JGR's development driver has plenty of potential, but if he exceeds expectations, what's the next step?
HAMPTON, Ga. – Kyle Busch returned home on Friday following two surgeries to repair fractures to his right leg and keft foot sustained in a wreck last Saturday at Daytona.
While Busch recuperated in North Carolina, David Ragan and Erik Jones performed admirably in the ailing driver's respective Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series cars at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Ragan posted the second fastest lap late into practice until Kyle Larson topped the speed chart. Still, after five laps it was clear the No. 18 M&M Toyota had no problem getting up to speed. Ragan will start 17th on Sunday after earning that spot on the grid in Friday afternoon's time trials.
And Erik Jones, who has produced remarkable results since his 2013 truck debut at Martinsville, posted the fifth fastest time subbing for Busch in the No. 54 Toyota during the first XFINITY Series practice. He was 10th in NXS Happy Hour.
The real deal
In his full-time ride on the truck side, Jones, 18, topped the chart in the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota Tundra on Friday afternoon before former Cup champion Brad Keselowski surpassed him in the final hour.
Jones, who originally signed up for 17 NXS races with Joe Gibbs Racing, told Motorsport.com on Friday that the extra track time was helpful in his development.
I’m looking forward to the extra seat time – particularly at a place like Atlanta.
“Obviously, it’s important,” Jones said. “I already had a great number of races (scheduled) with Joe Gibbs already on the XFINITY side but to have the extra opportunities in the Monster car is pretty cool for me.
“We’re all wishing Kyle the best, but hopefully we can go out and have a good run and make him smile a bit back home. I definitely think we’re pretty good. I’m looking forward to the extra seat time – particularly at a place like Atlanta.“
Showing their hand
Currently, per NASCAR, Jones is only approved on tracks of a mile-and-a-half or less. Despite the Byron, Mich., native winning four truck races in 18 starts, thrusting him in the No. 18 Cup car after just four starts (even if he finished in the top 10 in three of the races) would be a pressure-packed situation.
Sure, Jones could persevere and continue his meteoric rise – or he could stumble. Either way, JGR could potentially have a situation similar to the one that developed with Joey Logano. While the Daytona 500 winner has blossomed with Team Penske, it was Gibbs that made the initial investment in Logano and stood by him for the first five years of his NASCAR career.
But when sponsorship money for a full-time effort with Logano dried up, Gibbs had to let the budding superstar go.
If Jones sets the world on fire, then what? Gibbs has a full stable of drivers – all A-listers not looking to leave the fold. So after recruiting Jones, who started racing quarter-midgets at seven then advanced to stock cars at 13 and has two Snowball Derby and Winchester 400s to his credit, it would be unfortunate to lose the Toyota protégé to Ford or Chevrolet.
Slowly but surely
For now, JGR is closely monitoring Jones’ progress. If his development continues, Jones could get a shot in the No. 18 JGR Cup car as early as May at Kansas Speedway. While it wasn’t originally part of JGR’s strategy for Jones, many are anticipating his debut – including Jones.
“It definitely wasn’t in the plans but when an opportunity is there, you want to take it,” Jones said. “It’s definitely a unique opportunity but we’ll have to see what the future brings.”