I have to admit, when I first heard of Joe Gibbs Racing’s call to put 18-year-old Erik Jones behind the wheel of its No. 18 Toyota NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ride as the latest fill-in for the injured Kyle Busch, I wondered if JGR didn’t learn anything from its Joey Logano snafu of several seasons ago.
In the years since moving Logano up from the Xfinity (then-Nationwide) Series to Sprint Cup in 2009 to replace the departing Tony Stewart, car owner Joe Gibbs has acknowledged more than once that Logano was moved up to stock car racing’s biggest stage too soon. Stewart’s departure to start Stewart-Haas Racing with Gene Haas put Logano’s climb up the NASCAR ladder on fast-forward. Fortunately, unlike some others before him, though, Logano’s career has recovered from being “thrown to the wolves,” so to speak, to being that of a championship contender.
But the more I think about Jones in the No. 18 and listening to takes others have on the matter and the points brought up by those others, the more I’m warming up to the idea. Jones may be only 18, and he hasn’t yet completed a full season in either of NASCAR’s other national levels. Heck, he’s not even old enough to have been able to have a previous full season under his belt. But he’ll be gaining the best possible experience in somewhat of a no-pressure situation.
When Logano was moved up to JGR’s No. 20 car back in 2009, that No. 20 car was his full-time ride, a ride he inherited from a then-two-time Cup champion, with both of those Cup titles coming in that car.
Okay, so Busch is regarded as one of the best NASCAR drivers out there, and Jones is replacing him, in a sense. But keep this in mind — Busch is coming back. This No. 18 ride isn’t Jones’ for good. He’s merely a fill-in.
As far as pressure, there may be pressure from fans for him to perform. After all he’s already won in both the Camping World Truck and Xfinity series, even though he’s running only his first full truck season and his first partial schedule in the Xfinity Series. But I’m guessing JGR and sponsors won’t be applying so much pressure. As a fill-in driver, I’m sure JGR doesn’t expect Jones to go out and win races. He can’t make the Chase anyway, as he claimed the Truck Series as the series in which he’s championship eligible. I’m thinking as far as Joe Gibbs Racing goes, the goal, at least at first, is to just make laps and keep the seat warm for Busch’s return.
If there’s any positive to a driver being sidelined by injury as Busch is, this is a perfect situation for Jones. I’m assuming Busch is going to be out of commission for several more races. That’s just that many races in which Jones will be getting precious experience in the form of track time during race conditions in a top-tier Sprint Cup car. And that experience will come in, I’m guessing, a no pressure situation, specifically no pressure from his race team.
I think it’s a given that Jones’ future includes a Sprint Cup ride of his own at some point. Without Busch’s injury, Jones probably never would’ve had an opportunity to prepare for that future by getting so much Cup experience with no pressure for him to perform consistently among the “big boys.”
The more I think about it, the more I realize that this is the perfect situation for Jones.
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