Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Erik Jones Excelling in Full-Time XFINITY Ride

Erik Jones burst onto the NASCAR radar in 2012 when he bested Kyle Busch in the Snowball Derby. After the performance Busch saw from the youngster, he knew the talent was one that he couldn’t let just sit without being utilized to its fullest.

Enter Kyle Busch Motorsports. Busch brought Jones, who wasn’t yet old enough to race at every track on the Camping World Truck Series schedule, in for five races, beginning at Martinsville Speedway. After starting 19th, Jones excelled, bringing home a ninth-place finish at a track that’s been known to chew up inexperienced drivers and spit them out in a wad of sheet metal.

In four more starts that year, ninth would prove to be his worst finish, first at Rockingham and then matching it at Iowa in the Fall. In the Spring Iowa race, Jones followed Timothy Peters to a runner-up result before closing out his 2013 season with a victory at Phoenix International Raceway, leading 84 laps along the way.

Once again in 2014, Jones still wasn’t old enough to race the full schedule (he turned 18 that May), but KBM once again fielded him for 11 races in a season where he visited Victory Lane three times before putting him behind the wheel of the No. 4 Toyota full-time for the 2015 season.

The rookie gained quick success, despite not having starts at many of the larger tracks on the schedule His 2015 championship season saw Jones win three races and score 20 top-10 finishes in 23 starts, before also hoisting the Rookie of the Year trophy. And he did that alongside making 23 XFINITY starts, scoring two wins and 17 top 10s along the way.

Fast forward to this year, and Jones has now moved full-time to the XFINITY Series, piloting the No. 20 for Joe Gibbs Racing. Just seven races in, he’s now the first series regular to notch a victory and punch his card for the Chase. Jones took a few minutes this week to talk to Frontstretch about his young career and his move to full-time XFINITY competition.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch.com: You moved up through what many would call the typical racing ranks before coming to NASCAR, but the way you got started is an interesting story. Can you share that with us?

Erik Jones: The way I moved up was pretty traditional or pretty normal, but I got started when I was seven years old. It’s something my mom got me into; she’d read in a magazine about quarter-midget racing for kids. [She] took us out, got a racecar and went to the race track and started racing. First generation driver, and something that me and my dad took on after that, took it to another level and kept pursuing it at that point.

It’s unique that my mom got me involved in it. Usually you think of it as a father and son thing, but my mom was the one that started it all.

Lunkenheimer: Did you ever believe that when you beat Kyle Busch in the 2012 Snowball Derby that your NASCAR career would blossom so quickly?

Jones: Not that quickly. I didn’t really know what the future held at that point. Obviously I had a great opportunity in front of me after that race with KBM and the five race schedule that I did with them in 2013. But I didn’t really know what the future held from that point on. Really even last year, in doing what I did with all the races we ran, I didn’t think I’d end up getting more opportunities the way I have over the past two years and be in the position I am now with where I was in 2013, just three years ago.

Lunkenheimer: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Kyle Busch?

Jones: Obviously, a lot is centered around driving and the things he’s learned through the years. But one of the big things I’ve learned from him is the adaptability that he shows every weekend, hopping between the XFINITY and Cup cars, and even a truck at times. Trying to learn the differences between those and how he approached and handled those weekends is definitely something I’ve taken from him and learned.

Lunkenheimer: What were your expectations when you joined Kyle Busch Motorsports full-time for the 2015 season?

Jones: I think our full-time expectations were to chase the championship, and as the year went on, we knew we could do it. We just had to go out and execute. I think that was our goal all along, and I’m pretty fortunate to be able to do that. The two years prior to my full-time season were definitely ways to get some experience and get myself put in the best position to be in to go out and win the championship like we did.

Lunkenheimer: What was it like to beat Matt Crafton, who had just won back-to-back championships, for the title last year?

Jones: It was pretty special. I think we went into the year knowing that one our biggest competitors was going to be the 88 (Crafton) and that we were most likely going to have to beat him to win the championship. As the weeks started to get closer to Homestead and the days were going by and we were seeing we were the point leader, and going into Homestead, knowing we had a really good shot to do it was nerve-wracking. But it was exciting at the same time. We were all getting pumped up, and then to be able to get that checkered flag at Homestead and celebrate with everybody was a pretty special moment.

I had been at KBM at that point for three years and had a really close relationship with everyone on the No. 4 team and everyone on the shop floor. To say thank you and bring home a driver’s championship to them, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to do it.

(Photo: Beth Lunkenheimer)
Erik Jones ran triple duty last November when he was tapped to pilot Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Cup car after being suspended for two races. (Photo: Beth Lunkenheimer)

Lunkenheimer: Late last year, you became the youngest driver to complete the triple when you ran all three races at Texas Motor Speedway. What was that like for you?

Jones: It was a whirlwind. I think back to that weekend, and if I had to pick a place to do the triple, I think Texas would be the one. Truly going into that weekend, I felt like I had the opportunity to go and compete for the win in all three races. We did in the Trucks and the XFINITY race, and in the Cup race, we had a solid day going and cut a tire down late.

Overall, it was just a weekend where I think I learned a lot through what it was like to go between three teams, three different crew chiefs, three different agendas and three different mentalities. It was very interesting to have to balance all of that and have to balance what your expectations are for each and how you’re going to go about them. It was a lot of work; it was tiring. I was worn out mentally by the end of the weekend. It definitely made me want to do it again. It was exciting, it was fun.

Lunkenheimer: You said if you had to do triple duty, the place you would choose is Texas. Why is that?

Jones: For me, Texas has always been a really good track for me, somewhere I’ve felt super comfortable, no matter what. We’ve been able to have some success there – we won the XFINITY race there last year, I won a Truck race there are the end of last year. It’s just a place that I’ve always been comfortable at; one of my favorite tracks on the schedule by far.

Lunkenheimer: Was there any doubt in your mind about moving to full-time XFINITY competition?

Jones: No, I wouldn’t say so. I think this last year helped up my confidence about going full-time XFINITY racing this year. We ran 23 races last year, so at the end of last season I felt comfortable we could go out and contend for a championship. It was just a matter of seeing the different obstacles that come along with running full time. It’s a different mentality for sure, but I definitely felt good about it and felt that we would be where we needed to be when the season started.

Lunkenheimer: How has your transition to XFINITY treated you so far? The numbers look pretty darn good.

Jones: It’s treated us well so far. It’s been fun and it’s been a pretty cool couple of weeks. The whole first part of the season has run really well. We’ve had our mishaps and mistakes in the pits with some penalties that have hindered us. But it’s been interesting to learn with a first year crew chief and seeing him move into that role. I’ve known Chris (Gabehart) for a long time, and seeing him get his first win as a crew chief last week was really, really cool experience for me. That’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to see a crewc hief get their first win, and that was pretty neat.

I’m just excited to be with the group I’m with; we’re really young. Like I said, my crew chief is a first year crew chief, engineer’s first year, and a lot of our mechanics are moving into new roles this year. It’s been a fun year, it’s been a learning year, and we’re getting better every week.

Lunkenheimer: Before Bristol, you had four top-3 finishes. What was it like coming so close but not being able to make that move to take the win?

Jones: It was frustrating, and I think that was multiplied by the fact that we were losing to the 18 (Kyle Busch), a team that’s under the same roof as us. That’s always frustrating when you’ve got the access to the information and know what they’re running and you can’t beat them. There were definitely some things where we knew we made some mistakes on where we had run second or third to Kyle. To beat the 18, I knew at some point I felt like we could do it, but we needed to have a really, really good day and have everything go our way.

That’s what we had at Bristol. We had a second-place car to Kyle, maybe a third-place car to both the Kyles (Busch, Larson), but at the end of the day, it came down to it, and it feels pretty good to be the guy that was able to beat the 18 in the XFINITY Series.

(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)
Erik Jones bested Kyle Larson (pictured) and Kyle Busch to become the first XFINITY regular to win this season last weekend at Bristol. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Lunkenheimer: Take me through those final laps on Saturday and what was going through your mind as you raced for the win.

Jones: It’s funny, it’s hard to even replay the last few laps in my head because they were so frantic and so out of the blue. I was making a plan in my head before the restart – I think most drivers try to come up with the way they want a restart to play out – and for me, that was pretty close to how I wanted it to play out.

We just had a really good restart; me and the 42 (Kyle Larson) both rolled, and Kyle (Busch) didn’t get going, and I was able to get to the bottom. Kyle (Larson) left the top open in (turns) 3 and 4, and I had been running up there for the last 50 laps. I went up there, got a really good run off and was able to clear him. I knew once we cleared him we were in a really good position, seeing as how once you got out front, as long as there wasn’t any traffic, you were able to stay out there.

It was a pretty good feeling to be coming through 3 and 4, seeing the checkered flag, and looking back in the mirror to see the 18 and the 42.

Lunkenheimer: I know you may be biased since you won your heat and the main at Bristol, but what are your thoughts on the heat race setup for race weekends?

Jones: I would say I’m a bit biased at this point, but I tried to look back in my head and really think about it. I think the biggest thing for me was the shorter main. It’s something I really enjoyed, and I think the fans really enjoyed as well. That 200 lap sprint is the reason so many people love the Truck Series, because the races are so short and everyone is running so hard for the majority of the race, and the heat races brought that to the XFINITY Series as well.

I enjoyed the heat race format from the perspective that it gave us as a team the chance to run 50 laps and come in and make adjustments for the main. I thought that was pretty fun.

Lunkenheimer: Does your approach to the season change now that you’re the first XFINITY regular to lock yourself into the Chase?

Jones: I think we’re definitely in a really good spot right now being locked into the Chase. It’s something I wasn’t too concerned about; I knew we could point our way in if we really had a good, consistent season. But obviously, you want to win and be locked in. We’re in a really good spot. I don’t think we’re going to race differently; we’re going to race for the wins every week. We want to go win races, but it definitely opens up some opportunities to take some more risks where we wouldn’t feel as comfortable doing it had we not been locked in.

But really if look back at the season, we’ve taken those risks already, even though we weren’t locked into the Chase. At Fontana with the fuel gamble, we ran out of fuel late, so we’ve been putting ourselves in those positions to try to win races, but it definitely makes you feel a little more comfortable taking those chances now that you’re locked in.

Lunkenheimer: Time for a couple fun ones for you. What’s fun for you away from the track?

Jones: Obviously racing is a big part of my life, but I like to get out and golf as much as I can. That and being able to go and hang out with friends. We’ve got a go-kart track about 20 minutes from my house in Charlotte, and that’s been taking up a lot of my time lately. It’s just fun to work on the racecars and get away from the track and hang out, just relaxing away from the hustle of the NASCAR world.

Lunkenheimer: If we raided your music collection, what would we find?

Jones: A lot of things. It’s funny to play through my music and hear what comes on. I listen to pretty much everything from country to classic rock, rap, anything really that comes on my playlist. Right now, I’ve been listening to a lot of Drake. I always have a lot of classic rock going too, from Led Zepplin to Guns N Roses, the Eagles, anything. There’s a whole lot of whiplash going on there.

Lunkenheimer: What’s the craziest thing a fan has ever asked you to sign?

Jones: That’s a tough one. It’s not really that crazy, but I always think it’s weird when people ask you to sign money. One time I actually did sign a $100 bill, and I thought that was pretty weird. I can’t imagine anyone would just lay out a $100 bill for someone to sign.

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