HOMESTEAD, Fla. – With the 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title now in Erik Jones’ rear-view mirror, the immediate question becomes “What’s next for the 19-year-old prodigy?”
With a relatively nondescript, problem-free sixth-place finish in Friday night’s Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Jones secured the series driver’s championship, as well as the owner’s title for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Discovered by Busch when he beat his future car owner as a 16-year-old in the Snowball Derby for Super Late Models, Jones delivered the championship after running two part-time seasons for KBM.
“I can’t think of a better way to repay these guys,” Jones said in Victory Lane, after securing the title by 15 points over runner-up Tyler Reddick. “I can’t think of a better way to thank Kyle for all these years (than by) getting the driver’s championship for him. He’s wanted one since the company started, and to bring it home for myself and for KBM, you couldn’t really ask for a better ending than that.”
The youngest champion in series history at 19 years, 5 months, 21 days, Jones has been earmarked for a meteoric ascent to the top level of NASCAR racing.
“It means so much more to have the opportunity to help these younger drivers and to help these kids that are coming up through the ranks to be successful,” Busch said.
“And to do that with Kyle Busch Motorsports and Toyota, there’s nothing greater than to have that feeling and to build that company from the ground up, from nothing, and take it to where it is today.”
But first things first. Team owner Joe Gibbs reiterated on Friday the plan to run Jones in a full season of NASCAR XFINITY Series racing next year, with a few selected Sprint Cup events added to the mix.
Jones has already gotten his baptism in Sprint Cup. Earlier this season, he subbed for Kyle Busch at Kansas, the last of 11 races Busch missed after breaking his right leg and left foot in the season-opening XFINITY Series event at Daytona.
Jones filled a relief role for Denny Hamlin at Bristol in April, after Hamlin’s neck locked up during a rain delay. And when Matt Kenseth earned a two-race suspension for wrecking Joey Logano on Nov. 1 at Martinsville, Jones was tabbed to replace him.
His first laps in a Cup car were hardly tentative. Behind the wheel of Busch’s No. 18 Toyota, he ran consistently in the top 10 before crashing on lap 196 of 267 at Kansas.
Subbing for Kenseth at Texas and Phoenix, Jones qualified sixth and seventh, respectively, and finished 12th and 19th against the top stock car drivers in the world.
Despite the speed he has shown in the Sprint Cup series, Jones is content to let his career take its course.
“Absolutely, I think the XFINITY Series is completely necessary,” Jones said. “I have no problem running a year there… as long as need be there. I don’t know what the exact career path is for me down the road.
“At some point, yeah, I want to race in the Cup series every weekend. I feel like there’s a plan in place for that opportunity to arise. And I’ll just keep taking what’s given to me every week and go out and try to win races.”