By Cara Cooper
5 Minute Read
By the time the final week of the 2022 race season rolled around, late model driver Clay Jones knew he had all but locked up the Division I track championship at North Carolina’s Wake County Speedway. However, he thought the North Carolina state championship was out of reach.
He thought wrong.
Jones received a call from an official with the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series telling him if he could finish third or better in Wake County’s final race he would clinch his first state title in his two-decade racing career.
Jones qualified for the final race fifth out of 18 cars, adding nerves given his team had qualified at or near the front in just about every other race that summer. He quickly got up to third and settled in there, knowing if he could stay in that spot he’d have the championship.
With about 20 laps to go, the driver in second place had issues with his car, bringing out a caution and a restart.
“I was right there on the leader’s tail and didn’t really want to get in an altercation or anything to stay in second,” Jones said in a recent phone interview. “He slipped up, and we ended up getting by him on the last lap and ended up winning the race.”
The win was Jones’s eighth of the season. He added six second-place finishes and one third on the way to an 18-point win in Wake County’s late model class. He also tallied 400 total NASCAR points, giving him a four-point victory over Bowman Gray’s Tim Brown for the North Carolina state championship.
“It was just one of those dream-come-true races. You end up winning two championships and winning the last race. It was just a hell of a night,” Jones said. “It was a wild weekend, but it was a very successful year. We all had fun so I can’t complain.”
Jones is the third generation of his family to be a part of racing. His grandfather ran the now-closed Wilson County Speedway, in North Carolina, in the 1970s, and raced on the side, too. Jones’s father, John, as well as his uncles all spent time behind the wheel.
John not only passed down all his racing knowledge to his son, but he’s still a huge part of the team today. Jones called his dad the “brains behind everything.”
“My dad has been in it for so long, and he was very, very successful when he was driving,” Jones said. “Just the knowledge that he’s had over the years and put forth to me racing, he kind of hung up the helmet and put it all on me. With any type of sports team, but especially racing, if you get two or three people that click together, you’ve got something special. Especially when it’s a father-son combo, that makes it even more special.”
Getting to win a state title with his dad made the championship even sweeter, Jones said.
“It was a lot of emotions. Anytime in any kind of sports you’re going to have ups and downs. To finally see all the hard work and late nights kind of pay off, not only for me but my dad. He’s pretty much 100 percent what keeps this thing going,” he said. “All of his hard work and all the time he puts in, to see it all pay off and be so successful this year, and get all those wins and championships and everything, it was a big relief, but it was a lot of excitement too. It was a great time.”
The Joneses are joined in the pits by Wayne Goss, who has been around for many years, Dee Edgerton, and newcomer Josh Laneville, a longtime friend who started helping out this year.
“I told him the other night, ‘You picked a good time to start helping us,'” Jones said of Laneville. “He’s been really excited, the first year into it and being so successful.
“It’s like an army. It really takes a lot of people and a lot of connections to be successful with this stuff. There’s so many people that I’m sure I’m forgetting that I can’t even think of right now that lended a hand or did something for us. It’s been a special year.”
The state championship win was made more special because Jones and his team were able to attend the NASCAR awards banquet, which was presented alongside the annual Performance Racing Industry trade show in Indianapolis.
Jones said he and his dad had talked for years about wanting to go to the PRI show, and he said “It was very special to be able to do that with them and go check all that out, and also be able to receive all the awards.”
“I know a lot of it is on me… but I’ve got to put a lot of it on my dad. It was very special for all the guys and my dad,” he added. “It was more relieving for me to see all the excitement and stuff on their faces than it was mine.”
This track title at Wake County, a NASCAR-sanctioned quarter-mile paved track just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, was Jones’ fourth at the track that sits about 45 minutes from his home. With previous titles in 2014, 2017, 2019, he’s tended to make a habit of racing there for a season and then taking a year or two to travel around and race.
He plans to return to Wake County for another full season this summer, though, along with his car the team nicknamed “The Blue Goose.” “Blue” is nearly 20 years old and has more than 50 wins on it, “but it’s been especially successful at Wake County,” Jones said.
There’s no doubt in his mind Jones wants to try to add another Wake County title to his collection in 2023.
To him, there’s no place like home.
“Honestly, Wake County, the environment and the energy of that place is like no other,” he said. “I tell people all the time it’s like a mini Bowman Gray… Every single Friday night the stands are packed top-to-bottom, end-to-end, people standing on the fence. When you go there the energy of the place is just overwhelming. It’s just so fun.
“I just hope everybody comes back out this year. It’s a very, very exciting, family-fun event. If you’ve never been, it’s definitely one for the bucket list. It’s not even five minutes from downtown Raleigh. It’s on a little old path, and all of a sudden it opens up to a little old racetrack, a little quarter-mile bullring. I’m telling you, it’s the most fun you’ll have in a while.”