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Teen Jones Gives Xfinity Vets A Driving Lesson In Texas

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 11 2015
Erik Jones in the No. 20 Toyota beat the big boys in Friday night's Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Erik Jones in the No. 20 Toyota beat the big boys in Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin
NASCAR Wire Service

FORT WORTH, Texas – Teen-ager Erik Jones turned his first NASCAR XFINITY Series pole at Texas Motor Speedway into his first series victory Friday night, schooling Sprint Cup stars Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. en route to the checkered flag in the 19th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts 300.

Jones, 18, held off Keselowski on a restart on Lap 175 of the scheduled 200 around TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval for a margin of victory of 1.624-seconds in the first night race of the season. Jones’ first series win came in his ninth start. In the process Jones became the second-youngest series winner at TMS at 18 years, 10 months, 11 days _ a record set last year by Chase Elliott at 18 years, 4 months and 7 days when he scored his first series victory in this event.

“This is surreal. That confidence is something I never doubted in myself,” said Jones, who shared the Victory Lane celebration with crew chief Michael Wheeler. “This is just amazing. We beat Cup guys tonight! Just a really cool day and something I’m really proud of not only for myself but everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s a great feeling knowing you had to work for it, that it was not just handed to you.”

Jones, driver of the No. 20 GameStop/Mortal Kombat X Toyota Camry, previously had competed at TMS in the NASCAR Camping World Series. He started fifth and finished 11th in last June’s annual summer night race.

Jones took the lead for good on Lap 151 from Junior and paced the final 50 circuits. Jones led six times for a race-high 79 laps, 23 more than “Bad Brad,” who started from the rear of the field because of “unapproved adjustments.” Prior to taking the lead, Jones ran up to the back of Junior’s rear bumper and gave him a warning tap.

“That was fun and frustrating,” Jones said. “I knew what he was doing. It was hard racing, two drivers giving 100 percent and giving it all they got, saving nothing. That’s what it’s all about. He definitely raced us hard and we raced him hard. Man, that’s one I can’t wait to go back and watch. That was so much fun.  At the end of the day we got to race against Dale Earnhardt Jr., a guy I’ve watched forever on TV. Man, we put on a great show. I was having fun _ one of the most fun times I’ve had in the race car.”

Keselowski, meanwhile, sounded the horn for NASCAR’s latest youth movement, known as NASCAR Next, after battling Jones through the final restart.

“It was good side-by-side racing there with the double-file restart,” Keselowski said. “We ran wide-open there, and that’s always cool when you’re running wide-open in one of these things side-by-side. It was just a matter of who was going to lift first and neither of us lifted and he cleared me and drove by me.  It’s just part of the deal. We came up a bit short. We were pretty strong at times and maybe had something for him. We got a little damage on that last pit stop cycle, which I think probably hurt us a little bit, but who knows? It was just up-and-down and barley missed it there at the end.”

Keselowski said he really didn’t consider the fact that Jones, a fellow-Michigander, celebrated his high school graduation ceremony at TMS last year so he could compete in that NCWTS event.

“We’re all racing and racing’s a very selfish sport, so you don’t spend a lot of time worrying about others,” said Keselowski, who scored his 11th top-10 result in 15 races at TMS. “I’ve watched him race in the Truck Series and he does a great job. He’s certainly right there where that ‘youth movement’ demands you to be successful. This is certainly a huge notch in his belt and I’m happy for him.

“This is definitely not a good time to sit out of a car. You see this where it seems no one new is coming up and then where everyone new is coming up. It seems to be changing very rapidly in this last year or so. It’s a bad time to get hurt because there’s plenty of youth in this sport. That’s part of it. I don’t want to get out of the seat because I love racing _ and I don’t know how to make money doing anything else.”

Keselowski, driver of the No.22 Discount Tire Ford Mustang fielded by Penske Racing, overtook Junior and his No. 88 Goody’s Chevrolet Camaro on Lap 167. Keselowski’s last best shot to overtake Jones was set up after series veteran Brendan Gaughan and Cale Conley crashed exiting Turn 2 after Conley’s car blew a right front tire. But Jones _ starting on the inside on the advice of NCWTS team-owner and Cup regular Kyle Busch _ held his ground on the restart against Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion.

Regan Smith finished fourth in the No. 7 TaxSlayer.com Chevy, with Austin Dillon fifth in the No. 33 Ruud Chevy. The top rookie finisher was Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., who placed sixth in the No. 6 AdvoCare Ford after starting eighth and running as high as second.

“Good sixth-place finish, I think it’s the best for me with Roush Fenway,” Wallace said. “Exciting night for us. I could not go on the bottom; I hated the bottom. Every time I got on the bottom I wasted like eight years down there. It never helps when you’re trapped on the bottom. But we’re showing progression each and every week and that’s all I can ask for. Our time will come soon. I’m excited for Bristol, Richmond _ those are good tracks for me.”

Earlier Friday, Jones qualified on-pole at 185.166 mph. The race, slowed by five cautions, took 2 hours, 15 minutes and 21 seconds. Jones’ winning average speed was 132.989 mph.

Team-owner Joe Gibbs acknowledged that Jones is on the “fast track” to an eventual Cup ride but will remain focused on his current Truck Series commitment.

“Right now with Erik, we felt like he had a full plate this year because he’s running for a championship in Trucks, so Kyle (Busch) wanted him to do that and we all did, too,” Gibbs said. “He’s maxed-out as far as the number of XFINITY races he can run because some of them conflict with Trucks. As far as down the road, there’s no question that at some point very quick he’s going to be in a Cup car some. I think we have a bit of a strategy there that we talked about. I think he’s ready to go at any time. We’ll just work with that as we go forward.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 11 2015
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