HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – As 18-year-old Erik Jones takes over the driving duties of the No. 18 M&M’s Red Nose Day Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) this weekend at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, the goal will be simple – to keep his “nose” clean.
The No. 18 M&M’s Toyota will have a special Red Nose Day paint scheme at Kansas and Jones is hoping to have a solid day in his first official NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start Sunday in the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas. He’ll simply look to complete all the laps, learn about the car and team, and glean some invaluable experience in NASCAR’s top series.
The Byron, Michigan native has seen a rapid rise through the racing ranks. One of his most storied head-turning moments was two years ago as a 16-year-old, when he out-dueled the driver he’ll be substituting for this weekend – Kyle Busch. It happened in the Snowball Derby at Pensacola (Fla.) Speedway, the most famous Late Model race in the country.
Busch found out first-hand that Jones had what it takes to succeed in NASCAR, so much so that he signed the young driver to a limited schedule for the 2013 and 2014 seasons at his Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM) Camping World Truck Series team. It didn’t take long for the rest of the racing world to figure out what Busch already knew. In November 2013, Jones brought home his first Truck Series win at Phoenix International Raceway in just his fifth series start. He added three more Truck Series wins in 2014 for a total of four wins in just 20 career Truck Series starts.
Jones now runs full-time in the Truck Series for KBM and a partial schedule for JGR in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
With three races complete in the 2015 Truck Series season, Jones sits third in the standings, six points out of the lead on the heels of two top-five and three top-10 finishes to start the season.
Jones already has made his mark in the Xfinity Series, as well, in his eight starts this season in the Nos. 20 and 54 JGR Camrys. He captured his first career Xfinity Series win in April at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, and has posted three poles and five top-five finishes thus far.
While Kansas marks Jones’ first official Sprint Cup start, he had the opportunity to turn laps in a Sprint Cup car in a relief role, taking over for Denny Hamlin last month at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Hamlin was unable to continue the race following an extended rain delay and Jones took over for the remainder of the race. He brought the No. 11 Camry home 26th and gained invaluable Sprint Cup experience.
The special paint scheme Jones will be running on the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Saturday night highlights M&M’s support of Red Nose Day. Parent company Mars is proud to be a partner of Red Nose Day, a nationwide charitable event that will be held May 21. The M&M’s brand is one of the world’s most beloved chocolate candies and a leader in colorful fun. Thus, it’s a natural fit to leverage the M&M’s brand and the humor-oriented Red Nose Day festivities to help raise money through this partnership.
So, as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Kansas for Saturday night’s race under the lights, Jones will look to keep his “nose” clean as he makes his official Sprint Cup debut in the Heartland of America.
ERIK JONES, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Red Nose Day Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
What will your expectations be for the Sprint Cup race at Kansas in the No. 18 M&M’s Red Nose Day Camry?
“For me, it’s really all seat time and experience with our M&M’s Camry. I think keeping our expectations realistic is a pretty big thing for us. If we can go run top-15, I’d feel like that would be a pretty big win for us. It’s a big step. We’ve talked a lot about it. I’ve talked with (No. 18 crew chief) Adam Stevens a lot about it and kind of what the jump to Sprint Cup is like, and I’ve talked to Kyle (Busch) about it. It’s not going to be an easy step for anybody, but I really believe we can go run top-15 and, if we can do that, I think that would be a good day.”
How did this opportunity come about and is it a ‘right-place, right-time’ situation?
“It seems like the last three years of my life have been a lot of right-place, right-time opportunities, starting with Kyle (Busch) and the Snowball (Derby) and from there on. It was really a shame to see Kyle get hurt at Daytona – I consider Kyle to be a friend of mine and it’s never fun to see something like that. Definitely not the circumstances I wish I could have done it in, but I’m excited for the opportunity no matter what else happens. It’s a cool thing for me to be able to make a Cup start at this point in my career. If you would have asked me two years ago if I would be making a Cup start when I was 18 – no, I really don’t think I would have. It’s an awesome opportunity that I never would have dreamed of to get to do at such a young age, and I’m definitely going to take it in stride and see what we can do.”
How helpful was racing at Bristol to prepare you for Kansas?
“I don’t know that Bristol had anything to do with it, honestly. It helps, actually, that I was able to make laps in a Cup car somewhere. Without being able to test anywhere, anymore, it makes it tough for a young guy to get in a new ride and really figure out how different the Cup cars are. I don’t think Bristol was a deciding factor, by any means. It was an interesting situation all around and I don’t know if it was a plan all around, but I’m happy that I will get to have my shot here in the M&M’s Red Nose Day Toyota this weekend.”
Are you only focused on experience at Kansas, or is there a part of you that wants to go for the win?
“Honestly, I never go into a race with the mentality that I have no shot of winning. Yeah, sure, there’s a chance there, but it’s definitely a long shot. I don’t think that’s honestly even in the question of what we’re trying to accomplish. I’d love to, but it’s such a big jump and it’s such a higher level of competition. We’re racing against guys who have been in this series for 10 or 15 years and it’s hard to beat that experience no matter how good your car is or whatever else. I think if we did go into it with a thought that we could win, that’s kind of over-riding our thought of managing expectations, which is pretty big for us going into Kansas. We want to keep the expectations where they need to be, which is I believe a top-15 and, if we can do that, I think that’s a pretty big day for us.”
Will the Bristol substitute experience help to ease any anxiety before your first Sprint Cup start?
“Yeah, it really does. Any time you get into a new car in a new series, it’s kind of nerve-wracking starting your first race. It’s nerve-wracking starting any race, but especially your first one. That did take away some of the, I guess, uncertainty of what’s really different about the Cup Series and I definitely think that knocked some of that stuff out of the way, which is nice. I don’t know if it will take away all the prerace jitters, by any means. It will still be nerve-wracking starting your first official Cup race any time. But it definitely took some things away for me that, when I get in the car at Kansas for practice, I’ll feel more comfortable with what I have and what the car’s going to do, and know a little bit better some of the differences in the car and what I need to prepare for.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine