Matt Kenseth lost his appeal Thursday, officially sidelining him for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
That’s not the worst thing for Sprint Cup race fans, though. Stepping in for the 43-year-old Kenseth will be Erik Jones, a promising 19-year-old who sits atop the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series standings.
Jones is considered part of racing’s next wave of standout drivers. He’s among a group of drivers the sport is counting on to re-establish its relevance at a time when staples such as Jeff Gordon (at the end of the season) and Tony Stewart (at the end of 2016) are retiring.
To be part of that next wave that people think [of] is pretty cool and a pretty big honor.
“To be part of that next wave that people think [of] is pretty cool and a pretty big honor,” Jones said. “I never thought I’d be in that position. A few years ago, I kind of wondered where is my opportunity going to come from, where is my spot going to be in the sport? But everything works out at the end of the day, and it’s working out more and more every day.”
Jones finds himself in a promising position. He signed with Kyle Busch Motorsports in March 2013 to drive in the truck series, and has made the most of that opportunity.
In November 2013, Jones became the youngest driver — at just 17 —to win a truck race, then won three truck races in 2014. He has two wins this season and is in the driver’s seat for the championship.
6 career Truck Series wins for Erik Jones
If that’s not impressive enough, consider that Jones won the Xfinity Series race at TMS in June — the first time he drove in that series at Texas.
“Winning at Texas was a breakthrough moment for me,” Jones said. “Just to get that first win out of the way and know you can do it is a pretty cool moment. It opened up some more doors and more opportunities for me.”
That is certainly true. Kyle Busch Motorsports is somewhat of a farm system for Joe Gibbs Racing, and the team has pegged Jones to run full time in the Xfinity Series next year with a few Cup races.
Sunday marks Jones’ second career Cup start; he also subbed for an injured Busch at Kansas last May. Jones actually made his Cup debut under unique circumstances in April when he filled in mid-race at Bristol for Denny Hamlin, who was experiencing neck spasms.
But Jones is just one of several promising drivers in the field Sunday.
Kyle Larson, a 23-year-old from California, has flashed promise with 26 top-10 runs over the past two seasons. Ryan Blaney, a 21-year-old third-generation driver, notched his first Cup top-five finish at Talladega in May.
There are more on the way, too. Chase Elliott, 19, is poised to step in for Gordon next season, and native Texan Chris Buescher should get more and more Cup opportunities in the near future with Roush Fenway Racing.
“Racing isn’t unlike any other sport, every sport goes through these periods of transitions where one guy moves on and the next guy becomes a big superstar,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “You know, Joe Montana was the greatest quarterback until … Brett Favre then Peyton Manning then Aaron Rodgers.
“I remember when everybody was concerned with Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough were at the end of their careers, and along came guys like Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt. We’re in a period of transition. I don’t know who is going to become the next big figure. Is it Kyle Larson? Or Chase Elliott? Or Austin Dillon? But someone is going to come along and help move the sport forward.”
There are plenty of fresh faces in every rank of NASCAR, and the sport’s future seems to be in good hands.
Just ask Gordon.
“As long as car owners are out there willing to give young talent an opportunity, this sport will thrive, because that is what I was given,” Gordon said. “A lot of great drivers like Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart … when you get people like that and give them a chance, that’s what creates excitement in the sport and grows the talent.
“And every once in a while you’ll find someone in there that not only has talent, but also a personality that radiates and connects to fans. That’s what I want to see and that’s hopefully what’s going to happen.”
AAA Texas 500
Texas Motor Speedway
1 p.m. Sunday, KXAS/5