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Erik Jones opened the defence of his Lucas Oil 150 title in the ideal way, by setting the fastest time in NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice at Phoenix International Raceway on Thursday.
Jones left it late to set his best lap of 26.764s (134.509mph) during his final run of the second of the day's practice sessions. That put the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver 0.072s faster than ThorSport Racing's Jeb Burton when the chequered flag came out to conclude the day's track activity.
Earlier, Jones' KBM team mate Darrell Wallace had topped the shorter earlier session of the day with a time of 27.362s (131.569mph) putting him 0.061s clear of Brad Keselowski Racing's Ryan Blaney.
Jones scored the first of his three series victories here at the one-mile, low-banked tri-oval exactly a year ago, and has since notched up return visits to victory lane at Iowa and Las Vegas despite only running a partial season of 11 races in 2014.
However the good news for the 18-year-old from Michigan is that he has been confirmed with a full-time seat at KBM in 2015, and he will also have the opportunity to run at least ten races in the NASCAR XFINITY Series (the new name for the Nationwide championship next season.)
"This is obviously a huge step for me and my racing career in general – a step towards even having a shot at a championship really, so this is my first opportunity to go out and race for a championship in any of the three NASCAR Series," said Jones on Thursday.
"Toward the end of this season, he had a stretch where he was behind the wheel for five of six races on all types of tracks and each week he went out, ran up front and showcased how talented he is at such a young age," said team owner Kyle Busch.
Another driver with good news for 2015 is Brandon Jones, this weekend making his fifth start of the season driving the #33 GMS Racing truck. Jones (from Atlanta, and no relation to Erik) has been confirmed with a part-time spot with Richard Childress Racing in the second-tier XFINITY Series next season.
"I have been watching Brandon the past few years and like what I see in him as a driver and a person," said Richard Childress. "Adding him to our developmental program and putting him in our No. 33 Chevrolet is a good move for us and his career. I look forward to seeing his progression next year and welcome him to the RCR family."
"This is a great opportunity for me and I'm looking forward to driving RCR cars," said Jones. "They are a multi-championship team in the XFINITY Series and I know I have a lot of work and learning ahead of me. I couldn't think of a better team to race with than RCR."
Jones was 21st fastest in the first 55-minute session, and 22nd fastest in the subsequent 90 minute session albeit with a laptime improved by almost two tenths of a second.
This weekend's Phoenix race is the penultimate out of the 2014 season for the Truck field, with the battle for this year's championship approaching its climax. ThorSport's Matt Crafton currently holds a 23 point lead over Blaney with Wallace a further 20 points back, meaning that Crafton's rival need him to have a disastrous outing this week to keep their title hopes alive.
However Crafton had a solid opening day, the current reigning Truck champion notching up the third fastest time of the first session and maintaining a top ten spot with seventh place in the final practice later in the day.
SS-Green Light Racing's Korbin Forrister brought out two cautions in first practice after spinning the #08 in separate incidents in turn 4, going on to finish the session with the 24th fastest time. In second practice, there were cautions for the #80 Frank Ingram Racing Ford driven by Jody Knowles hitting the wall in turn 2, and for Bryan Silas needing a push back to pit lane in the #99 T3R2 Chevrolet.
Blaney sustained some damage to the right rear of the #29 truck during the day, and Johnny Sauter suffered rear-end damage after getting into the wall in the #98 ThorSport Racing Toyota.
Sauter is racing just a week after the passing of his father Jim Sauter, himself a former NASCAR driver with 76 Cup race starts to his name. He made his Cup début in 1980, and his final national-level race outing was in the Nationwide Series at the Milwaukee Mile in 2002 when he raced against three of his sons - Jay, Tim and Johnny.
Jim Sauter had been recovering from heart surgery when he died aged 71 last Friday night, while Johnny was on track at Texas Motor Speedway. Cup veteran Mark Martin paid his condolences via Twitter, saying: "Sorry to hear Jim Sauter died. He was a really good man and a great racer."
The sanctioning body also paid its respects in a statement, which read: "NASCAR offers its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Jim Sauter. A true racer, Jim passed on his passion and competitive spirit to his children and grandchildren. A driver himself with roots in the Midwest, his reach and impact extend across the entire sport."
Many of the trucks racing this weekend at Phoenix will carry a special decal in memory of Jim Sauter.
Johnny Sauter had been in title contention all season until recent weeks, but he's since slipped back from his ThorSport Racing team mate and now stands 52 points adrift of Crafton in the current standings. He was eighth fastest in the first practice session, and 15th fastest in the second before his contact with the wall.
The next action for the Truck contenders will be qualifying at 2.45pm local time (9.45pm GMT) with the 150-lap Lucas Oil 150 taking the green flag under the floodlights at 6.30pm (1.30am GMT) later in the day.
Also in action on Friday will be the Sprint Cup field for first practice and qualifying for the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500, while the Nationwide drivers will be on track for two practice sessions ahead of Saturday afternoon's 200-lap DAV 200 race.
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