Michigan's Jones, 18, enjoys Cup debut as Hamlin sub

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Erik Jones leads the pack in the Xfinity Series race on Saturday in Bristol.

It was less than a year ago when Erik Jones received his high school degree from Swartz Creek High School during opening ceremonies for the NASCAR Camping World Truck series race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Jones, who grew up in the small Michigan town, about an hour northwest of Detroit, was competing in a No. 51 Toyota Tundra owned by Sprint Cup series star driver Kyle Busch. He had already made a name for himself, becoming the youngest driver to win a NASCAR event when he won the truck race on the one-mile track at Phoenix in November 2013, at 17 years, 5 months and 8 days.

At Texas last year, Jones talked about how he dreamed of one day competing in the Sprint Cup series, but assumed it was years away, with the truck series and Xfinity series still ahead.

Well, that day came sooner than expected for Jones, who made his Cup debut Sunday at the world's fastest half-mile track in Bristol, Tenn.

Jones is proving to be a star of the future at age 18, winning the Xfinity race at Texas April 10, beating former Cup series champion Brad Keselowski to the finish line, then taking fourth at Bristol Saturday. He has won the pole for the last three Xfinity races.

Jones, the development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, was called upon to replace Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 Toyota for Sunday's Food City 500 after Hamlin experienced a neck spasm early in the rain-delayed event.

Jones was at home in the Charlotte area when he received a text from a JGR crew member, asking him if he could replace Hamlin. Jones jumped on a plane and reached the track at Bristol five minutes before the race resumed, starting from the back of the pack.

Erik Jones

So, was he nervous?

"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," said Jones, who will turn 19 on May 30. "I didn't have a lot of time really to even think about it.

"I was sitting back on my couch back in North Carolina (when the text arrived), thinking about when I was going to get my nap in during the race, and then I got a text from one of the crew members, and they let me know that I might need to be on standby."

Jones finished 26th, six laps back, which was a solid effort since he had no seat time in practice or qualifying and did stay out of trouble in the race won by Matt Kenseth.

"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. "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. It was just a huge learning experience overall and pretty pumped that I got the opportunity."

Jones learned a lot, especially with the Cup car being so different than that of the Xfinity series.

"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," he said. "It was interesting to feel the difference and I hope we get to try it again."

Jones will be competing in the Xfinity series race June 13 at Michigan International Speedway.