It should come as no surprise that Erik Jones got hooked on NASCAR as a kid by becoming a fan of Jeff Gordon.
Jones’ rise up the NASCAR ladder of success has matched Gordon’s in one very distinct way – fast.
Less than five years removed from catching the eye of NASCAR star Kyle Busch while the two competed in the 2012 Snowball Derby Late Model race, Jones is fully immersed in his rookie season in NASCAR’s big leagues – the Monster Energy Cup Series.
While he has yet to earn his first series victory, he has shown an impressive ability to adapt quickly to his new surroundings and already found himself competing for wins.
He failed to qualify for the Cup series playoffs in his rookie season, but was in contention down to the wire. He finished a career-best second in the August race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway after leading a race-high 260 of 500 laps.
Entering Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jones is 19th in the series standings with four top-five and 12 top-10 finishes and won one pole.
Looking up to Jeff Gordon
If he succeeds as fast in the Cup series as he got here, Jones may one day rival his idol Gordon in wins and championships.
“In 2002 or 2003, I really got interested in NASCAR. My grandfather was always a big fan and watched it – and much of my family as well – so I was always watching it on TV. I kind of knew all the drivers, was a fan of a few, especially Jeff Gordon,” Jones, 21, said.
“I really got interested in Jeff, in his career path, how he became a race car driver and I read his original book that came out about that time and saw he had raced quarter-midgets. I was about seven years old then and I wanted to get into it and started racing those, too.
“From that point on I kind of knew I wanted to race in NASCAR. That was always my goal. I was never really interested in the other forms of racing and didn’t really know there was much else out there aside from your local short tracks.”
And race he did.
With the support of his family, Jones competed at a race track nearly every weekend from the time he was 7 years old.
All the time, Jones kept a watchful eye on Gordon’s progression into a racing superstar. Like Gordon, Jones even wanted to try running sprint cars on pavement, but his mother, Carol, wasn’t keen on the idea.
“My mom was not a big fan of that so we ended up getting into stock car racing around the time I was 12 years old, but I always kind of tried to follow what Jeff did,” Jones said.
“Jeff was one first really young guys to get into it. He was racing in Cup series at like 20 and 21 years old and I wanted to be at that same point. I kept track of the ages he was running certain series because I kind of wanted to follow that same path.”
His big break
In 2012, Jones, then 16, passed and held off Busch in the closing laps to win the Snowball Derby in Pensacola, Fla., one of Late Model racing’s most prestigious events.
Busch was impressed with Jones’ ability and had already had his eye on him. Three months before the Snowball Derby, Busch recruited Jones to serve as an emergency backup for another Late Model race.
Jones’ performance in the Derby only reinforced Busch’s belief in the youngster from Byron, Mich., and in 2013 Jones became the newest addition to Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Camping World Truck Series lineup.
He made five starts that season and won in his fifth start, claiming his first series victory at Phoenix, setting the record at the time for the youngest winner in series history.
“That was the first time I really met anyone in NASCAR who came up to me and really wanted to give me an opportunity. The relationship with Kyle was definitely a big moment for me,” Jones said.
“I was wondering what I was going to do. We only had a few Late Model races planned for that season. I didn’t know if I’d even get to race in NASCAR for a living.”
Jones actually had a non-racing backup plan in place if a career in NASCAR never materialized. He planned to work for his father, Dave, who owned Paragon Corvette Reproductions.
“I worked there from the time I was about 12 until I was 16 and I moved to North Carolina,” the younger Jones said. “That’s what I was going to do and hopefully take over the business from him someday.”
Joe Gibbs Racing
As it turned out, however, Jones’ talent also caught the eye of Busch’s employer in the Cup series, Joe Gibbs.
In 2014, Jones and Busch won the Truck series owner’s title sharing KBM’s No. 51 Toyota. Jones also made three starts in the Xfinity Series with JGR, finishing eighth or higher in each one.
“Dave Jones got in touch with us and really wanted to put Erik in an Xfinity car. We had a couple open races and Dave stretched and made it happen for him and we’re glad he did because we were able to see what we thought was some unique talent,” said Steve de Souza, JGR’s executive vice president and general manager of its Xfinity and driver development program.
“Kyle talked to us as he was getting Erik into his Trucks and said he was really, really good. In many cases, that’s how you find the next great phenom – you have guys like Kyle watching these kids on the race track.
“I can get a lot of input from a lot of people but I can’t drive the race car like Kyle does.”
In 2015, Jones competed full-time in Trucks for KBM and won the series championship. The next season, he was competing full-time in the Xfinity Series for JGR, where he won four races and finished fourth in the series standings.
Late last season, JGR believed Jones was ready to move up to the Cup series, but at the time had their maximum of four drivers under contract for the 2017 season. Jones still made the move – he was sent “on loan” to Furniture Row Racing, a fellow Toyota team that has a technical alliance with JGR.
This summer, JGR announced Jones would move back into the JGR fold in 2018 and compete in its No. 20 Toyota, replacing veteran Matt Kenseth.
Jones said it’s hard to believe sometimes it was only five years ago that his racing future seemed so uncertain.
“When I was in the Truck series in 2013 there was really no apparent opportunities at the Cup level for me. I didn’t have any clue what I was going to do or what was going to happen,” he said.
“It seems to have all happened very quickly. Each year it seems there was a new opportunity and it came along with running well and winning races. It’s almost like every time one opportunity was ending another would present itself.
“Everything just seemed to fall into place at the right time.”
One thing that didn’t turn out as planned, however, was the loss of Jones’ father.
Dave Jones died June 7, 2016 at the age of 53 after a battle with cancer, not in time to see Erik become a full-time Cup series driver but knowing his son would reach his racing dreams.
In a private meeting with team owner Joe Gibbs in the month before Jones’ death, Gibbs assured the elder Jones his son would be competing in the Cup series in 2017.
“It was cool in that moment to be able to sit down with him and say, ‘Hey, we did it. Next year, we’re going to be at the peak, man. That’s it,’ ” Erik recalled. “It was special to be able to share that moment; at least he knew it was all going to work out.”