Brooklyn — It is easy for racing fans to get excited about Erik Jones.
Coming into the season, the 22-year-old driver had a peerless resume. The native of Byron, Michigan, is the only rookie of the year in all three NASCAR series.
Jones drove one season for Furniture Row Racing, in 2017, garnering 12 top-10 finishes in 36 races before Joe Gibbs Racing signed him.
And, in his first season with one of the premier teams in the NASCAR Cup Series, Jones is one of only five drivers other than Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. to win a race this year.
He is in the playoffs beginning Sept. 16.
Through 22 races, he has four top-five finishes, including in the last two races at Pocono and Watkins Glen. He has 11 top-10 finishes.
Jones qualified fourth Friday for the Consumers Energy 400 (2:30 p.m., Sunday, NBCSN) at Michigan International Speedway.
It all encourages the hope, even the belief, that someday Jones could join Brad Keselowski as the only NASCAR Cup champions born in Michigan.
Others counsel caution.
“I put a lot of weight on how you made it to Cup racing. That means a lot to me,” said Mark Martin, the retired driver who is often referred to as the best driver never to win a championship, during a career in which he won 40 races and finished in the top-10 453 times.
“It’s not just what you’ve done while you have been here, but how you made it,” Martin said.
At age 15, Jones outdueled Kyle Busch, the 2018 NASCAR Cup series leader and 2015 champion, in a super late model stock car race at the Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.
“At 15 years old, he outran Kyle Busch at the Snowball Derby, which is the Daytona 500 for asphalt, late-model racing,” Martin said.
“Kyle ran second to him, and went over to him after, and immediately wanted to sign him up.
“And, he did.”
So impressed was Busch, he put the teenaged Jones into the late model cars and NASCAR trucks for his racing team.
“That’s the Erik Jones that I really look at,” Martin said. “Man, he outran Kyle Busch when he was 15! That’s amazing!”
But a remarkable story of youth and nonpareil resume do not necessarily make a champion.
“Obviously, he’s done well with everything he’s driven,” Martin said.
“But when you get to where he is at right now, Cup level, it’s much more difficult to get everything exactly right, to click. Where you can have amazing grooves, and realize your full potential.”
Joey Logano entered the Cup series with a “can’t miss” label, only to stumble. Then, when Team Penske saw promise in Logano, he went on a tear.
“That is always what Joey was capable of,” Martin said. “But we almost didn’t get to see it.
“Well, that’s the same thing that Erik is capable of, and I feel like we will get to see it, over a period of time.”
But, that does not suggest it will come easy.
'Time will tell'
Steve Letarte, the former crew chief for Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is now an analyst for NBC, said so many factors have to line up that, despite Jones’ obvious talent, he would not venture a prediction.
“When I look at Erik Jones and what he accomplishes on the race track, versus his age, I think anyone that’s going to try to predict where his career goes is crazy,” Letarte said.
“I think that his confidence these days is going up,” he said. “I think it will be impossible to set the ceiling. I think his talent is remarkable. His race knowledge is remarkable.
“I really look at how other drivers talk about him, and how other drivers drive around him. They do it with what seems to be a tremendous amount of respect, which is usually a great judge of talent.”
So, what makes Letarte, and others, hesitant to call the shot for Jones? Because Jones swims with the sharks.
“It’s a decision of, what car do you drive?” Letarte said. “When you get to drive, does the schedule line up with your driving style? Do the tires line up with your driving style?
“There are so many moving targets that have to align for you to be Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart-type levels. You’ve got to be remarkably talented. But you have to have other things line up.
“And, I have no doubt that Erik Jones is remarkably talented. Will the future line up for him? Only time will tell.”
Clint Bowyer, who won in June at MIS, said it is about much more than a driver’s ability to maintain pace.
“That doesn’t mean anything in our world,” Bowyer said. “Anyone can go fast. It’s how they restart, how they race, how they run during the course of a run. Are they always moving forward, or going backwards?
“Those are the things that I look for on somebody that’s going to be a challenge for me on any given Sunday: How they race in traffic, and how they manage their tires and their setups so they can be good not only during that run, but how they handle the next stage and then how they get to the finish.
“You see some guys finding consistency in that. You see some guys really struggle with that. And, I think that’s what separates the men from the boys in this sport. And, it always has.”
Consumers Energy 400
When: 2:30 Sunday
Where: Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Mich.
Support race: Trucks, Corrigan Oil 200, 1 p.m. Saturday