Erik Jones: Elusive Cup win 'has lifted a lot of weight off my shoulders'

Erik Jones passed Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap to earn his elusive first NASCAR Cup victory. Photo by Michael Bush/Icon Sportswire

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It took only 2,044 days.

When Erik Jones, at age 16, beat Kyle Busch to win the prestigious 2012 Snowball Derby late model race, race fans and analysts said Jones would one day hoist a NASCAR Cup Series trophy.

He owned all the talent necessary. He despised losing. He just needed the opportunity and to learn how to handle the adversity that often dogs drivers who are used to winning more often than they will in NASCAR.

Jones also had to fight the unexpected emptiness of losing his father -- the person he considered his best friend -- who died of cancer in June 2016.

This journey to his first Cup win climaxed Saturday with a last-lap pass of Martin Truex Jr. -- his former teammate when he drove for Furniture Row Racing as a rookie last year -- as the 22-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver captured the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

It took 57 starts in the NASCAR Cup Series to earn that elusive first Cup victory, the final hurdle in the six-year quest since that Snowball Derby triumph.

"I would have thought it would have took longer," Jones said. "When I won the Snowball Derby in 2012, I was 16 years old. I didn't have any opportunities in NASCAR at that point. I kind of thought I was going to find something else to do pretty soon. I thought I might get some smaller opportunities for other teams. But that kind of changed everything for me. These last six years have flown by."

It didn't start that way. Jones didn't run a full NASCAR season until 2015 when he captured the Camping World Truck Series championship. He finished fourth in the 2016 Xfinity Series and was pegged to win right away when he jumped to Cup in 2017.

Instead, he went winless in 2017 for Furniture Row. Undeterred, Joe Gibbs opted to jettison 2003 champion Matt Kenseth and tabbed Jones as his replacement.

"Drivers are like quarterbacks; if you don't like pressure, you need to get out of your profession," Gibbs said. "It just comes with it. There's always pressure, particularly in this sport. You're the guy with the wheel."

A driver doesn't replace someone like Kenseth unless he's expected to win. Anything less would have Gibbs answering questions about whether he made a boneheaded decision replacing a champion with a driver who had never won a Cup race.

"You feel the pressure, for sure, in coming into the year in taking over and working with almost the same group that was with Matt last year," Jones said. "You feel that and you want to go out and perform and run really well.

"I definitely feel this race has lifted a lot of weight off my shoulders, for sure."

Crew chief Chris Gayle never got that sense of pressure from Jones.

"We've never had conversations about him following in Matt's shadow in the car," Gayle said. "He's more a guy of knowing what his capabilities are, knowing what he thinks he should be capable of doing and measuring to what he should be doing and not necessarily measuring to the guy before."

In the final laps at Daytona, Jones outdueled drivers who had won Cup races as he took the lead from defending Cup champion Truex on the final lap.

"Congrats to Erik and his team," Truex said. "They've been fighting hard to get to where they're at, and [it's] always good to see a first-time winner."

Truex then threw some shade two days after track owner International Speedway Corp. president John Saunders said that the sport has an issue with star power. Saunders, in talking to financial analysts, said hopefully the young drivers could win and build their brands as the sport seeks stars to replace those who recently retired.

"Now maybe ISC and those guys can be a little bit happier about things," Truex said.

AJ Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne and Chris Buescher -- drivers who all have Cup wins in their careers -- finished in the top five in a race in which 20 of the 40 cars wrecked out.

"He's a good kid, he's a good driver," said Buescher, who gave Jones the push he needed for the win. "I like seeing the younger kids coming through this thing being able to get their first win.

"I know the feeling. To be able to get that weight off your shoulder is nice."

Truex also wouldn't rue the result.

"I really obviously wanted to beat him, but [I'm] happy for him," Truex said. "If you're going to run second to somebody, that's kind of the story, I guess, you'd want to see out of it."

While all first-time wins are special moments, Jones had the additional element of winning as a tribute to his father, who once lied about Jones' age so he could meet the minimum age to race.

"My dad, just wishing he could be here to see it," Jones said. "This was Step 1 of the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal obviously is a Cup championship, and the first step in that is winning a race. ... It sure would have been special to see his reaction to that last lap and his excitement.

"It probably would have been off the charts."

The excitement would have been the result of a 15-year journey since Jones' first time in a race car and built over the past six years since that definitive Snowball Derby win.

"I would have never thought six years would have went by so quick, but looking back right now over the six years and what all has happened and places I've been, things I've done, it's flown by," Jones said.

And now on to the next step -- winning a championship. The victory, his seventh top-5 and 22nd top-10 of his Cup career, launches Jones into the 2018 playoffs.

"You want to be a winner," Jones said. "You don't want to be riding around. It's good to get top-10s and top-5s. But at the end of the day, you want to win races, you want to be competitive.

"You want to be a contender."