HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Story by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR photo —
Erik Jones started fifth on Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and it was as high as he ran all night long.
He dropped back on the drop of the green flag, never led a lap all night and rallied late to finish sixth, just missing out on getting back to where he started.
But at the end of the night, that was all he needed to do to bring home the 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship.
Jones crossed the line at the end of the Ford EcoBoost 200 and immediately cued up the radio, exclaiming “We did it!” to his Kyle Busch Motorsports crew as he officially became the youngest Truck champion in series history at 19 years, five months and 22 days — eclipsing the record set by 21-year-old Austin Dillon in 2013 and claiming the hardware by a final margin of 15 points over fellow teenager Tyler Reddick.
“A lot of [what made this moment possible] was just being with a great team in Kyle Busch Motorsports,” Jones said on the championship stage. “They brought great race trucks to the track every single week.”
“There were times during the season when I didn’t think we’d be able to do this. Looking back and seeing the deficit at some points, I think, is what made us pull together as a team and make this all happen at the end of the year. This is so, so special for everyone here. To close off this run like this … I’ve had a great three-year run with these guys and I couldn’t think of a better way to thank them.”
After two part-time seasons, Jones broke out in a big way in 2015. He scored three of his seven career Truck victories over the course of the year and used incredible consistency to amass a total of 899 series points over the 23-race season, by way of five poles, 11 top-five and 20 top-10s besides the three wins.
It seemed like that first win might never come, after Jones had everything that could possibly go wrong keep him out of victory lane over the first four months of the season. But after four finishes of second or third without a victory, that breakthrough to the winner’s circle came in June at Iowa Speedway, when he led 112 of 200 laps to dominate the day and “get the monkey off his back,” as he said.
That was also the night that started his surge in the points as well, though it wasn’t until after his second victory at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park that he finally took the lead in the championship standings.
It was a lead he would not relinquish again.
Only one DNF all season (for an electrical issue at Gateway) meant that he carried a 19 point advantage into the Homestead finale, a gap that he defended to perfection over the course of the night and never once gave up completely en route to scoring his first series crown — Kyle Busch Motorsports’ first-ever driver’s championship — and marking a career-changing moment for the Byron, Mich. young gun.
“This is how we wanted to do it, because again, I can’t think of a better way to thank Kyle for everything he’s done for me over these years than getting a driver’s championship for his company,” Jones added of his mentor and team owner. “He’s wanted one since he started this team and to bring it home for myself, for KBM and for my entire crew — you couldn’t ask for a better ending than that.”
Busch first discovered Jones when the latter beat the Sprint Cup star to win the Snowball Derby (for super late models) at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. and signed him to a driver development contract soon after. He spoke of that moment on Friday night as a turning point for what his team would become — though he didn’t know it at the time, of course.
“He put it to me when I first met him,” Busch laughed. “He beat me in the Derby in 2012 and that was an eye-opening night. I love going and racing all the stuff that I do, and when I go and run the super late model races I tend to pick up on the talent that’s in the field, and Erik was probably the most impressive one that I came across.”
“The very first time I ever raced against him, he blew my doors off and then 40 laps later he blew up, and I remember thinking, ‘Whew, now I don’t have to deal with him at the end of this one.’ (laughs) But then he went out and battled with me in the Derby and it was pretty impressive. He did it clean, and he’s continued to do that.”
After that day in December three years ago, Jones coolly and methodically worked his way through the KBM program and garnered accolade after accolade along the way, picking up three Winchester 400 wins, a Battle at Berlin 251 win, a RedBud 300 win and a second Snowball Derby win in addition to his seven Truck victories for KBM over the course of his tenure — but none of those could top the trophy that the teenager handed his boss on Friday night.
“This is special for everyone at Kyle Busch Motorsports, a crowning moment to be honest,” Busch said of finally claiming the driver’s championship as a team. “We’ve been in existence for six seasons and this is our fourth owner’s championship, but it’s our first driver’s championship and it’s that part about it being the first one that makes it so memorable.”
“It means so much more, though, to have the opportunity to help these younger drivers and to help these kids that are coming up through the ranks to be able to succeed. To do that with Kyle Busch Motorsports and with Toyota, there’s no greater feeling than that and to build them from the ground up. We’ve done the same thing with this company; it was nothing when we started and to see what it is today is a true honor for Samantha and I.”
“It takes all the people and crew members that you see behind us, plus everyone back at home. All the people in the chassis shop, the body shop … we do all of our own stuff so I truly think that makes it even more impressive what we’ve been able to accomplish, both tonight and since 2010.”
Busch also added that Jones expressed his impatience over the course of his 2013 and 2014 runs at KBM, frustrated that he had to wait to realize the full-time run he got to experience this year.
“He didn’t want to be there for two part-time seasons, but he was. I think he learned a tremendous amount in those seasons, and to go full-time this year like he did — we knew he was ready to tackle the championship — and he certainly delivered.”
Crew chief Ryan “Rudy” Fugle was with Jones for every one of his 40 NCWTS starts over the past three years, and served as the voice keeping Jones calm inside the helmet all season long. He too offered words of praise for his driver once the final checkered flag flew to end the season.
“He just gets it,” Fugle said of Jones. “He does everything right. He’s a student of the sport, and he pays attention to everything that goes on while being as tenacious as all. Max Papis said to me earlier in the day that he thought Erik was cool as it gets under pressure and that’s so true.”
“The kid just does everything right. I’m proud of him and this is one heck of a moment for everyone involved with this team, both here and back at the shop. Three in a row [on the owner’s side] is amazing and to watch what Erik’s done, I couldn’t be happier. We’re going to celebrate this one for a while.”
Though Jones amassed numerous accolades — including three Sprint Cup starts, two XFINITY wins, and banking $100,000 for winning the JEGS Super Late Model Triple Crown (the aforementioned RedBud 300, Battle at Berlin and Winchester 400) — he circled Friday night’s Truck crown as the defining moment of his still-young racing career.
“We’ve done a lot this season; we’ve won a lot of races, but no race win is bigger than being able to stand on that stage like I did a little while ago and hoist the championship trophy,” Jones admitted. “This is by far the biggest thing I’ve done in racing so far and it’s so cool to know that I’ve still got a lot of time ahead of me in this sport.”
The teenager will move on to the NASCAR XFINITY Series in 2016, driving a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, and will look to win back-to-back NASCAR championships in two different national series once the new season rolls around.
“It’s not over yet, things are only just beginning. Once I sit down and savor this for a little bit, I’ll be excited about getting ready for next year and getting ready to go after an XFINITY championship for the Coach (Joe Gibbs) and keep this momentum rolling.”
But at least for now, he’s a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion — a label that no one can take away from him.
And for Erik Jones, a name that many people didn’t know before this year, that future up ahead? It looks incredibly, incredibly bright.
NOTES: Matt Crafton claimed the win in Friday night’s season-finale Ford EcoBoost 200, leading 93 of 134 laps and driving to his sixth win of the year by three seconds over John Hunter Nemechek … Jones’ nearest points rival, Tyler Reddick, finished third in the 23rd and final race of the year … The event featured 14 lead changes between five different driver and four cautions for 18 laps …
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network. Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 21-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for both the United Sprint Car Series and the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
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