DARLINGTON, S.C. – One of the more iconic throwback paint schemes in this year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series field came courtesy of a driver who didn’t necessarily expect to be running the livery at Darlington Raceway.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Brandon Jones rolled out a Gray Ghost-themed No. 19 Mojo Outdoor/iK9 Toyota Supra for practice on Friday at the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval, paying homage to the late Buddy Baker’s 1980 Daytona 500-winning Oldsmobile that terrorized the competition during that time.
Baker drove that machine for Ranier Racing, while Jones is in his second season with JGR in the Xfinity Series. Sponsor iK9 actually brought the idea to run Baker’s Gray Ghost throwback to driver and team.
“Man, this thing looks pretty cool,” Jones told SPEED SPORT. “I didn’t question it at all whenever they (the iK9 representatives) mentioned that (as a throwback). We had a few ideas, but that was the one they liked. … Going back and looking at some of the cars of the past, not many of them had a name, you know? There were very few that gained a name and a reputation like that Gray Ghost of Buddy’s did. It’s a pretty cool, iconic car that we get to race in honor of Buddy and I’m excited to be able to do that here this weekend.”
A fairly-avid history buff when it comes to auto racing, Jones couldn’t hold back a grin when asked what Darlington means to him as a younger driver.
“I’m a guy who loves Westerns and I love back in the day, old timey stuff,” he said. “So it’s cool to see the throwback stuff and how into it the fans get. You know, I love the big trucker hats everybody shows up with, and it honestly educates me as a younger driver. I didn’t grow up in this era, so I’ve had to kind of go back and research some of these cars … and I’ve actually started finding out a bunch of stuff.
“This type of thing does push you towards that a little bit, and it’s sometimes pretty cool to find out some stuff that maybe you didn’t know or didn’t realize before. But this place is special, no doubt.”
Jones was a disappointing 16th in the opening hour of practice on Friday, but rose up the order to eighth in final practice and picked up a tenth of a second in the process, despite a track-temperature increase.
“Gray Ghost was not too bad on the track this afternoon, even though we did a few more laps than we wanted to (in) that first practice,” Jones noted. “You know, there’s only so much you can learn on a set of tires here; it obviously chews them up really bad. It gets really slick, and we had really hot temperatures today as well, which was pretty difficult to grasp the handle of the track during.
“I’m looking forward to the weekend, though,” he continued. “This is always a tough track that we come to on the schedule, but one that’s way different and fun as well. I enjoy racing here.”
Though he started to get things clicking with his team, Jones admitted that Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts/VFW 200 will pose plenty of unknowns, and he isn’t sure just yet what the key to victory will be.
“Darlington … it’s a weird track,” said Jones. “I mentioned that it tears tires up so much, but at the same time, you don’t want to give up any track position and you really want to have to run the tires off of it every stage and chance that you get. It’s a fine line between success and failure. You know, you go out there and you look like Superman for a while and then, there comes somebody that passes you who saved their tires some.”
So who has Jones leaned on to figure things out as he chases his first Darlington victory?
“I’ve been watching Kevin Harvick’s onboard (footage) some from last year,” he tipped. “I think that was a help. We’ll see how much I learned when it comes down to race time, but I think we’ll be in the mix.”
If he is, his throwback paint scheme might just evoke memories of the old days that Jones is so fond of, when Baker would stealthily sneak up on the competition thanks to a car that was said to blend into the asphalt at full speed.
“Hopefully they won’t see us coming and we can take a trophy back home with us,” Jones smiled.
Jones’ Gray Ghost throwback is not the first car in recent years that has nodded to Baker’s iconic color scheme.
After Dale Earnhardt Jr. was forced to sit out the second half of the 2016 season with a concussion, Jeff Gordon drove Earnhardt’s Baker-inspired No. 88 Chevrolet during Darlington’s throwback weekend on Labor Day weekend in 2016.
Earnhardt then brought the livery back in October of 2017 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.