Winning is clearly a habit as far as 19-year-old Erik Jones. Fresh from picking up his first win of the season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Iowa Speedway, Jones headed some 300 miles due east for his second appointment of the weekend to take up the seat of the Joe Gibbs Racing #54 entry in the Xfinity Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.
Having missed Friday's practice session in which we was deputised by Drew Herring and then getting only three laps in qualifying on Saturday to get his eye in, it was still more than enough to deal Jones another winning hand as he duly took charge of Sunday afternoon's Owens Corning AttiCat 300. A late challenge from Ryan Blaney proved hard to overcome, but when it was all over Jones was once again parked up on victory lane.
"Just a great car all weekend,” Jones said. “I want to thank Joe Gibbs Racing and Drew Herring who got this car dialed in for us while we were in Iowa. I knew if I could get a run on the #22 at the end I had a car capable of getting away and once I got by him and got out front the car was just fantastic."
CLICK: Full race results from Chicagoland Speedway.
The race had originally been scheduled for Saturday night, but intense thunderstorms in the Joliet, Illinois area forced NASCAR to postpone the green flag until noon the following day instead. Forming the front row for the start of the 200-lap event were Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon and Joe Gibbs Racing's Ross Kenseth (son of Sprint Cup regular Matt), after Dillon claimed his 15th pole in 89 Xfinity Series races and his fifth in 2015 with a lap of 30.583s (176.569mph) on the 1.5-mile speedway. He clocked in just two thousandths of a second faster than Kenseth, who was making his first career NASCAR national series appearance this weekend.
Dillon saw off an initial challenge from Kenseth to lead until the scheduled competition caution on lap 27 arranged to allow the teams to check tyre wear after the soaking the track had taken the previous night. JR Motorsports' Regan Smith took the lead at the restart but then Erik Jones took to the front for the first time on lap 39 and led for the next 32 laps, clearly having taken all the time he needed to dial himself into the track and look in worryingly fast form.
After a round of pit stops was interrupted for an uncontrolled tyre on pit road, Jones was able to get the lead back from Ryan Blaney at the restart. Another caution on lap 97 for Darrell Wallace Jr. spinning out on the backstretch allowed a ore orderly round of stops which were won by a two-tyre call from RCR for Brendan Gaughan, but the older tyres meant he quickly handed off the lead at the restart to Smith and then on lap 111 it was Jones back to the front with Blaney following him through past Smith for second chair.
Blaney picked up the lead after a caution and ensuing pit stops following a stalled car on lap 127, but when the green flag came out it was less than a lap before Jones once again asserted his ownership of the race and pulled out a 1.6 lead over Dillon, Gaughan, Blaney and Kenseth before Dylan Lupton hits the wall in turn 2 on lap 150 to bring out the fifth caution of the afternoon. Confusion over exactly when pit road was open saw 18 cars including Jones penalised for pitting too early and led to a jumbling of the running order for the restart on lap 157 with Blaney in charge ahead of Gaughan, Wallace, Chris Buescher, Cale Conley, Jeremy Clements and Ryan Reed. This setback for Erik Jones proved to be purely temporary and just five laps later he had slotted back into second place.
Blaney was a different challenge altogether, and Jones had still not found a way past him when the next caution came out on lap 177 for Chase Elliott spinning out of 20th position. Nor was Jones able to take advantage of the restart to get the lead, as the yellow flags were out again straight away for Dakoda Armstrong spinning and wrecking on the frontstretch. Blaney once again led the way to the green flag on lap 188 while Jones looked to have his hands full from a twin RCR challenge from Gaughan and Dillon, but the JGR driver was quickly able to extract himself from that scrap and leap to safety with a smart move on Blaney to retake the lead for the sixth time among a total of 23 lead changes on Sunday, a new track record for Xfinity races at Chicagoland.
"I got the inside of him and just barrelled into 3 as hard as I could to clear and slid in front,” explained Jones of his crucial move. "Fortunately it worked and he didn't try to cross us over or anything else."
He would stay out in front for the next 11 laps for a total of 94 of the 200 laps of the race, right until the moment that the chequered came out to declare him the winner by a whisker under two seconds from Blaney. It's Jones' second Xfinity win in 16 series starts after he had achieved his maiden victory in April at Texas.
"Just a solid day all around and to be able to sweep the Father's Day weekend is just incredible," said Jones. "I feel like the mile-and-a-half program is so good with this team.
"It seemed like last year I'd be into these situations and be so nervous," he continued. "This time it's like, 'I've got this.' I felt like I've done it so many times throughout the year and throughout the day that it felt more natural. That's definitely a product of seat time and being in the car every week or the truck every week ... It's been a huge, huge help."
Blaney meanwhile had to be content with second place, quite a feat given that he had wrecked his primary race car in qualifying and was forced to start the race from the rear of the field in the back-up #22.
"It's unfortunate,” Blaney said. “Our car was good early and then we made some adjustments to make it better when the handling went away some. But we had a good run there at the end just couldn't keep it out front.
"I thought it was a good day for us, a decent day," he added. "I felt like I threw it away yesterday wrecking our primary. For our team to get a backup car out and work as hard as they did and have a car contending for the win and to be leading in the last little bit and then just not pull it off, that really speaks volumes to them about how well they prepared."
Jones' team mate for the day Ross Kenseth made his father Matt proud with a sixth place finish on his NASCAR début. “Definitely learned a lot today," said the 22-year-old. “It was a great learning experience and I want to thank everyone at JGR and Dollar General for the opportunity."
Behind Dillon and Brendan Gaughan in third and fourth, a fifth place for Chris Buescher in the #60 was enough to allow the Roush Fenway driver to extend his lead in the championship standings to 29 points over Ty Dillon who crossed the line in ninth place on Sunday. Five more drivers - Chase Elliott, Regan Smith, Darrell Wallace Jr., Elliott Sadler and Brian Scott - all remain within a hundred points of Buescher, and none of them changed position as a result of this week's race. As a Truck Series regular, Jones is not eligible for points in the Xfinity Series. In the owner points, the Roger Penske-owned #22 (driven this week by Ryan Blaney) tops the standings by 30 points over Jack Roush's #60.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series now takes a week off before reconvening at Daytona International Speedway on July 4 for round 15 of the 33-race championship, the Subway Firecracker 250.
A notable absence from this week's entry list had been Viva Motorsports, following the team's announcement earlier in the week that it was ceasing operations after competing in over 70 Xfinity races since its début in NASCAR in 2009.
"I want to thank the whole NASCAR community for allowing me to be part of the family," said owner-driver Jamie Dick. "I want to thank our sponsors and our fans for all the support through the years. But most of all, I want to thank the employees of Viva Motorsports, both past and present, for making this team the best it could be."
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and updated Xfinity Series championship standings.
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