Perhaps it’s fitting that Nickelodeon is the title sponsor for Saturday’s Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway.
After all, NASCAR’s next big thing — Erik Jones — will make his first Sprint Cup Series start during the SpongeBob SquarePants 400, starting in place of injured Cup star Kyle Busch in the No. 18 M&M’s/Red Nose Day Toyota.
“That’s pretty good and pretty funny,” said Jones, 18, who was born roughly three years before SpongeBob SquarePants debuted in May 1999.
Jones, who put together the best 10-lap average during Friday’s morning practice session, barely had his driver’s license when he won his first race in the Camping World Truck Series in 2013 at Phoenix International Raceway.
He was behind the wheel for five races that season and claimed a top-10 finish in every race for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Jones, who turned in the fastest lap (191.306 mph) during Friday’s final practice, drove in 12 trucks races last season, including three more wins and eight top-10 finishes. He also made his debut in the Xfinity Series in 2014 and had top-10 finishes in all three starts.
Three weeks ago, Jones got his first taste of the Sprint Cup Series when he took over for Denny Hamlin at Bristol Motor Speedway. Hamlin drove the race’s first 22 laps but couldn’t continue because of neck spasms.
Jones was back home preparing to take a nap the day after he finished fourth in the Xfinity race when Joe Gibbs Racing called and asked him to return to Bristol, Tenn., as Hamlin’s fill-in for the rest of the race.
That was predominantly a learning experience for Jones.
“Obviously, that was a tough situation to be put in, and I felt like if we could have started farther up front and not all the way at the back that we could have possibly finished a little better than we did,” Jones said of the experience at Bristol. “I felt pretty comfortable in the car by the end of the day. … To feel that comfortable in the car there made me feel pretty confident about this weekend.”
Jones said Bristol, a half-mile track, remains something of a mystery to him, but he feels more comfortable on 1.5-mile tracks such as Kansas Speedway.
“I feel like the mile-and-a-half tracks are something that’s come to me in the past few months, and it’s something I’ve figured out a little more, which makes me comfortable about this weekend,” Jones said. “I feel really good about it, honestly. Bristol was kind of a big test session for me, letting me get laps and knock some of that new-car, new-team rust off and get a good feel for it.”
Jones has had some success on 1.5-mile tracks already on the Xfinity series. He led seven laps and was in contention to win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before a late-race crash. He also notched a checkered flag at Texas Motor Speedway.
“I learned a lot (in Las Vegas) about — not only the feel I needed in those cars to go fast and make speed — but some of the other things as well, with racing around other cars, racing side-by-side, racing behind and around traffic, and I think that was a pretty big learning day for me to get more comfortable in a car on a mile-and-a-half,” Jones said. “I think I can take a lot of that stuff over to this side of things.”
Jones, who finished 11th in Friday’s Camping World Trucks Toyota Tundra 250 after running out of gas, isn’t sure how long his cameo on the Sprint Cup circuit will last. But rest assured, at this rate, he’ll be racing in NASCAR’s main series soon.
“Honestly, we haven’t really thought much past this weekend,” Jones said. “We’re all hoping Kyle can come back. I know he’s ready to come back. Right now, it’s just Kansas and going out and seeing what we can do this weekend.”
Busch broke his right leg and left foot in an Xfinity Series race in February at Daytona International Speedway.