18-year-old has a Camping World truck series race in Texas instead
Many high school seniors will be walking across a stage this week to receive their diploma in recognition of years of hard work. For Erik Jones, his stage will be in front of a national television audience on the frontstretch of Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth before Friday night's WinStar World Casino & Resort 400 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event.
After finishing his freshman year at Byron High Scholl in Byron, Mich., Jones and his family decided the best route to being a successful student and continuing to pursue a career as a race car driver was to complete his studies online through the Swartz Creek Global Learning Hub in nearby Swartz Creek, Mich. Three years later, he has completed his studies and earned the right to walk the stage with the rest of the Swartz Creek students Friday night. The only problem is after turning 18 last week, he is now eligible to run NASCAR's mile-and-a-half and larger tracks and the talented youngster will be behind the wheel of the No. 51 Hiring Our Heroes/ToyotaCare Tundra for Friday night's 167-lap event.
Upon hearing that Jones was going to miss his graduation, the staff at Texas Motor Speedway decided to bring the ceremony to him. The racing prodigy will walk across the stage in his cap and gown when his name is called during driver introductions and he will be presented his diploma by track president Eddie Gossage. Once across the stage, the fun and games will end and Jones will be faced with one of his biggest challenges. The Michigan native will be competing in his first event on a mile-and-a-half track in one of NASCAR's top three divisions.
Just as he has done each step along the way of his career, the racing prodigy expects to accept the challenge and be successful. That's because Jones isn't just any 18-year-old driver making his first NASCAR start on a superspeedway, he is one of NASCAR's most promising young stars. In his first partial campaign in the Truck Series last season, he finished inside the top 10 in each of his five starts, capped off by a dominant performance at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale where he became the youngest winner in series history at 17 years, five months and nine days. In addition to his Truck Series triumph, he has an ARCA Racing Series victory at Berlin (Mich.) Raceway on his resume and in the Late Model ranks has already proven capable of winning some of the biggest events, having collected two Snowball Derby wins and a Winchester 400 title.
Jones will have a graduation day that is two-fold, graduating from high school and to the superspeedways of NASCAR all on one Texas-sized stage. The No. 51 team has posted three consecutive victories, four total this season and have won six of the last seven races dating back to Jones win at Phoenix last year, so they know a thing or two about celebrations. When the race is over on Friday night, they hope to be hosting a graduation party for their driver in victory lane.
Erik Jones, Driver of the No. 51 NCWTS Hiring Our Heroes/ToyotaCare Tundra:
Are you looking forward to your first race on a mile-and-a-half track?
"Racing on my first mile-and-a-half track is something I have been looking forward too for a long time now. It was great that NASCAR opened up the age to 16 for the Truck Series on short tracks, but still the main goal is to get on these big tracks. That's where the bulk of the schedule is, so I think it's something that every driver looks forward to. Kyle and this No. 51 team have had a lot of success on the mile-and-a-half tracks already this year, so I hope to go out and keep that streak alive. As a racer I always put my expectations high and I feel very confident about the truck going into Texas. I think we have a shot to run in the top five, and contend for the win."
How has your team prepared you for what to expect this week at Texas Motor Speedway?
"I sat down with Kyle (Busch), Eric Phillips (crew chief), and Rudy Fugle (engineer) last week to talk about everything that comes with prepping for a mile-and-a-half track and all the details of Texas Motor Speedway. They all briefed me on what to expect, and how to handle it all. I really think that's a big help as a driver, especially going to somewhere new. Kyle is always a big help every weekend when I go to a racetrack in the truck."
Eric Phillips, Crew Chief of the No. 51 NCWTS Hiring Our Heroes/ToyotaCare Tundra:
What will be Erik's biggest challenge in his first race on a mile-and-a-half track?
"The biggest thing with not having raced on a mile-and-a-half track before will be figuring out what he needs from the truck. Typically, what you need in practice and what you need in the race are two different things and these young kids seem to end up having the truck too free once the race starts. So, we are going to have to work with him on trying to make sure that our truck isn't sideways at the start of the race. I think you've seen a lot of it this year and there have been a lot of wrecks. Other than that, once the race starts he doesn't need to force things and put himself in a bad position. We've seen a lot of tore up trucks the last three races, so we don't need to have that happen."
Do your expectations change having Erik in the truck versus Kyle?
"The expectations we have as a team are the same each week no matter who is driving the truck -- we want to go out and be the fastest in practice, sit on the pole and win the race. Erik is more than capable of getting the job done and we know we are providing him with a fast Tundra. Just as we have done the first five races, we are going this week with one goal in mind and that is to get another win."