Erik Jones doesn’t come from a racing family and didn’t grow up in a racing hotbed.
Despite lacking such built-in advantages, Jones, 20, finds himself in stock-car racing’s big leagues as the youngest full-time driver on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit.
Jones — a native of Byron, Mich., who pilots the No. 77 Toyota Camry for Furniture Row Racing — has his mom, Carol, to thank for the nudge that sparked his meteoric rise.
“My family didn’t race, but they liked racing and they were casual NASCAR fans,” Jones said. “We’d have the race on pretty much every Sunday, but we’d never really been involved in the sport.”
That changed when Jones was 7 and his mom read an article about quarter-midget racing.
“She asked if I wanted to do it and I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely. What kid doesn’t want to race?’ ” Jones recalled. “It took off for me. I caught right on and just really enjoyed it right away and knew it was something I’d want to keep doing for a long time.”
Within six years, and long before he was legally allowed to drive on city streets, Jones started running Late Models and eventually became the first 15-year-old driver in ARCA Racing Series history.
Three months after a 16-year-old Jones fended off Cup series veteran Kyle Busch to win the fabled Snowball Derby in 2012, he signed a deal to drive five Camping World Truck Series races for Kyle Busch Motorsports despite only being eligible to compete on tracks shorter than 1 1/4 miles because of his age.
By 2015, Jones was the Truck series champ and made regular appearances in the Xfinity Series after signing with Joe Gibbs Racing.
That was also the year he debuted in the Cup series, filling in for an injured Busch at Kansas Speedway’s spring race.
Jones had to pinch himself after qualifying 12th for the race and started on the sixth row alongside his idol, Jeff Gordon.
“On the pace laps and standing on pit road before the race, I’d glance over and I was kind of a fan about it, but once we got racing it was all business,” Jones said. “I was trying to focus on my job at that point, but that was a pretty cool moment and I actually got to race with him for most of the night. We were racing around the same spot most of the day, so it was a pretty cool experience.”
Joe Gibbs Racing planned to start a fifth team and add Jones the 2016 Cup season before implementation of NASCAR’s Charter System capped teams at four cars.
Jones’ dream wasn’t deferred long after 5-Hour Energy agreed to sponsor Jones in Furniture Row’s upstart second team, but being a rookie hasn’t always been fun.
He wrecked out of his first Daytona 500 and crashed the last two weeks as well, finishing only four of 400 laps two weeks ago at Richmond International Raceway.
For Jones, who currently sits 20th in the points standings with one top-10 finish in the season’s first 10 races, the lessons have come fast and furious, but he wouldn’t change a thing.
“Growing up, I always wanted to race for a living and my goal obviously was to make it to the top level, but I didn’t know if I’d ever get the shot and didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to do it,” Jones said. “Certainly, I didn’t think it would be at such a young age with the way it’s all come together. It’s hard to believe at times, for sure.”