Kyle Busch Motorsports' Erik Jones has successfully won the 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship, the youngest person ever to do so at the age of 19 years, 5 months and 21 days.
CLICK: Full NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race results form Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I think it's going to take some time to sink in, you know, but just an awesome season. Just a real team effort from the start," Jones said after Friday night's season finale, the Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway which was won by the champion of the last two years, Matt Crafton.
"Putting the team back together to championship form there for the latter part of the season and really going and working for the championship and earning ourselves a cushion coming into Homestead, and honestly still being able to run strong at Homestead all day - just really proud of everybody. Just can't thank them all enough," said Jones, who is the first driver to successfully clinch a title with KBM.
Jones came into the season finale with a strong points lead, but one not so big that it couldn't easily have all come undone at the hands of a disastrous early retirement. As a result the watchword of the night was prudence, doing just enough to make sure of the championship without getting carried away and getting caught up in a battle for a race win just for the sake of it.
"Yeah, I'd say it was conservative," he admitted. "We never put ourselves in a position to be in a situation we didn't want to be in. I thought we did a good job of letting everything sort out and then kind of going to work and getting spots.
"It's a shame, I think we had a really good truck, but we never really needed to race or had the opportunity to go up and race with the guys up front. You know, we just kind of ran around the middle part of the top ten all day, and that's honestly all we needed to do."
Matt Crafton's bid to secure a third consecutive title had been effectively undone by a poor outing last week at Phoenix which left him too far behind in the points to realistically hold on to the title. However, that didn't mean he wasn't determined to do absolutely everything in his power this weekend. He started by picking up pole position in qualifying with a final round lap of 32.229s (167.551mph) at the 1.5-mile intermediate track putting him 0.106s ahead of John Hunter Nemecheck as he picked up his fourth pole of the year and 11th in 361 Truck starts, although the first time he had succeeded in started on point at Homestead.
Crafton then led for the first 31 laps, but his pace started to fade shortly before the first round of green flag pit stops allowing Nemechek to go to the front for the first time. The pit stops favoured Joe Gibbs Racing's Daniel Suarez who emerged at the front on lap 50 ahead of Nemechek and Crafton, followed by Brad Keselowski Racing's Tyler Reddick, Crafton's ThorSport team mate Johnny Sauter and Red Horse Racing's Ben Kennedy. Crucially however Erik Jones was calmly circulating comfortably in the top ten, which was all he needed to do to clinch the title.
At the front, Suarez got increasingly involved in lapped traffic and on lap 61 he got loose while racing on the high line and spun into Dexter Stacey's MAKE Motorsports truck, reinstalling Nemechek at the front for the restart, who vied for the lead back and forth with Crafton through to the next caution on lap 75 for GMS Racing's Brandon Jones spinning out in turn 2. Crafton saw off a new challenge from Nemechek at the restart with the yellows swiftly out again on lap 83 as Suarez had his second incident of the night, hitting the wall and spinning in the same spot as Brandon Jones just had.
With the leaders pitting, KBM's Christopher Bell stayed out to take the field back to green but Crafton was swiftly back in charge and he stayed there for the remaining 46 laps, leading a race-high 93 of the 134 laps of the night in total. He had done everything he could on the night, and duly clinched his sixth win of the season and his 11th career victory, but it wasn't enough to retain his title for a third consecutive time, although he'd known that coming in and was philosophical on victory lane.
"Tonight's win was awesome," he said. "To be able to take the gloves off and don't worry about a championship and just go out and win, and that's all we had to do was worry about winning, and I said nothing else was going to make us happy. So that's what we did tonight.
"We had a phenomenal season, six wins and 780 laps we led. That's a pretty good season. We just had one column that was bad for us: DNFs. I made mistakes and everybody made mistakes. But I promise you one thing, it's going to make us stronger for 2016."
Nemechek crossed the line in second place ahead of Reddick, who finished the year as runner-up in the championship to Jones, whose sixth place behind Ben Kennedy and Timothy Peters was enough to see him clinch the title by 15 points.
"I can't say enough about the kid to my right, Erik Jones here is just awesome," said KBM team owner Kyle Busch. "To have the opportunity to work with him over the last two seasons on the part-time side and to get him ready for the full-time side, you know, I'm thankful that he's stuck with me and that he believed in what our plan was for him, to give him this shot and to give him this opportunity, and I think he's got a lot of bigger and greater things to have on his plate with years to come."
Jones won't have to wait long for that future to start. He'll move up to the Xfinity Series next year with Joe Gibbs Racing and also take part in select Sprint Cup events, having made his début at the top level with JGR deputising for an injured Kyle Busch in May and a suspended Matt Kenseth in November.
"Absolutely, I think the Xfinity Series is completely necessary," Jones said of JGR's plans for him. "I have no problem running a year there.
"I don't know what the exact career path is for me down the road," he added. "At some point, yeah, I want to race in the Cup series every weekend. I feel like there's a plan in place for that opportunity to arise. And I'll just keep taking what's given to me every week and go out and try to win races."
He will doubtless be doing exactly that in 2016, starting with Daytona in February. And he'll be doing it as a proven NASCAR champion.
See full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Camping World Truck Series championship standings.
Get the latest NASCAR news straight to your Twitter feed! CLICK HERE to follow Crash.net's new dedicated NASCAR Twitter feed