In first Sprint Cup start, driver of the No. 18 led a lap, spent time in top five
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Erik Jones turned plenty of heads in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start, but a promising run was derailed after he smacked the wall on Lap 196 of the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Jones, running in the top five, was fending off the hard-charging — and eventual race winner — Jimmie Johnson, who praised the efforts of the 18-year-old over the No. 48 team radio, when the No. 18 Toyota got loose and hit the outside wall.
"I just lost it," Jones said while standing next to his crew, feverishly attempting repairs. "I’d never gotten that loose all night. Just stepped out and went over the edge. I don’t know why; I didn’t expect it. Have to learn from it and get better. We had a good M&M’s Camry up to that point.
"I learned a lot. We were fast and we had good speed."
Jones, subbing in for injured driver Kyle Busch, returned to the track on Lap 212, 23 laps down. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin was involved in a wreck right before he returned to the track, allowing him to finish 40th to Hamlin’s 41st-place finish. Jones also led a lap; his first in the Sprint Cup Series.
"It’s too bad, we had such a good night going," he said. "It’s just a matter of trying to get a little bit better on my end and figuring out where the limit is. Unfortunately, we found it there."
It was the second straight evening in which Jones endured heartbreak. The NASCAR Next alum was enjoying a dominant run on Friday night in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Toyota Tundra 250, leading 151 laps before he ran out of gas and settled for an 11th-place finish for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
With a goal of a top-15 finish for Saturday, knowing that he was on pace to exceed those expectations and failed because of a mistake could rattle a driver. Yet it was clear Jones was unfazed and focused.
"We had good speed. It definitely makes me confident we can go run with these guys and I’m excited for my next opportunity, whenever that is. It was a good night overall. A lot to learn and a lot to take from it."
And that’s exactly how Jones has to look at this opportunity. While Saturday was his first start, the Michigan native got his first taste of Sprint Cup racing a few weeks ago when he filled in for an aching Hamlin after a lengthy rain delay at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Driving a Cup car at that age is a true sink-or-swim test — just ask Joey Logano, a former JGR product — and while Jones didn’t quite stay afloat, he certainly didn’t drown.
"I learned a lot about racing in traffic and racing with these guys and how the air works," Jones said. "Unfortunately, I wish I could’ve finished it out, but we definitely had a top-10 car, it’s just a shame we couldn’t get the result. Not a bad night overall. We’ll get a little bit better and try again."
While Jones has yet to say officially if his Cup schedule extends beyond Kansas, he may have let slip a little hint that we could see him behind the wheel of the 18 when the series comes home to Charlotte the next two weeks.
"We’ll try to get a little better next week."