The chaotic choreography of Talladega Superspeedway “looks so beautiful on TV and from afar.”
That, in the assessment of 21-year-old Erik Jones. But now that’s gotten up-close and personal, he has found other descriptions. Like “hectic.” And “challenging.” And “a lot harder than it looks.”
Jones, a second-year driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, was handed the keys to the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing, previously piloted by Matt Kenseth.
He’ll be making only his third Cup start at Talladega Superspeedway in the April 29 GEICO 500 — only his eighth appearance. His debut was in 2014 in the truck series — just four months after his high school graduation.
“I went out for practice the first time by myself, and you don’t see how big it is, how much room there is, how much you can do, until you get out there,” Jones said. Then comes the “hectic” racing in a multi-car pack.
“You get more comfortable every time you go back,” he said.
Adding to the comfort zone is a wealth of knowledge for the unique challenge of a restrictor-plate race, with former ’Dega winners Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch as teammates.
“Denny is the best plate racer we have. He really understands how it works and we’re all able to learn a little from him each time we go. It’s been pretty nice to have that experience to lean back on,” he said.
Jones visited Auburn University in earlier this month as part of a publicity appearance on behalf of Talladega Superspeedway. He even did a helmet swap with Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn.
The helmet Jones won’t swap is maize and blue, with the familiar wing on the crown. He is a Michigan native and only three days earlier, he had been on campus at the University of Michigan, for which he is a loyal fan, watching the Wolverines’ NCAA basketball championship game on a closed-circuit broadcast.
“That’s a dangerous question down here,” Jones laughed when asked for his SEC vs. Big 10 take. “Over the years, Michigan has had some good teams. Right now the SEC has probably got the advantage in a few areas, a few teams. But the Big 10 teams are more competitive than people think.”
He admitted “we’ve got some work to do at Michigan” and in an even more painful admission said, “as much as it hurts me to say, Ohio State is always a strong (national) contender.”
Then, in perfect diplomacy, “It’d be interesting matchups if (the SEC and Big 10) played more often.”
Jones’ trip to Auburn was part of the sport’s effort — darn near a crusade — to connect with younger fans.
Retirement has taken some of the most appealing drivers of recent years — Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and, most recently, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
That has left a void. But it has also left an opportunity for a new wave of drivers to win races and, maybe equally important, win fans. Racers like Jones, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are the future.
“We all see it, we all hear it,” Jones said. “At the end of the day, there’s only so much we can do. A majority of it is going out and running well and winning races and becoming the guys fans want to follow.
“On the other side, the sport is changing so much,” he continued. “There’s more access to the drivers through social media and even at the track. It’s a different role. We have to show different things. We’re learning and finding out the limits of personality we can show and what we can do and what fans are interested in seeing on a day-to-day life. That’s something I’ve learned over the last couple of years, is what fans are looking to see from us, what interests them, then how to try to connect on that level.”
NASCAR drivers like Erik Jones understand this: They’re living in a 200-mph world with 280-character limit.