A year ago, Erik Jones stepped across the stage during driver introductions at the Camping World Truck Series WinStar World Casino & Resort 400 at Texas Motor Speedway to accept his high school diploma.
He’s not all grown up, but there’s no debating that Jones has taken large strides since that day in pursuit of his professional ambitions.
Having left his childhood concerns behind, the 19-year-old Jones returns to the 8 p.m. race Friday in the running for the series title in his first full season on the circuit.
A filled-out physique symbolizes a more confident racer no longer wet behind the ears and who is now an emerging star. It’s all part of the evolving, yet almost transformed driver of the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.
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“It doesn’t seem that long ago,” said Jones, whose actual graduation last year conflicted with race week. “That was my first mile-and-a-half in the Truck series. There were so many unknowns going into the weekend.
“I wouldn’t say I was not confident, but I was pretty heavily inexperienced and it showed in the race.”
That raced ended in an 11th-place finish.
Today, Jones enters third in the series standings, 14 points behind two-time defending champion Matt Crafton — the winner of this race in 2014 — and Tyler Reddick, at 19 another young face of the Truck series.
Though he’s still seeking his first Truck victory in 2015, Jones’ list of accomplishments in the past year were three of his four career Truck race wins, plus an eye-popping triumph in April’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at TMS, one of a handful of races he has competed in in the Xfinity Series this season.
Though still learning his trade, he’s seeking another good experience at TMS.
“The trucks were far superior to my abilities a year ago,” Jones said. “Now I feel like, at least on my end, I’ve caught up and we’re able to go and use the full extent of the trucks.
“My first time here I wouldn’t say it was anywhere near my favorite. It wasn’t the best day, but after getting the Xfinity win here I felt quite a bit more confident in what we had there and also my abilities here.”
Jones’ season has been a whirlwind of exposure on all three of NASCAR’s top levels, including Sprint Cup, where he seems fated to land. He debuted there a week after winning the Xfinity race at TMS, jumping behind the wheel of Denny Hamlin’s car after the veteran racer was forced to leave with a neck spasms. He steered the No. 11 to a finish of 26th.
Last month at the Kansas Speedway, subbing for Kyle Busch, Jones qualified 12th, but turned in a 40th-place finish after crashing.
Crafton, who has three runner-up finishes at TMS, has dominated the Truck series the past two years. At TMS in 2014, Crafton recorded the largest margin of victory for a Truck Series race, gambling with the last 61 laps by going without a pit stop for fuel.
It paid off in a 13.302-second victory after leading 118 of 167 laps.
“Both of the young guys are doing very, very good,” Crafton said of Jones and Reddick. “I don’t worry about them as much as yourself. [If] you start looking over your shoulder, you start making mistakes.”
Jones can now focus solely on his blossoming Truck series season hopes. An eventual series title seems only a natural progression.
The last time out, at Dover, Jones ran third, behind the victor, Reddick and his Ford. The finish was one of four top-fives on the season and five top-10s.
“It’s been funny,” Jones said. “I’m having to get back in Truck series mode of points racing. I was so spread out between the Truck and the Xfinity Series that I just wasn’t focused on anything except going out and racing and winning.
“I wish it wasn’t as close as it was. You count the ones that got away, but you can’t look back on it like that, you just have to focus forward and do what we’ve been doing all year: Keep bringing fast trucks to the track and figure out how to go out and start winning.”
WinStar World Casino & Resort 400
Friday, at Texas Motor Speedway
Qualifying: 5:15 p.m.
Race: 8 p.m., FS1
Erik Jones’ truck season