In just his ninth outing in the NASCAAR Xfinity Series, Joe Gibbs Racing's Erik Jones secured his maiden victory in the championship and in the process became the second-youngest series winner ever at Texas Motor Speedway at the age of 18 years, 10 months and 11 days, just six months older than the record holder and current reigning series champion Chase Elliott who won this race in 2014.
"This is surreal," said Jones, who has already been making waves in the last year as a breakthrough talent in the Camping World Truck Series driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports. "This is just amazing. We beat Cup guys tonight! Just a really cool day and something I'm really proud of not only for myself but everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing.
"It's a great feeling knowing you had to work for it, that it was not just handed to you," he added. "That confidence is something I never doubted in myself."
Jones' boss for the night, Joe Gibbs, was certainly full of praise for the rising star. "Erik has great family support and got everybody around him and carries himself well," Gibbs noted. "We're really proud of him. I think he won his first Truck race in his fifth race. The big thing is tonight he beat some good people, good cars up front and really quality stuff. We're proud of him and he should be proud of himself."
"I've watched him race in the Truck Series and he does a great job," added Penske's Brad Keselowski, who had a ringside seat to evaluate Jones' talent as he followed the youngster to the finish line in second place. "He's right there where that 'youth movement' demands you to be successful. This is certainly a notch in his belt and I'm happy for him."
CLICK: Full race results from Texas and current championship standings.
Jones was made to work for his entrance pass to victory lane in the floodlit night race, starting the O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 from pole position for the second time in 2015 having swept all three rounds of qualifying. He finally claimed the top spot with a third round lap of 29.163s (185.166mph) to put him 0.048s clear of Keselowski on the 1.5-mile high-banked quad-oval. However, Keselowski ended up having to drop to the back of the field before the green flag as a result of needing to make adjustments to the #22 before the start of the race.
In Keselowski's absence, the opening laps developed into a back-and-forth tussle for the lead between Jones and JR Motorsports' Dale Earnhardt Jr., until a restart on lap 22 following a caution for a spin by Joey Gase allowed Richard Childress Racing's Brian Scott to move into the top position and take control of the race for a 26-lap stint which allowed Keselowski to work his way back through the field and put him into position to take the lead for the first time on lap 47.
A debris caution on lap 65 followed by a round of pit stops allowed Jones to lead the pack to the green flag ahead of Keselowski, Elliott, Darrell Wallace Jr., Denny Hamlin and Austin Dillon, but Keselowski was far from done yet and used a restart on lap 85 following a spin by Eric McClure in turn 4 to retake the leap and start to pull away, his lead close to two seconds as the race ticked past the midway point.
A debris caution on lap 127 came soon after a round of green flag pit stops, but Keselowski needed to come back on pit road to have some debris removed from his grille that was stopping air intake and causing the engine temperature to rise. That allowed Jones to take point at the restart but he was unable to prevent Earnhardt from getting past him again.
Jones didn't give up, however, and after a dozen laps the #20 was fully back up to speed and able to tap the back of the #88 and use the momentary advantage to push past and to retake the lead, leaving Earnhardt with a mirror-full of a charging Keselowski. The battle was put on pause when Cale Conley ended up in the wall in turn 2 after blowing his right front tyre, taking Brendan Gaughan out in the process. That led to a final restart of the night with 27 of the 200 laps remaining, and it was crucial that Jones held his nerve and his track position at the restart if he was going to have a chance of holding off the two Cup regulars all the way to the chequered flag.
"It was hard racing, two drivers giving 100 percent," said Jones of his battle with Earnhardt. "I learned a lot from him. He definitely raced us hard and we raced him hard.
"At the end of the day we got to race against Dale Earnhardt Jr., a guy I've watched forever on TV," Jones added. "He's a great race car driver and has a great team and to beat him is really, really cool. Man, what a battle. It was fun for me and I hope just as much fun to watch."
Jones also successfully held off Keselowski, who was impressed by what he saw close-up of the teenager's capabilities behind the wheel. "Erik had a great car and did a great job," said Keselowski, a former second-tier series champion in 2010. "We raced side-by-side for about two laps but eventually he cleared me, so that was good racing.
"It was good side-by-side racing and we ran wide-open there, and that's always cool when you're running wide-open and side-by-side," Keselowski continued. "It was a matter of who was going to lift first and nobody lifted. We came up a bit short. We were pretty strong at times…got a little damage on that last pit stop cycle, but who knows? Just up-and-down and barely missed it at the end."
An absence of any further cautions meant that Jones was free and clear at the front, crossing the line an impressive 1.624s clear of Keselowski who himself had nearly three seconds in hand over Earnhardt at the chequered flag. Regan Smith was the highest-placed series regular in fourth place, followed by Austin Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Rounding out the top ten were Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher and early leader Brian Scott.
Finishing just behind Elliott Sadler, 12th place in Texas means that Richard Childress Racing's Ty Dillon narrowly retains his lead in the Xfinity Series championship standings following Texas, but his margin over Chris Buescher is cut to just two points with Chase Elliott a further nine points back in third place ahead of Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Reed and Regan Smith.
See full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Xfinity Series championship standings.
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