Sports

Teen driver’s success has him on the NASCAR fast track; will be at Gateway on Saturday

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Erik Jones celebrates in victory lane last September in Las Vegas.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Erik Jones celebrates in victory lane last September in Las Vegas. provided/Jennifer Coleman

All you really need to known about Erik Jones is that he missed his high school graduation last year to drive in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race that weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Track officials even held his graduation ceremony at the race track, presenting Jones with his diploma before the Winstar World Casino 400.

One of the sports’s rising stars, the 18-year-old Jones has been behind a wheel since he was 7 and will be one of the drivers to watch at Saturday’s Drivin’ For Linemen 200 at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison.

“Racing was always the main goal for me and getting out there an doing that was what I wanted to do,” said the 18-year-old Jones, a Michigan native who drives the No. 4 Special Olympics World Games Toyota Tundra for Kyle Busch MotorSports. “I wasn’t ever wanting to play any other sports. Racing was the first thing I was really successful at and fueled my competitiveness and drive to compete.”

Jones has extra incentive at Gateway Motorsports Park on Saturday since he led the 2014 race here with seven laps to go as a 17-year-old last year only to be taken out of the race in a collision with German Quiroga that spun Jones into the infield wall,

“Unfortunately it didn’t end the way we wanted to, but we ran well and led laps and had a shot at the time,” Jones said. “I just didn’t win. It will be interesting to see how it goes.”

There is nothing subtle about truck racing. These drivers get after it and aren’t afraid to challenge each other at any time.

“The length of the races are so short it’s just like a sprint,” Jones said. “It gives you an opportunity to race hard for the whole race. They’re a little bit longer (in the other series); in the truck series you just kind of go for it the whole day.

“It seems like nobody ever backs off and everybody always puts on a good show.”

Jones climbed into the seat of his first quarter-midget car at age 7 and has been racing stock cars since he was 13, including the ASA Late Models Northern Series and later the Champion Racing Association All-Star Tour.

After a series of successes at racing’s grass-roots lower levels, Jones made major headlines in 2013 Only 17 at the time, he became the youngest driver to win a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race with a victory at Phoenix International Raceway.

Like many other drivers, Jones was discovered by one of the sport’s established stars. Kyle Busch was driving in the short-track Super Late Models Snowball Derby race in Pensacola, Fla., when he noticed Jones’ driving ability.

“We ended up beating him that year and that’s when he gave me an opportunity,” said Jones, who ran five truck races in 2013 and won one of them.

“Everyone in my family was always a race fan and kind of a gearhead,” Jones said. “You get going and you love it and you’re passionate about it. We have had a lot of success early on, so we want to try to keep up with it and stay grounded. I’m loving it, enjoying every minute of it.”

Jones also is a part-time driver for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and has a goal, like every other driver, of competing on a full-time basis in the Sprint Cup series.

He got his first Sprint Cup start last month at the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway when he replaced the injured Busch in the No. 18 M&M’s/Red Nose Day Toyota. Earlier this season he also got a chance to drive in the series when replacing injured Denny Hamlin after 22 laps at the Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I’d love to be able to go there and race full-time,” said Jones, who got valuable seat time and driving experience. “That’s definitely the big goal for us. I was fortunate enough to get a start there at Kansas and that was awesome to get a taste of it at that level. It drove me to compete more and be a better driver.”

Not that there weren’t a few “oh wow” moments along the way.

“It was pretty awesome,” Jones said. “There were some moments where I was getting to race around some really great guys (like) Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick. I really enjoyed every minute of it. It’s so cool to get your chance at that level.”

Jones had three top-10 finishes in the NASCAR Xfinity Series last season, in Chicago, Phoenix and Homestead. He also won three truck series to help Kyle Busch Motorsports win the Owner’s Championship in the series.

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at nsanders@bnd.com or 618-239-2454. Follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Drivin’ For Linemen 200

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Gateway Motorsports Park, Madison

TV: 7 p.m. Saturday, Fox Sports 1

On the web: NASCAR.com; GatewayMSP.com

Parking/Grandstand: Parking ($20 and $40) opens at 8 a.m., spectator gates open at 9 a.m..

Full Schedule: Practice: 9:30 a.m.-noon; Pole qualifying: 4:45-5:45 p.m.; Driver Introductions: 7 p.m.; Race: 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $36-59, available at the track box office, by calling 618-215-8888, ext. 101 or visit GatewayMSP.com/tickets

Current driver standings: 1. Matt Crafton (305 points); 2. Tyler Reddick (280); 3. Erik Jones (273); 4. Johnny Sauter (257); 5. John Wes Townley (227).

Last race: June 5 Winstar World Casino 400 at Texas Motor Speedway, winner was Matt Crafton

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