KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) It will be hard to miss the future of Joe Gibbs Racing this weekend.
Start off with Friday night’s Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway, where Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones will be taking the green flag. Both youngsters are driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports, but they also drive in the Xfinity Series for Joe Gibbs.
Then Saturday night, the 18-year-old Jones will climb into the No. 18 car and make his Sprint Cup debut in place of Kyle Busch, who is still recovering from his February wreck.
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Talk about some heady stuff for a couple of college-aged kids.
”It’s crazy how young they are,” said 38-year-old Matt Crafton, who leads the Truck Series standings. ”When I was 18, 19 years old, thinking about what I was doing – I wanted to be here at some point, but I wasn’t thinking about being at this level that quick. It’s amazing.”
Suarez and Jones have taken far different roads to arrive in the same spotlight.
For the 23-year-old Suarez, it was growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, where most kids spend their time playing soccer. He was 11 when he started racing karts, and his talent was evident so quickly that he soon graduated to NASCAR’s series in Mexico. Then it was on to some of the minor league circuits in the U.S. before catching on with Busch’s team in the Truck Series.
Now, the dashing young man who picked up English using Rosetta Stone and from the boys in the garage is running in some of NASCAR’s top series for some of its strongest teams.
”I don’t feel pressure,” he said, when asked about the attention that he’s getting these days. ”I felt pressure when I was 16 years old and I was looking for sponsors, and I needed a sponsor to keep racing. We don’t have that problem now.”
The biggest problem Suarez has right now is getting to the front.
He nearly did that in his Xfinity car a few weeks ago at Bristol, where he finished second to Joey Logano. Jones finished fourth in the same race.
Suarez also led five laps in the season-opening Trucks race at Daytona, led again before finishing fourth at Atlanta and was ninth in the race at Martinsville.
All that time running up front is starting to make Suarez a household name in Mexico, where motorsports is a big thing but NASCAR is only now beginning to make major inroads.
”I hope those people can come here to see us and take a chance to see what we’re doing right now, because I really feel lucky to be racing on this level,” he said. ”Not just that, but you’re racing with a great organization, and as well to represent my country. But at the end of the day, all we want to do is try to learn and be competitive.”
Those happen to be the same goals that Jones is bringing to Kansas Speedway.
After racing in quarter midgets, he climbed into his first stock car at 13, and by 2012 he was a regular in the ARCA Series, driving on many of the same tracks used by NASCAR. That winter, he held off Busch – his future boss – to win the Snowball Derby, a late model race held every year in Florida that annually attracts some of the nation’s best drivers.
Jones signed with Kyle Busch Motorsports the following spring, and got a taste of the Truck Series that summer. And by last year, he was so busy with the series that he received his diploma from Swartz Creek High School at Texas Motor Speedway before one of his races.
”That’s a pretty fast progression, the way it’s worked out,” Jones said. ”To have those opportunities at a young age is cool for anybody. I guess I hoped at some point I’d get my chance in the Cup Series, too, but I didn’t know it would come at 18.”
That’s precisely what happened when Jones relieved another Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Denny Hamlin, a few weeks ago at Bristol. But he’ll make his official debut on Saturday night, when he steps into Busch’s familiar M&M’s car for the Sprint Cup race.
”I’m confident the car will be pretty good,” he said, ”but I want to make sure I’m confident in myself getting around this place in a Cup car. Getting laps would be a big deal for me.”
There’s no guarantee of that happening. Rain is in the forecast all weekend, which means Jones may not have any chance to practice before the green flag.
Jones still plans to make the most of the opportunity, especially since it could be a one-shot deal. Busch is trying to get back for the next race at Charlotte.
”You know, there’s times where your mind wanders, and wonders about the future,” Jones said, ”but I’m pretty focused on this weekend. It’s a big weekend for me.”