Race Weekend Central

Time to Give Erik Jones a Chance in the No. 54

One man’s misfortune usually leads to another man’s gain, and that’s no different now in the XFINITY Series.The curious case of Kyle Busch’s dual leg injuries has provided a predicament at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Stress and adversity has tackled Gibbs’ team, in the NASCAR Sprint Cup XFINITY series while Kyle Busch recovers from injuries sustained during the XFINITY season opener at Daytona. Busch will miss an extended period of time, possibly as much as six or seven months with a compound fracture in his right leg and a broken left foot.

While David Ragan has been tabbed as the driver for Busch’s No. 18 car in the Cup Series, three different drivers will pilot the No. 54 car in the XFINITY Series. Denny Hamlin will run five races, Boris Said will run seven events and Erik Jones is scheduled to race in two contests.

Hamlin’s stint will put him in a XFINITY Series car for more than one race for the first time since he ran 12 events in 2012. Meanwhile, Said was already in the process of securing a deal with Gibbs to run the events that Busch opted to skip. However, Jones is already scheduled to run at least 10 races in the No. 20 car for Gibbs, with sponsorship coming from GameStop, and will likely see five to eight more races behind the wheel of that car.

But when it comes to running just two extra events following his interim role at Atlanta, Jones is now getting a minor role in what should have translated into a major one.

The soon to be 20-year-old is running full-time for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series, and is considered a favorite for the championship. Earning four wins in his first 17 starts, Jones has shown that his high skill level will rapidly take him to the next level, but by overlooking him, JGR is taking away a chance for him to show just what he is made of.

Though he was rumored as one of the finalist to replace Busch in the Sprint Cup Series, Jones was no tabbed for the job, and rightfully so. But getting the opportunity to run more XFINITY Series races would provide him with the experience he needs to develop into a title contender for that division next season.

As a proven winner, he would have the chance to gain valuable experience in the No. 54 car. The team has contended for owner’s titles over the past few years with Busch, and Jones would be better off in the car than Hamlin. The 24-time Cup Series winner reached the climax of his career to date from 2009-2012, which were years that he ran four to seven XFINITY Series races. Instead, it’s a slap in the face to Jones, who would be eager to jump at the chance for extra seat time.

“It is obviously important to go out there and run races for Joe Gibbs Racing,” Jones said over the offseason. “They are a great organization, and I’m just getting my feet wet in a new car and taking the next step by moving up to the next series. It is somewhere that I want to end up. Getting my experience there now will hopefully translate into the future and me getting an opportunity to race full-time over there. It is always good to get your feet wet when you can, especially with the no testing policy that is going into place next year. It is going to make it tougher to learn more about tracks and cars when you haven’t been racing them. It is going to be a great opportunity for me.”

The team has not planned out a schedule for anything past Charlotte in late May, which could be a time where Jones can take over the seat, and ultiple reports have him running the No. 18 car for a few races to get some experience in the Cup Series. Running more XFINITY Series events would be extremely valuable for him in terms of experience.

As one of the most talented prospects that Gibbs has had in its stable, Jones is prepared to continue moving up through the ranks rapidly. Since he beat Busch in the Snowball Derby in 2012, his career has skyrocketed, and it will do so for years to come.

But in order for him to get set for a full-time stint in the XFINITY Series next year, which is his goal, he needs to obtain sponsorship. Running a few more races could make him a top priority for companies entering the sport, or those that are already in NASCAR. Monster Energy needs someone that can be the face of its company while Busch is out of the seat, and a talented, vibrant driver is certainly a great option.

Jones will need to continue to impress in the No. 20 car until his name is called for one of the most prestigious rides in NASCAR’s second-tier division. His articulate feedback and assertive driving style will be essential for what could be the most important season of his career.

“I never really feel any pressure about [racing with Gibbs],” Jones explained. “Everything moves so fast each time we get to the race track that I have never felt any pressure to perform. I have been with great teams all along the way, and teams that were capable of going out and winning every race. That just makes me feel more confident as a driver to go out and contend for wins no matter what.”

If Busch is out past Charlotte, Jones should be the name Gibbs calls on to take over the ride until he gets back. Currently, he has no sponsorship in the Truck Series other than Toyota. With an impressive season, GameStop and his other sponsors could make him the face of their company. So why shouldn’t he be given an opportunity to showcase his talent if Gibbs wants him to succeed?

News and Notes for Las Vegas:

  • Brennan Poole makes his XFINITY Series debut this weekend for HScott Motorsports with Chip Ganassi in the No. 42 car.
  • Jeffrey Earnhardt will be sitting out this weekend after running the first two events of the year for Viva Motorsports. Team owner Jamie Dick returns to the wheel for the first time since Phoenix at the end of last year.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) will sponsor Cale Conley’s No. 14 car for TriStar Motorsports at Las Vegas. This marks the first time in 2015 that his car will have a primary sponsor.
  • Axalta will be featured on Regan Smith’s No. 7 car. This marks the first time that the company will sponsor an XFINITY Series vehicle. Axalta serves as the primary sponsor for Jeff Gordon’s car for 10 events this year.
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. returns to the No. 88 car following Kevin Harvick’s victory at Atlanta.
  • 10 drivers will be attempting to compete in both events at Las Vegas, including Landon Cassill, Brian Scott, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, JJ Yeley, Denny Hamlin, Brendan Gaughan, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Aric Almirola.

About the author

Joseph started with Fronstretch in Aug. 2014 and worked his way up to become an editor in less than a year. A native of Whitestone, New York, Joseph writes for NASCAR Pole Position magazine as a weekly contributor, along with being a former intern at Newsday and the Times Beacon Record Newspapers, each on Long Island. With a focus on NASCAR, he runs our social media pages and writes the NASCAR Mailbox column, along with other features for the site.

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