By: Isaac Donsky, Columnist
If you were to tell me three years ago that Brandon Jones would be a legit championship contender in the NASCAR Xfinity Series by 2020, I would probably ask you what you had been smoking. To be honest, even hardcore fans such as myself are genuinly surprised at Jones’ success this season.
Because at the end of the day, pay drivers aren’t supposed to fight for championships.
The phenomenon of pay drivers is a constant across all motorsports, not just NASCAR. In short, a pay driver is a driver who drives for a top-tier team not because of talent, but because of the lucrative sponsorship deals said driver brings with them. Pay drivers are extremely controversial within the world of motorsports. Some fans argue that they help struggling teams by bringing in necessary cash that a team may need to continue operations. Others argue that they hog seats that more deserving drivers should occupy, and that their lack of talent is harmful for the sport.
In the case of Brandon Jones, he has driven top-tier equipment for almost his entire career thanks to his association with Menards, a hardware store chain that has sponsored him for much of his career. And, in the opinion of many fans, he is the worst driver currently competing in NASCAR.
Jones is notorious for his tendency to overdrive his racecar, leading to a number of serious crashes. He has also struggled to finish consistently inside the top-10 despite driving equipment that has been proven to win races in the hands of other drivers. His perceived lack of talent has led to criticism from fans and fellow drivers. And yet, despite this, he has managed to drive for a top-tier team every year he has competed in NASCAR’s top divisions, thanks to the massive amount of cash he brings with him courtesy of Menards.
Now, as the 2020 Xfinity Series enters its final stretch, Jones finds himself sitting inside the top-10 in points with three victories on the season. He is a legit dark-horse candidate for the championship, and I personally think he stands a good chance of taking the title.
But how did this happen? How did a pay driver, reviled by the NASCAR world, become a title contender? Let’s try and find out.
Flashback to 2015. After working his way through NASCAR’s developmental series, Brandon Jones made the jump to NASCARs top divisions by competing part-time in the NASCAR Truck Series (basically NASCAR, but with pickup trucks). In a limited schedule, Jones scored 4 top-5 finishes and 8 top-10s. His results weren’t terrible, but they also left a lot to be desired. Despite this, Jones would move up to NASCAR’s second-tier championship, the Xfinity Series, in 2016.
Just for context, I should explain what the Xfinity Series is. The Xfinity Series is basically a proving ground for young, up-and-coming drivers. The series is a hodge-podge of former and current Cup Series drivers, older semi-retired drivers, start-and-parkers, owner-drivers, pay drivers, small-town guys just trying to make a living, and youngsters trying to make a name for themselves. It’s the wild west of motorsports, and easily one of NASCAR’s best divisions.
Most young drivers tend to spend 2 to 3 years honing their skills in the Xfinity Series before trying to find a ride in the Cup Series. Those who stick around longer tend to lose their rides due to a lack of skill. But for some reason, Brandon Jones has now been racing in this category for five years.
It started in 2016. Jones joined Richard Childress Racing, one of the top teams in the Xfinity Series. His rookie season was pretty solid, scoring 12 top-10 finishes and ending the season tenth in points. But his sophomore effort in 2017 was an absolute disaster. He scored just three top-10s, and was involved in numerous crashes and spins. His lack of talent on full display, Jones was unceremoniously kicked off Richard Childress Racing at the end of the year. Many assumed his career was over.
But then Menards came swooping in with their sponsorship money to save Jones’ career.
For 2018, Jones joined Joe Gibbs Racing, easily the best team in the Xfinity Series (and all of NASCAR). Immediately, the hate began as fans called foul. A pay driver had just joined a NASCAR super-team. This would not stand.
But Jones kept working on his craft. His 2018 was noticeably better, as he scored 2 top-5s and 17 top-10s. He finished the year ninth in points.
2019 was the breakout season Jones needed, as he scored 6 top-5s and 16 top-10s, finishing tenth in the championship. The highlight of the year was Jones’ first career victory at Kansas Motor Speedway in the fall, a victory that really came out of left field. And 2020 has been even better, with Jones grabbing victories at Phoenix, Kansas, and Darlington.
But the hatred keeps coming, with fans livid that a pay driver has won a major NASCAR event, let alone four. For these fans, Jones would have to drop his Menards sponsorship and run a perfect season in order to please them.
But here’s the thing: he can’t be perfect. Even though Jones has developed massively over the past few years, he still struggles at times to control his car. This year saw a brutal summer stretch for him when he finished last in three consecutive races. He still has the same problems that have haunted him for his entire career. But he’s getting better, and he’s no longer relying exclusively on Menards to keep him relevant in the series (Better results equal new sponsors).
I’m not going to sugarcoat the fact that he isn’t the best driver in the Xfinity Series, because he isn’t, by a long shot. But he is also not as bad as some fans would have you believe. And if he continues to work on his race craft, he may just become the first pay driver to win a NASCAR title.