Johnson City Press: One Million Reasons to Cheer: Jones racing for a million dollar donation
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One Million Reasons to Cheer: Jones racing for a million dollar donation

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 4, 2019 at 5:53 PM

With an honorary pit crew from Niswonger Children’s Hospital and a large donation on the line, there are a million reasons to cheer for Erik Jones to win this Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

If the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota wins Sunday’s NASCAR race, his sponsor Craftsman will donate $1 million to Children’s Miracle Network through the Ace Hardware Foundation.

The driver was at Niswonger Children’s Hospital on Thursday, where representatives of his sponsors and the hospital joined four honorary crew members — Patiance Gardner, Gavin Brewer, Colt Norman and Maddie Swedberg — who are patients at the hospital, to unveil a special paint scheme for the “Racing for a Miracle” program.

“It’s the neatest thing I’ve got to do to give back to this point in my career,” said Jones, a third-year driver in the Monster Energy Cup Series. “If you look at what Craftsman has done for the Children’s Miracle Network, to get to be a part of it ... they’re already donating a lot of money, but hopefully we can win and get it for them.”

The children at Niswonger worked with Richard Rawlings, star of television’s “Fast N’ Loud” and owner of the Gas Monkey Garage, to help design the car on Sunday. The honorary crew will get a behind-the-scenes VIP experience on Sunday and a chance to watch Jones try to win the race.

“This has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me,” Rawlings said in a statement. “I’ve worked on cars and created brands, but never like this. Getting the opportunity to design a car with these four kids was truly inspirational. I hope when Erik drives this car Sunday, he feels the passion and heart that went into this design.”

Jones, winner of last July’s Cup race in Daytona, visited with the kids Thursday morning and was shown the unique kite designs on the car. The inspiration came from the stained glass kites that hang throughout the hospital as signs of hope and healing for the patients.

“For me to meet these kids, it’s really special,” Jones said. “They’ve had a rough time along the way and it’s special to give them something to smile about and be excited about. We can’t wait to get them out to the track this weekend. We’re blessed to get to do something that’s fun every weekend. To share it with others, it’s what it’s all about. You don’t see very often an opportunity to give $1 million to charity.”

NISWONGER AND NASCAR

As part of Thursday’s ceremonies, Jones and his sponsors presented the Ace Hardware Foundation with a $100,000 donation check from Craftsman.

In turn, the foundation presented a $25,000 check to Niswonger Children’s Hospital, which serves more than 200,000 children from 29 counties in the Mountain Empire region, including Northeast Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Southwest Virginia and Southeast Kentucky.

“To be a part of this is overwhelming,” said Lisa Carter, CEO of Niswonger Children’s Hospital. “As I was standing up there and looking at the kids, at what heroes they are, and you see the great organizations like Ace Hardware and Stanley supporting these kids. We have a million reasons to cheer for Erik and will be pulling for the No. 20 car this weekend.”

It isn’t the first time that Niswonger has worked with a NASCAR charity.

In the past, the hospital has teamed with retired driver Kyle Petty and the Victory Junction Gang camp, and a number of other drivers have paid visits to the children.

“NASCAR gives back a lot. With Bristol Motor Speedway, we do so much with Speedway Children’s Charities throughout the community,” Carter said. “These guys are awesome. They really do give back to the communities they race in.”

LEGITIMATE CHANCE TO WIN

Jones, 22, has a good track record at Bristol, finishing second to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch at the 2017 Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race and winning two Xfinity Series races on the high-banked short track. He finished fifth in the Cup Series last visit to BMS in August.

“Bristol is my favorite track. They picked a good track for this to be on the car,” Jones said. “I can’t wait to get this good-looking paint scheme on the track. I saw it in the shop and then getting to unveil it, that’s pretty cool.”

He is part of a Joe Gibbs Racing organization that has won four of seven Cup Series races this season. His toughest competition will likely come from within as teammate Kyle Busch has seven Cup wins, most among active drivers at Bristol.

Jones, who ranks 16th in the current NASCAR point standings, knows it will take a flawless effort to beat Busch and the other 39 drivers to secure the million dollar donation.

“You’ve got to be on your game and have a perfect race,” Jones said. “With Kyle, you have to have a perfect race every weekend to have a shot against him. At the Cup level, you have the best drivers, the best teams. The caliber of drivers and teams makes it tough and makes it challenging.”

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