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Fort Worth, Texas (April 10, 2015) - It was a rookie-veteran showdown under the lights Friday night, and the young gun came out on top.
With a fast car and heavy right foot, 18-year-old Erik Jones was able to hold off Sprint Cup Series regulars Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Texas Motor Speedway.
"Man, I don't even know what to say right now, it's all just so surreal," Jones said after scoring his first career XFINITY Series race. "Confidence is something I have never doubted in myself. I've always had that mindset to believe in myself. Growing up, getting here in Victory Lane in Texas in the XFINITY Series, it's been amazing.
"We beat Cup guys tonight, that's huge. That's huge for us and huge for our team. I never once doubted these guys. I knew from the start this was going to be a good deal. It's definitely showing now. I can't wait for the rest of the year."
Making his first career start at the 1.5-mile speedway, Jones and his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota were impressive from the start of the day, winning the pole in qualifying and then showing speed throughout the entire 200-lap event.
Most impressive, however, was how well Jones handled racing two of the best in the business.
With just over 50 laps to go in the race Jones and Earnhardt Jr. had a heated side-by-side battle for the lead, with Jones eventually clearing the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet for the top spot.
Jones' biggest test came when the race restarted with 26 laps to go. Choosing the inside line on the restart, the rookie had a very hungry Keselowski and Earnhardt Jr. pushing on the high side.
Hanging tough on the bottom, Jones was able to clear the two Sprint Cup regulars off Turn 2 with 25 laps to go, and he never looked back.
"Man, he raced hard," Jones said of racing Earnhardt. "He raced us hard and we gave it right back and we raced right back with him. I hope he had fun. I had a blast.
"I know I came out on the better end. It was so much fun, just hard racing like that with those guys. They've been doing it so long, they know exactly what they're doing and I'm still trying to figure a bunch of it out. Learned a lot racing side-by-side with those guys. Just so happy right now."
Prior to the start of the race, Keselowski dropped to the rear of the field after the team changed the fuel pump and components. Giving up his second-place starting spot, Keselowski was forced to slice and dice his way through the field in the opening laps. By Lap 48, he was in the lead.
Unable to catch Jones, Keselowski brought the No. 22 Team Penske Ford home in the second spot, his best finish of his three XFINITY Series starts this season.
"Erik had a great car and did a great job," said Keselowski. "We ran wide open side-by-side for about two laps in a row and eventually he cleared me. That was good racing."
For Earnhardt Jr., the short run to the finish hurt his chances at victory, as his car was much better on the long green-flag runs. Coming home third, Earnhardt also earned his best finish of the season.
Standing on pit road afterward, Earnhardt praised Jones for his talent, saying he has known about it for some time.
"I couldn't go when we needed to go," said Earnhardt. "The car was just real loose all night. We made great adjustments Dave (Elenz, crew chief) and the guys helped the car quite a bit. We needed green-flag pit stops my car was real fast on green flag stops.
"Good job to Gibbs and Erik and all those guys. I thought Brad had the best car, but right when it counted Erik took off and drove a great race all night. I knew he was good, now everyone else knows."
Regan Smith finished fourth, while Austin Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr., Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher and Brian Scott rounded out the top 10.
Friday night's O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 saw 15 lead changes among eight different drivers, and was slowed six times by the caution flag.
With a 12th-place finish, Ty Dillon holds a two-point lead over Buescher in the series standings as the series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway next weekend.