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Jones Headed to The Top? Let’s Slow Down a Bit, Please

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, July 13 2018

Erik Jones leaps from his car after winning last Saturday night’s Cup race at Daytona. Is he ready to leap into superstardom? (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

As I rolled up the old pant legs and waded into media reaction to last weekend’s racing in Daytona, Iowa, Epping and Bowmanville, a headline caught my eye. It read, “Erik Jones showing he’s ready to rise to the top”.

The accompanying piece – presumably and hopefully an opinion piece – proclaimed Jones victory in Saturday night’s Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway “a breakout moment for the 22-year-old” Jones.

The piece continued:  Jones’ “résumé speaks of someone more than capable of picking up the slack created by the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart.”

Looking up from the laptop screen a couple minutes later, the reaction was: Hope I didn’t give myself a concussion with the repeated face palms.

Let’s have a look at this “breakout moment” by Jones.

Jones is, indeed, 22 years old and he did in fact win at Daytona. That’s about where fact-based analysis ends.

Jones led one lap on Sunday. The final one. The race was a restrictor plate race. If you know racing, that tells you plenty.

In Saturday’s plate race, only 13 cars finished on the lead lap and only half the cars that started were not involved in major wrecks. I suppose you could say that that shows Jones is a honest to goodness genius at staying clean. Or, the golden horseshoe was, er, in the house.

Not there for the finish Sunday – and, thus, unable to assume their regular spots at the front of the field – were guys named Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Logano, Keselowski, Jimmie, Larson and Elliott. That left more room for a surprise victor.

Finishing on the lead lap and within sight of the lead on Saturday night were would-be breakout drivers Kennington, Gaughan, DiBennadetto, Buescher and Earnhardt (as in Jeffrey Earnhardt). That is, five drivers who have zero wins among them. All were in inferior equipment compared to the stuff Joe Gibbs Racing put under Jones.

The points is, anybody can win a plate race. Most racing journalists I respected during my years on the beat opined that if Danica Patrick were going to win a race, it would be at Daytona or Talladega.

Among drivers who have won plate races in the past were Derrick Cope, John Andretti, Michael Waltrip, Ward Burton, David Ragan, Aric Almirola, Rickey Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, Phil Parsons, Bobby Hamilton and Brian Vickers. Not exactly Murderers Row. None ever rose to the top.

Collecting wins and a Camping World Championship and nearly winning an Xfinity Series championship is not the same as replacing Gordon, Stewart and Junior. Ask Ron Hornaday Jr. and Jack Sprague.

I get it. The lack of success by the young, bargain-bin drivers in Cup in 2018 is a topic for brisk discussion and “hot takes”. And I get that a good way to attract eyes and tapping fingers is to have the hottest takes.

But notching one plate win on a wreckfest Saturday night in rain-threatened Daytona may not be an adequate foundation for claims that Jones is showing he’s ready to rise to the top.

Never met Jones. And, no bragging about being an expert at judging the talents and potential of young drivers. (I predicted big things for J.J. Yeley, who was, like Jones, very good at lesser events and venues).

But I am cognizant of the fact that in auto racing, where the whims of mechanical machinery and the actions of 39 other very heavy 190-mph cars and drivers crowded onto a track that can be much narrower than 50-feet, often does not lead to the best and quickest to victory lanes.

Yes, absolutely, Jones may go on to big things. He may win more races than Richard Petty, more championships than Jimmie Johnson and more hotdog eating contests than Joey Chestnut.

But, please, a little perspective until, say that first championship. Or at least let’s come up with a working definition of  “the top”.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, July 13 2018
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