Conventional wisdom says Erik Jones earned his big break when Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing came together last summer to find the Michigan native a promotion into NASCAR’s Premier Series. But his big break really came four years ago when Jones, then 16, beat Kyle Busch in the Snowball Derby, a 300-lap late model stock car race in Pensacola, Fla.
Ever since, Busch, Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing have pulled out all of the stops to support Jones’ racing career — and Jones hasn’t let any of them down. He’s won seven Camping World Truck Series races and captured the 2015 championship. He also has six XFINITY Series wins, including four last season, and he was in line to battle for the 2016 title before a disorienting final restart at Homestead-Miami Speedway allowed teammate Daniel Suárez to take the crown.
Jones’ success at the early stages of his career — including his performance as a Cup substitute for Busch (one race) and Matt Kenseth (two races) during the 2015 season — is a good indicator that the 20-year-old will be a consistent winner, at some point, at NASCAR’s highest level.
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“This is every young driver’s dream, to be with a manufacturer like Toyota, an organization like Furniture Row with its successful technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, and an incredible sponsor like 5-hour Energy who is so well known for promoting its racing program,” Jones said in August. “They have given me a life-changing opportunity, and my mission is to make each of them proud.”
Jones takes over the new No. 77 starting at Daytona, a ride that marks the first expansion of FRR in its 11 years of existence as NASCAR’s Denver outpost. He’ll be a teammate to Martin Truex Jr. and will be paired with Chris Gayle, a JGR crew chief since 2013 who also will be in his first full season in NASCAR’s Premier Series.
“[Erik’s] talent and maturity are beyond his years and there’s not a better young driver to work with as I begin a new chapter in my career,” Gayle says.
Gayle and Jones worked together sporadically in 2015 during Jones’ part-time run in the XFINITY Series as he competed full time for the Truck Series championship. The pair earned one win, at Chicagoland Speedway.
Jones’ biggest challenges will be the same as for any rookie at NASCAR’s top level. He’ll need to refine his skills to give quality feedback about car handling while delivering results that show awareness to the specific situations at hand. His 2016 results show room for growth in the latter, as he netted just 23 lead-lap finishes in 33 XFINITY Series starts.
Comparatively, Suarez had 28 lead-lap finishes — and thus an average finish nearly four positions better. Jones’ accident that collected Ty Dillon at Kentucky Speedway last September serves as a good example of what to avoid.
In that case, Jones appeared to overdrive the situation with Dillon on the outside as the two scrambled for position after a late restart. Jones’ Toyota got loose, slid up the track and wrecked both.
“It’s a big jump. You’re going from a field where 10-to-12 cars can win to a field where 20 cars can win,” Jones says. “All of those guys are talented. It’s going to be tough, but I think I’m in the best situation to succeed.”
Jones will have the benefit of racing for a chartered entry after FRR purchased the charter of the now-defunct HScott Motorsports’ No. 46 in the offseason.