By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
There’s nothing like a championship to validate the efforts of a young driver — or a team owner, for that matter.
When Erik Jones and Tyler Reddick take center stage as the opening act of Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the spotlight will shine squarely on the two 19-year-olds, one of whom will become the youngest-ever NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, barring a Matt Crafton miracle.
Just as the significant, however, is the battle between the owners of the two teams, Kyle Busch (Jones) and Brad Keselowski (Reddick), two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series superstars who are at the vanguard of the sport when it comes to recognizing and developing new talent.
Both drivers are keenly aware of the contributions of Kyle Busch Motorsports and Brad Keselowski Racing to the success of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
“All along our goal at KBM has been for me to run for a driver’s championship, and be able to get KBM its first driver’s championship,” Jones said Tuesday morning during a conference call with reporters. “So to be able to put ourselves in this position to have a great shot to go and get it, that’s just a big accomplishment in itself.
“I’d be really, really happy if we can bring that back to KBM. For everything they’ve done for me, and for everything Kyle has done for me. To be the youngest to do it would be a bonus for me.”
Reddick is equally committed to delivering a championship to his boss.
“(In) the bigger picture, obviously, this is a big deal to everyone at Brad Keselowski Racing,” Reddick said. “It’s a really big deal to Brad, too.
“He’s really been wanting a championship for his team, and everyone else back at the shop has been working hard at it. It’s going to come down to this last race, and hopefully we can pull it off.”
That will be a tall order for Reddick, who enters Friday night’s Ford EcoBoost 200 (8 p.m. ET on FS1) trailing Jones by 19 points. The bottom line is this: if Jones finishes 15th or better in the 32-truck field, no matter what else happens, he will become the youngest-ever Truck Series champion at 19 years, 5 months and 21 days old.
The one advantage Reddick has is that his approach to the race is clear-cut. He can go all out for the victory, finish as high as he can and do everything possible to erase Jones’ advantage.
“Obviously, the situation we’re in, we’re going to have to run very good,” said Reddick, who will be 19 years, 10 months and 9 days old on Friday. “We’re going to have to win and lead as many laps as possible to try and put Erik in a situation where he has to run 15th or better.
“So hopefully we do everything we can, and we have a little luck on our side too and maybe we can get it done. We’ll see.”
Jones, on the other hand, will have to resist the temptation to take unnecessary risks in pursuit of KBM’s first driver’s championship.
“It’s nice to have a cushion, for sure,” Jones said. “It’s way better than going into the race and leading by three points or five points or something like that. So it’s fortunate we are in a situation where we don’t have to win the race. We don’t have to run top-five. We don’t even really have to run top-10.
“So I think it’s going to be somewhat conservative of an a approach, but I don’t think we need to change our approach by a whole lot… The big risk for anybody is getting up into the fence the way you get around that place. But I think most of the day we’ll just concentrate on not ever really getting up by the wall.
“We don’t need to make that kind of time. And I think as long as we don’t do that, we can probably run seventh or eighth and be pretty comfortable most of the day and close this deal out.”
Note: Crafton, the two-time defending series champion, is 32 points out of first place and still mathematically alive for the title, but Jones can eliminate him with a finish of 27th or better. Jones’ worst finish in 22 races this season is 23rd at Gateway Motorsports Park, and he enters Friday night’s race riding a wave of 14 straight top-10 results.
Image: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images