For years, young Erik Jones’ stock has been rising in NASCAR circles. Perhaps the next step is the highest level of competition — the Sprint Cup Series.
On Friday night at Texas Motor Speedway, Jones beat two of the best in the business to earn his first XFINITY Series win, causing his stock to rise to its highest level yet.
After the race, team owner Joe Gibbs said a Sprint Cup Series start would come "at some point very quick" for Jones.
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"It’s great to have someone that believes in me like that," Jones told FOXSports.com on Tuesday afternoon. "Obviously, Kyle (Busch) has for a while, but now to have a guy like Coach (Gibbs) believe in me, that has a program and somewhere for me to advance to eventually, is pretty cool. It’s always good to talk to Coach and hear his side of things, hear what he thinks, and know that he’s working hard for me to build the best future he can for me is always great to hear."
The Byron, Michigan, native first gained notoriety when he beat Kyle Busch for the win in the 2012 Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida. That victory certainly caught the attention of Busch, who hired Jones to run a part-time Camping World Truck Series schedule with Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2013.
Jones earned his first truck win in November 2013 at Phoenix International Raceway, and has since collected three more truck victories. Those victories led to a full-time truck ride with KBM and the opportunity to run select XFINITY Series races for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015.
Jones’ name has been circulated as a possible Sprint Cup substitute for Kyle Busch, who was injured in the season-opening XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
However, Matt Crafton and David Ragan have thus far filled that role, piloting the No. 18 JGR Toyota through the first seven races of the year. Crafton jumped in the car for the Daytona 500, while Ragan has served as the substitute driver since the second race of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
While Ragan will once again drive the No. 18 this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, and likely do so again at Richmond International Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway, Gibbs’ comments have left many speculating whether Jones could be in Busch’s Sprint Cup car at Kansas Speedway on May 9.
Despite the speculation, Jones said he has yet to hear from JGR officials that a definitive plan is in place for his Sprint Cup debut.
"I haven’t heard anything, personally, but I’m sure they have a plan somewhere in there. Whether it’s down the road or this year, they’ll figure it out," said Jones. "I haven’t heard anything other than what everyone else knows now."
Jones said the reality of beating 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and two-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. in last weekend’s XFINITY race is finally starting to settle in. After the rush of the Texas race weekend, Jones was able to watch the race replay for the first time.
Both Keselowski and Earnhardt praised Jones both after the race and on social media. Always close to the action, Busch also reached out to Jones following the impressive victory over the two Sprint Cup regulars.
"He texted me right after the race, and Coach (Joe Gibbs) called him in Victory Lane and we got to talk a little bit there," Jones said of Busch.
The experience of racing against Keselowski and Earnhardt was a huge boost for the driver preparing to make his Sprint Cup debut, but Jones knows that transition will not be a simple task.
"Kind of all along we’ve been preparing for that, whenever it comes," he said of his Sprint Cup debut. "Just getting prepared mentally and physically. Obviously it’s quite a bit longer race, and just getting prepared for that is a big deal.
"It’s also a different group of guys," he said of his future Sprint Cup competition. "Racing with Brad and Dale at Texas was a great experience, and they race hard, but rather than two guys pushing you around and racing you hard, you’re going to have 20 guys doing that. Just a little bit different mentality that I’ll have to prepare for as the time comes, and I think Kyle will be a pretty big resource in that sense."