A Reminder to Temper Our First Start Expectations for Erik Jonesby Kyle Pokrefky May 9, 2015 0 comments
Some drivers who make it to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stick around in the series for hundreds upon hundreds of starts; others only wind up making a handful of starts.
But, one thing is for certain for all who have raced in the series – you only get one first start.
Some have the weight of the world on their shoulders with the expectations hoisted upon them ahead of their first start while others have the fortune of entering their first weekend with expectations at all.
With the circumstances – and history – surrounding the impending ‘official’ Cup debut of Erik Jones in this weekend’s SpongeBob Squarepants 400 at Kansas Speedway, one might think that Jones is one of those drivers that has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Recording four Camping World Truck Series victories in 21 starts since 2013 and an XFINITY Series victory through 12 career races since mid-2014, Jones’s natural talent behind the wheel is undeniable as he is also a two-time Snowball Derby winner and a Winchester 400 winner.
Taking a look at his record entering this weekend, it’d be easy to see why one would expect much out of the 18-year-old out of Byron, Mich. for his first Cup start.
But, let’s put the significance of this first start in perspective here.
This weekend’s start in the SpongeBob Squarepants 400, like several of his starts in the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota in the XFINITY Series, comes in the form of a relief drive for the injured Kyle Busch.
Now, if this were a start in Jones’s rookie campaign in Cup, Jones would likely be expected to live up to the record that he has set for himself in NASCAR’s lower divisions. But for a relief start? What happens, well, happens.
Take Chris Buescher for example. The current second-place driver in the XFINITY Series standings was not scheduled to make any early-season starts in the Cup Series yet when a vacancy was made for the drivers position of Front Row Motorsports’s No. 34 Ford, Buescher found himself making his Cup debut on a days notice.
While Buescher is a highly-regarded name to keep an eye on for the future, in the five starts he has made thus far behind the wheel of the No. 34 Ford, nobody set any high standards for the Texas native to live up to, but he has been able to perform – never finishing outside of the top-30 in each of his starts.
An older example of this would be Jamie McMurray’s Cup debut as a substitute for Sterling Marlin, who was injured while leading the points in late-2002.
Nobody expected much (not as a slant against his talent) out of the then 26-year-old when getting behind the wheel of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 40 Coors Light Dodge; and yet McMurray made his name in just his second relief start by taking the checkered flag for the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Remember Joey Logano’s nickname when he was coming up through the NASCAR ranks – ‘Sliced Bread’? Taking a look at Jones’s record in XFINITY, Trucks, and in a late model, you’d think Jones would be worthy of being gifted the same nickname or even being worthy of assuming the nickname from Logano.
Even if Jones is destined to become one of the greatest drivers of all-time, it just wouldn’t be entirely fair to expect immediate success for him in the Cup Series.
Think of it like Jones’s ‘unofficial’ debut in Cup serving as a mid-race substitute for Denny Hamlin in this year’s Food City 500.
All that was expected out of Jones’s relief stint was for him to log laps and keep the car in one piece. He was successful in doing so as he kept the No. 11 FedEx Toyota out of harms way and guided it to a 26th-place finish (that was credited to Hamlin.)
Whether he winds up coming home just outside of the top-20 or he scores a top-five in his official debut, all that’s truly to be expected of Jones today is to keep the car in one piece – and have plenty of fun while doing so.
Welcome to the big leagues Erik. Enjoy it.
The SpongeBob Squarepants 400 will start at 7:30 p.m ET/6:30 p.m CT tonight and will be broadcast on FOX Sports 1, MRN and SiriusXM Satellite NASCAR Channel 90.
Feature Image Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images