Column By: JORDAN BIANCHI / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – It was wild, often chaotic and featured no shortage of drama. The kind of race that either seemingly rewards the patience of a veteran, or where the spotlight shines on an unlikely winner whose turn comes via favorable circumstances brought about by half the 40-car field not seeing the finish due to being involved in one of the multitude of accidents.
Erik Jones is not a veteran of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, nor should his first career Cup win Saturday night in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway be considered much of a surprise. Instead, the triumph was the breakout moment for the 22-year-old where he outdueled reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr. by completing a last-lap pass.
“How ‘bout that race, boys and girls?” Jones said.
Amidst a time when a throng of young drivers have garnered attention for their exploits on the track and what their personalities may do for NASCAR beyond the confines of the speedway, Jones has often found himself falling behind Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and others when the discussion centers around who will carry NASCAR forward.
But while Jones may not always garner the majority of the headlines, his résumé speaks of someone more than capable of picking up the slack created by the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart. It is something he’s proven at every level on his way to Cup and now doing so at stock car racing’s highest rung.
As a 16-year-old, Jones beat Kyle Busch to win the prestigious Snowball Derby late model race. That victory caught Busch’s attention and he signed Jones to drive for his own late model team. And Busch wasn’t the only one impressed by Jones’ talent. Also enamored was Toyota, which made Jones one of the first prospects of its driver developmental program, a specifically designed feeder system where the manufacturer cultivates young talents by gradually advancing them through each step of the development process that includes all three NASCAR touring series, its regional divisions, ARCA and midget cars.
Aligned with Toyota and with Busch acting as big brother/mentor, Jones quickly ascended from relative obscurity to a driver many within the garage believe will be an eventual Monster Energy Series champion.
“I think Erik is fast,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. “That’s one thing about him. I think wherever he goes, he’s not afraid to push it.”
Jones’ climb up the NASCAR’s development ladder included him becoming the then-youngest winner in NASCAR Camping World Truck Series history when at 17 years, five months and eight days he won at ISM Raceway in November, 2013. Two years later, he captured the series championship in the first season he was eligible to run every race. Promoted to the NASCAR Xfinity Series full-time in 2016, Jones nearly won the championship as a rookie. The following year saw Jones win Monster Energy Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors.
“I think a year in the Cup Series you grow a lot,” Jones said. “You learn so much. I never learned as much in any other series in any other year racing as I did last year, and things that I learned last year are things that I’ll take with me probably for the rest of my career in NASCAR.
“It’s definitely been a journey.”
A successful rookie season with Furniture Row Racing, and the promise of what was to come, prompted Gibbs to move Jones over to his four-car team to replace former series champion Matt Kenseth in the No. 20. Joining Joe Gibbs Racing brought heightened expectations and opened up Gibbs to criticism if the move backfired, though any concerns have been extinguished with Jones turning in a fine second season in Cup — even before winning Saturday night.
“You feel the pressure, for sure, coming into the year taking over and working with almost the same group that was with Matt last year,” Jones said. “You feel that, and you want to go out and perform and run really well.
The Daytona win came in Jones’ 57th career start, fewer than it took Larson (99) and Blaney (68). Meanwhile, Elliott is still searching for his first win in his 96th start Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.
“All of these young guys, myself, Chase, Ryan, Daniel (Suarez), are going to all win races,” Jones said. “It just takes time to learn and grow. We’re racing guys that are 10-, 15-year veterans of the sport, and they’re pretty good at it. It takes time to catch up, but I feel like we’ve all done a pretty good job, and we’re getting closer every week.”
As for Jones, it is evident it won’t take him nearly as long to get his second win even if his first win did occur in relatively short order. Now a virtually lock to qualify for the Playoffs, he doesn’t have to concern himself with life on the postseason bubble.
“It’s great to get our first win knocked out,” Jones said. “I hope and I’m sure we’re going to have opportunities to win some of these next nine [races] before the playoffs, and hopefully have a nice little championship run here coming up.
“I definitely feel like this race, this win has lifted a lot of weight off my shoulders, for sure.”