KALWASINSKI: Chicago Chips
CHICAGO — Is Erik Jones the next Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth? Who knows?
But one thing is certain, the 17-year-old Byron, Mich., driver turned in an impressive performance last Sunday afternoon at Indiana’s historic Winchester Speedway as he captured the 42nd annual Winchester 400 late model stock car race.
Wheeling his Kyle Busch-owned Toyota Camry No. 51, Jones rose to the top of the class and bested a stellar field of drivers from throughout the country to score the win.
Leading the final 49 laps, Jones, who has seen limited “seat time” in a super late model car this year, held off 2010 race winner and this year’s fastest qualifier Chase Elliott for the victory in the ARCA/CRA presented by Jegs Super Series event. Mason Mingus, Augie Grill and Daniel Hemric rounded out the top five in the 37-car field that competed at the half-mile, high-banked paved oval.
Two years ago (2011), Jones was the Jegs CRA All-Stars Tour champion, winning two main events during the campaign. In 2012, Jones was picked to drive Busch’s Toyota on a limited basis and even defeated his boss in the Snowball Derby at Florida’s Five Flags Speedway last December. Sunday’s Winchester victory added another prestigious trophy to Jones’ trophy case.
“It’s pretty awesome to have a Snowball Derby trophy and a (Winchester) rifle sitting there (in my trophy case),” said Jones after his victory. “It’s a big, big thing for me. Coming here in the 51 car really shows how strong that thing is on the race track.
“We qualified fourth and I just wanted to ride around. This race is usually a survival race. I was surprised how many cars were left on the lead lap. We kept with our strategy. There were times when we kind of fell back and we kind of looked like we were losing it a little. It was really our strategy coming into play. I knew we could put the next set of tires on it and go back and run up front. The day went exactly how we wanted it. Cautions fell our way. It was a perfect day.”
Young Jones was making his second Winchester 400 start. In his first start last year, he finished 12th after being involved in a late-race accident.
“I’ve run probably four or five races here,” said Jones. “I’ve been in contention for them all and just had something go wrong at the end. It’s great to finally get the monkey off my back here at Winchester.”
The first 96 laps or so saw no yellow flag caution flag periods as the likes of Elliott, Grill and Johnny VanDoorn led the race. VanDoorn, a three-time ARCA/CRA champion, was looking for his first career 400 victory and a $100,000 bonus if he could pull it off.
VanDoorn had the opportunity to claim the JEGS/CRA Super Late Model $100,000 Triple Crown Bonus if he could win Sunday’s battle. VanDoorn won the first two legs in the Triple Crown, which were held at Michigan’s Berlin Raceway and the Anderson (Ind.) Speedway earlier in the year. The Coopersville, Mich., speedster was among the race leaders all day and in contention to almost the very end in his Port City Racecars entry.
“Everything was going as planned, right down to out pit stop strategy,” VanDoorn said after the race. “We broke something in the car. I am not quite sure what happened. I thought I had a flat tire. We’ll have to take a look at it (the car) once we get it back to the shop. My crew did a great job on the pit stops. We were lined up on the outside on that last restart. Everything was going like it was supposed to and something broke there at the end.”
Dramatically dropping off the pace during the last 25 laps or so, VanDoorn was credited with an eight place finish, one lap down to the leaders.
The starting field was represented by drivers from 12 different states and Canada. Noticeably absent for this all-star-type event were drivers from Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Forty entries were on hand.