The sign of a mature racer is to not to try and take more than the vehicle is giving you. Despite battling a ToyotaCare Tundra that he described as "tight center and loose off" for the majority of Sunday's Kroger 250 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, 17-year-old Erik Jones showed veteran poise in just his sixth career start and was able to keep his Toyota inside the top five for the majority of the event.
The Michigan native lined up fifth for the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish and appeared to be in a position to record his sixth career top 10 in as many starts, until he got turned by Johnny Sauter as the field headed down the backstretch. His Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM) machine was sent spinning hard into the inside wall, bringing out the ninth caution of the race. After a quick trip down pit road to allow his over-the-wall crew to clear the fenders, Jones took the second attempt to finish from the 20th position and was able to gain two spots over the final laps to end the day with an undeserving 18th-place finish.
"I think it's pretty clear what happened -- we just got wrecked and I'm not sure why," Jones said. "It's unfortunate -- we ran up front most of the day and had our ToyotaCare Tundra in a position for a solid top-five finish. We made some good adjustments throughout the race and the guys had fast pit stops, we just didn't get the finish we deserved."
Jones earned the fourth starting position, based on Friday's practice speeds, per NASCAR rules when Saturday's qualifying session was washed out. During the first half of Sunday evening's race, he ran inside the top-five while communicating that his Tundra "starts off snug and then goes too loose." Crew chief Eric Phillips dialed up an air pressure adjustment during the competition caution on lap 36 and a wedge adjustment under caution on lap 92 to try and improve the handling for his young driver.
Shortly after restarting third on lap 137, Jones got moved to the outside lane and by the time he was able to tuck back in line was scored in the eighth spot. He surrendered two more positions during a long green-flag run and was scored in the 10th spot when the fifth caution of the day occurred on lap 192. Phillips summoned his driver down pit road for four tires and fuel, along with another wedge adjustment.
The 17-year-old took the lap-197 restart from the ninth position and would slowly but surely move forward as the race approached the closing laps. As cautions began to breed more cautions, the racing prodigy was able to gain positions with each restart. He advanced up to the eight spot one lap later and on lap 215 maneuvered his way into the seventh position. After a restart on lap 231, the Michigan native jumped up one more spot to sixth. He took advantage of another strong restart on lap 236 to gain another position and remained running fifth until a three-truck accident set up the green-white-checkered finish and subsequent incident on the ensuing restart.
Matt Crafton picked up his first win of 2014 and the fourth of his Truck Series career. Jones' KBM teammate Darrell Wallace Jr. finished in the runner-up position and Ben Kennedy came home third. Sauter finished fourth and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top-five finishers.
The second race on the 2014 season featured 10 cautions for a total of 56 laps. There were 17 lead changes among six drivers. The No. 51 team fell to seventh in the Owner's point standings after leaving Daytona with the lead.
Owner-driver Kyle Busch will behind the wheel of the ToyotaCare Tundra when the Truck Series resumes action at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City on May 9. Live coverage of the SFP 250 on Fox Sports 1 begins with the Truck Series Setup Show at 8:30 p.m. ET.