NASCAR: Erik Jones set for Nationwide debut this weekend in Chicago

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After winning last weekend’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Iowa Speedway, 18-year-old Erik Jones is hoping to keep the momentum going this Saturday in his Nationwide Series debut at Chicagoland Speedway.

But Jones also acknowledges that Saturday’s 300 is going to be a “pretty big step” up for him.

“At first, I’m just going to be looking to make laps and get to the end of the race and hopefully running up in the top 10,” Jones said today in a NASCAR teleconference.

“At the end of the day, we’re all race car drivers and we all want to go for the win. I think we’ll be challenging hard to do all we can to run up front and contend, and at the end of the day, I hope we’ll be up there.

“I know we’ve got great equipment and a great team. I’m pretty excited to see what it’s all going to bring.”

Saturday’s race is the first of three Nationwide races this season for Jones in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He’ll also run it at Bristol in August and at Phoenix in November.

JGR Sprint Cup driver Matt Kenseth has made the bulk of the starts in the No. 20 Nationwide machine this year (five Top-5s and nine Top-10s in 11 starts). It’s a solid ride, which will raise expectations a bit for Jones.

But it’s not like he isn’t used to that. The No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota Tundra that he drives part-time in the Truck Series (and won with last weekend in Iowa) won the 2013 owner’s championship. This season, Busch himself has won all five of his Truck Series starts in the No. 51.

But for this weekend, Jones will seek to learn everything he can from his JGR veteran teammates about dealing with the challenges of Chicagoland, which are quite different from the ones that he’s encountered on the short tracks.

“All my background is short track racing,” Jones said. “I haven’t had a lot of experience with racing on a mile-and-a-half with how the air works and all that. But definitely, my mindset is open to just trying to take advice from my teammates.

“I’ve got two great teammates there in Elliott Sadler and Sam Hornish that will be there, so definitely going to lean on them a lot and hopefully get a lot of information out of them as to what they do on these tracks and how they race and just try to learn from them.

“They’ve obviously done it a lot longer than I have, and just hopefully I can learn a lot from them and go into the race and learn a lot and come out a better driver than I was.”

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’

Photo: Chris Estrada, NBC Sports
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NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”