MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Kyle Busch is one of the few people that knows what driving in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series feels like as a 16-year-old. In fact, he was the last 16-year old to compete in the series before NASCAR imposed a minimum age requirement of 18 near the end of the 2001 season. So, it is very fitting that with Saturday’s Kroger 250 being the first race under NASCAR’s new modified age requirement – which allows 16 and 17-year-olds to race on ovals 1.1-miles or shorter in length as well as road courses – that Busch, now an owner, will field 16-year-old Erik Jones in his No. 51 Tundra.
When Jones takes the green flag for Saturday’s 250-lap race, his first of five events scheduled for this season, he will become the first 16-year-old to compete in the Truck Series since Oct. 14, 2001. That day, Busch finished ninth in the Orleans 350 at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway and picked up his second top-10 finish in six starts. Busch was scheduled to run a few more races in 2001 and a full schedule in 2002, but was forced out of the truck when NASCAR imposed its minimum age requirement.
Jones enters his Truck Series debut already haven proven capable of winning on some of late model racing’s biggest stages. In August of 2010, at the age of 14, he became the youngest winner in ASA Late Model History when he won the Bob Cross Memorial at Dixie Motor Speedway in Birch Run, Mich. Then, just over a month later he became the youngest winner of the prestigious Oktoberfest Super Late Model race at LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway in West Salem, Wisc. In 2011, Jones collected seven fast time awards two feature wins en route to the JEGS/CRA Late Model All-Star Tour championship. Later that year, he became the first non-Florida resident in over 30 years to win the Governor’s Cup Super Late Model race at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway.
Already boasting an impressive resume for a young driver, Jones earned the respect of Busch from their dealings at a pair of late model races last season. With the Sprint Cup Series racing at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway the same weekend as the All-American 400 at Nashville (Tenn.) Fairgrounds Speedway last October, the NASCAR star was unable to participate in all of the practices for the event. Jones stepped in and helped fine tune KBM’s No. 51, leaving Busch with what was the dominant car in the first half of the race before he cut a tire after picking up debris during a long rain delay and ended up in the wall. Then, last December on the biggest late model stage in the country, the Michigan native outdueled Busch in the closing laps of the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. en route to victory in the prestigious event.
“I’ve been around Erik a few times running late models — he’s a good kid and a good driver, so we’re excited to be adding him to the crop of young talent we’ve assembled at KBM this season,” Busch said. “He did a nice job practicing my late model at Nashville last year for the All-American 400 and then he raced me hard and clean in the closing laps of the Snowball Derby to win that race. Doing those types of things is how you get recognized in this sport.”
When practice starts on Friday and the new kid is officially on the clock, he will be equipped with the same No. 51 Tundra that Denny Hamlin drove to victory in last October’s Truck Series race at the half-mile track. With KBM’s history of success at Martinsville, the teenager is hoping to add a Truck Series top-10 finish to his resume when he clocks out.
Erik Jones, Driver of the No. 51 NCWTS Toyota Tundra:
What do you know about Martinsville? “I’ve watched races there for as long as I can remember and it has always been one of my favorite tracks. It’s a real bullring type of track — obviously turning the center and getting off the corner is going to be big. If we can get that figured out, I think we will have a pretty good day.”
What will be the biggest challenge for you this weekend? “I’m used to racing on short tracks, so I don’t think that running Martinsville will be a big jump. I think the biggest challenge will be getting used to the feel of the truck in practice on Friday. KBM has been so successful at Martinsville in the Truck Series, so I’m confident they will have a strong Tundra for me. I definitely think that we can come out of this weekend with a top-10 and maybe even a top-five finish.”
Rudy Fugle, Crew Chief of the No. 51 NCWTS Toyota Tundra:
How did test go last week and what are your expectations for Erik this weekend? “Erik showed a lot of speed right off the trailer and gave good feedback. He’s a smart kid — you could tell he has been raised as a racer right from the beginning. If you didn’t know who was in the truck, you wouldn’t have been able to tell if it was a 16-year-old or a 40-year-old in there. I think realistically that we can go to Martinsville with him next week and run in the top 10 — if not the top five. If we can do that, it’s Martinsville and you never know what might happen at the end of the race.”
Erik will be driving the same Tundra that Denny Hamlin won with last October — will the setup be similar as well? “We have the same chassis that Denny ran last October at Martinsville and we’ll unload with the identical setup that they ran with in that race. Then, we’ll make some small adjustments based off of Erik’s feedback and fine tune the truck to his liking. The biggest challenge is that it is supposed to be in the 50′s and raining on Friday and then be low 80′s on Saturday for the race, so the track is going to change a lot.”
Erik Jones’ No. 51 Toyota Tundra:
Chassis 134: Chassis 134 will make its first start of 2013 in Saturday’s Kroger 250. The Tundra has three top-three finishes over its four career starts for KBM, including a win with Denny Hamlin at Martinsville last October in the Kroger 200. The Toyota also had a podium finish at Martinsville with Brian Ickler, who came from the 32nd starting position to finish third in the 2010 Kroger 250.