18-year-old tries to turn a hat trick.
Erik Jones arrived at Five Flags Speedway for the 45th Annual Snowball Derby as a name known fairly well by short track insiders, but the Michigan teenager was relatively anonymous to most racing enthusiasts around the country. When he left the half-mile Pensacola, Florida oval on December 2, 2012, he left as a winner of the most prestigious short track racing event in the country and the 16-year-old who beat NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star Kyle Busch.
Two years later, and now a back-to-back winner of America's biggest short track race after capturing the win in 2013 driving for Busch, Jones will return to the site of the win that kick-started his NASCAR career. This time around, he'll be looking to accomplish a Snowball Derby feat that has never been accomplished. The now-18-year-old from Byron, Michigan will look to become the first ever driver to win three straight Snowball Derbys and win in front of an audience watching worldwide on 51 TV.
"We've been able to do some things that a few guys have done before, but to be the first to do something that nobody has done to this point would be pretty special for me," said Jones, who will once again pilot the No. 51 Phoenix Construction Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports. "We're going to be charging hard. We have a new car we're going to be taking down. I just hope it is fast and hope we're good. We've been fortunate the past couple years to have good cars and hopefully we can just keep it going for this year."
Only two other drivers in Snowball Derby history, Rich Bickle (twice) and Augie Grill, have had the opportunity to win three-in-a-row. Bickle didn't attempt to qualify for one of the two races and finished 36th in the other, while Grill led 67 laps before being involved in an accident and finishing 31st in 2009.
Jones will do his best to try not to think about those things too much when he arrives in Pensacola, Florida in just over one week.
"I go into the race with nothing other than a win in sight," Jones said. "Obviously it's a tough challenge. Three in a row isn't easy in anything whether it's Snowball Derby's, championships or whatever you're talking about. That race is just such a tough race in the sense of the competition that is there and how long of a race it is for these cars. It's not an easy race to win and it's shown that the last 46 years it has been won. It's going to be a challenge, but I don't see any reason why we can't go down and pick up one more this year."
Jones won the 2012 Snowball Derby with his family-operated race team besting Busch in a thrilling battle. He then entered the 2013 running of the Snowball Derby as a favorite both because he was the defending winner and because he was driving for one of the most dominant Super Late Model teams in the country in Kyle Busch Motorsports. He admitted that he felt more pressure going in than he had the year before, but that didn't stop him on his way to picking up win number-two.
Four-time NASCAR winner
Now a two-time Derby winner and a four-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series winner driving for Busch, the pressure is lifted off of Jones as he goes for three-in-a-row.
"I feel like I'm going into this race wide open with nothing to lose at this point," said Jones. "There's no pressure on me and I'm just going to go out and have a good time all week like we normally do when we go down there. Hopefully we can go out and win us a race. That third Derby is something I've been looking forward to all year. I really couldn't wait to get going. I'm excited to show up there Sunday morning and feel the atmosphere and get the race going."
Looking back on his win on December 2, 2012, Jones considers it to be the turning point of his racing career. Although he still believes he may have had a shot to compete in one of NASCAR's top-three series' somewhere down the road, he doesn't believe the same opportunities driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports would have presented themselves if he hadn't beaten the "boss man" that day.
"Racing that guy (Busch) for the win was such a cool moment in my career at that point and even now," Jones said. "We talk about it every once in a while, me and Kyle, and it's cool to look back on it now and see how it's all turned out.
"I often kind of wonder how things would be different if he ended up getting around us. I don't know if I necessarily would be here. It definitely would have made things tougher on me. I don't know if I would have been in the same place or same position that I am right now if we hadn't have won it."
Since his win in 2012, Jones has raced at tracks all over the country driving for Busch in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Still, the two-time Snowball Derby winner says that nothing compares to the atmosphere at Five Flags Speedway during Snowball Derby week.
"I think that whole weekend is just a special weekend," said Jones. "Showing up for pole night is what kicks it off with the intensity of that. When you show up on Sunday morning, both years I've gone down there for the Derby specifically, it's just a different atmosphere than you feel even at a NASCAR race or anything you go to. That's a feeling I haven't been able to repeat anywhere else yet.
"We can never wait to show up to the Derby, none of us. Me, (team manager) Bond (Suss), the guys and everybody can't wait to get down there. It's just such a special race for the whole community and everybody on a race team."
The 47th Annual Snowball Derby kicks off on Wednesday, December 3 with the Cat Country/WEAR TV3 Green Flag Party. As the teams unload and begin the tech process, from 5-9 p.m. fans can meet the drivers and see the cars that will compete during Snowball Derby Weekend.
The first on-track activity of the week comes on Thursday, as practice for the Super and Pro Late Models commence. Later that evening, qualifying and feature action for the Five Flags Speedway Butler U-Pull-It Bomber and Beef O'Brady's Sportsmen divisions will take place.
On Friday, December 5, it is NASH 102.7 Pole Night, as the top 30 in Snowball Derby qualifying will be locked into Sunday's 300-lap feature. More practice for the Snowball Derby and Snowflake 100 cars will take place, as well as a full card of Super Stock and Modified action.
Then on Saturday, December 6, it's the Allen Turner Hyundai Snowflake 100 time trials, qualifying races and the 100-lap feature, plus final practice for the Snowball Derby cars, a 50-lap Pro Trucks feature and a 50-lap last-chance qualifying race to lock the final cars into the Snowball Derby.
Finally, the 47th Annual Snowball Derby will then go green on Sunday, December 7 at 2 p.m. ET at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, FL.