong and make it right for the next weekend.”

His racing hero growing up was four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.  Jones believes the biggest thing a young driver has to learn is the adjustments needed on the car. Once he does, Jones feels a driver has a lot of the battle won.

“The biggest thing I think is not being able to properly tell your crew chief what the car needs,” he said. “If you can’t report back to what your car is doing, they can’t fix it. As long as you can tell them what the car is doing, they can get that thing right and get it fast, and everything else will fall into place.”

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