Joe Gibbs Racing development driver makes unexpected Sprint Cup debut at Bristol.
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Erik Jones thought his biggest decision on Sunday afternoon would be when to take a nap during the rain-delayed Sprint Cup race.
Then his phone buzzed with a text from the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team. Veteran Denny Hamlin was suffering from neck spasms at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Would Jones be able to step in?
“Right then I started packing a bag,” Jones said. “I called my dad and said, 'Hey, I think I might be getting to run a Cup race tonight.' He was like, 'Okay, cool keep me updated.'
"Took off right from there and flew here and helicoptered in and got in and drove."
The Food City 500 in Support of Steve Byrnes started nearly 90 minutes after it was initially scheduled to roll. After just nine minutes, the race was halted by rain for almost four hours. That offered Jones enough time to travel from just north of Charlotte, N.C. to Bristol, Tenn.
Before the race returned to green, the radioed Jones was on the ground and making his way into the track. Although Hamlin was running fifth at the time of the caution, due to the driver change, when the race resumed at Lap 35, Jones was forced to restart 37th and work his way forward.
Jones had the unenviable task of making his Sprint Cup debut in a car that not only had he never taken a lap in – the 18-year-old had never driven a car from NASCAR’s top tour.
"I didn't get any time to get fitted in the car properly, but fortunately me and Denny are pretty much the same size,” Jones said. “Overall, we didn't have to change too much. The steering wheel was a little too close and just a different steering wheel than what I would normally run. That made it just tough to physically turn the wheel.
“It wasn't a huge deal, actually 500 laps went by pretty fast. Just a huge learning experience overall and pretty pumped that I got the opportunity."
Certainly, some see Jones as an overnight success. While he currently competes in truck full-time for Kyle Busch Motorsports, he was victorious in some of stock cars most prestigious events before turning his sights to NASCAR.
At 17, he won his first truck race in just his fifth start. Last season, he added three truck trophies to his tally.
When Busch was injured at Daytona in the XFINITY Series race, his protégé stepped up and picked up the slack. Jones first of three consecutive poles came in his eight NXS start. He earned his first NXS win the following week at Texas Motor Speedway and finished fourth from the pole on Saturday night in his second Bristol appearance.
Baptism by fire
Jones was put at ease by Busch’s former crew chief Dave Rogers, who now oversees the No. 11 Fed Ex team. Rogers was the perfect mentor for Jones Sprint Cup debut.
Keep digging, keep learning. All I expect is for you to be smiling when you take that helmet off.
"You're doing a remarkable job," Rogers radioed. "I can't think of a worse situation to put you in. I feel bad about it. Keep digging, keep learning. All I expect is for you to be smiling when you take that helmet off."
After 200 laps, Jones had worked his way into the top 30. He relayed to his team that the placement of the steering wheel was awkward but there wasn’t an opportunity to fix the placement. But Rogers used the exercise with the rookie to teach him the nuances of Cup racing.
At NASCAR’s top level, the action happens at warp speed – even for a talent such as Jones. Rogers offered Jones certain tips on the track as well as instruction for entering and exiting pits. It was also Jones' first experience with the adjustable track bar.
It took me a good half to three-quarters of the race to really get a feel for it and I'm still not there.
“Honestly they drive so much different than the Xfinity cars, especially with this rules package that they actually drive better,” Jones said. “The extra speed is such an adjustment from lift points to throttle pick up points and everything else. You have to really adjust yourself.
“It took me a good half to three-quarters of the race to really get a feel for it and I'm still not there. I'm still trying to figure out timing and passing cars and not getting hung up behind the car because I picked up throttle too soon.”
While Jones held his own – even while competing off of the lead lap – his progress stalled when he ran into Ricky Stenhouse Jr. during a multi-car wreck on Lap 273. Rogers warned Jones that NASCAR wanted him to pit to fix the damage to the No. 11 Toyota.
“We got caught up in the middle of three and four there in the back of the 17 and that kind of hurt us getting stuck in the pits,” Jones said. “Before that, I was learning a ton and I was pretty happy with it up to that point."
Making the grade
Still, Jones gutted out a 26th-place finish in his first Sprint Cup attempt. Regrettably, the record books won't credit Jones with the effort since Hamlin started the race.
Rogers offered a bit of comic relief afterward, “Do you think we need to send DH over there and rub your arms, massage your arms for picking up the slack?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Jones replied.
“You did a nice job,” Rogers added. “I can’t think of a situation in the Cup Series that I could put you in that was more demanding than tonight. You handled it like a champ. I’m proud of you.
“Let’s really think about this. You’ve never sat in a Cup car before. You’re at Bristol. The leaders have a tough time passing lapped traffic and you started 43rd. You had 15 laps to figure it out.”
Jones said entering the race, he didn’t have time to contemplate the magnitude of the situation. After he thank his he acknowledged, “It was just a tough deal all the way around.”
"A 35-minute flight up and I guess that was the only time I really had to really reflect on what I was about to do,” Jones said. “There were a few moments where I didn't feel nervous, but my stomach felt nervous.”
Just as Jones was a quick study in the XFINITY Series, he was grateful for the opportunity to test out a Cup car in real time.
I learned a ton. I wish we could start the night over and do it all again.
"Obviously, it was a huge learning experience overall,” Jones said. “The FedEx Camry was pretty good, but it just took me so long – really up until the red flag and kind of sitting and thinking about it and really figuring out what I had and what I had to do different from the Xfinity cars was just huge.
“I learned a ton. I wish we could start the night over and do it all again. It was an interesting situation for sure. I never turned a lap in one of these cars until the green flag dropped. It was interesting and I learned a ton. I can't wait to try it again."
Team owner Joe Gibbs closely monitored Jones’ progress throughout the race. There were several times in the late stages where he inquired on Jones’ status through Rogers.
Upon Jones completing the mission, Gibbs felt his young driver delivered on Sunday night.
“When you see a young guy like that and he gets here five minutes before, we put him in the car, I said, ‘hey, you're not going to go unless you really feel good, you give me thumbs up.’ So when they got him all in there and got him set, because we didn't have a chance to do anything, he went, ‘I'm okay,’ and so we let him go,” Gibbs said.
“To see somebody that young get thrown into that situation, he handled it very good, smooth, on the radio he was really good, and I think it was a real experience for him. But I thought he handled all of that exceptionally well.
“You know, we know Erik I think has a very bright future. I think it's going to be fun to work with him in the future.”
Although Jones was expected to make his Cup debut in the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota at Kansas Speedway next month, JGR had no issue expediting his learning curve early. His debut nearly came in the Daytona 500 but NASCAR rarely approves rookies for the Great American Race.
But clearly, Jones is ready for whatever JGR offers him next.
“This was far from planned, but if I do great and I would love the opportunity to get a full weekend of practice and really dial the car in for myself and be comfortable overall,” Jones said. “I'd love to try it and I really think we could run top-15, top-10 and obviously a place like Bristol makes it tougher anyway.
“If I do, great, but I have a ton of races already in the Xfinity and trucks so we'll have to see where it goes."