NASCAR Cup Series
Erik Jones Claims Southern 500 for Petty GMS
Sep 5, 2022
Erik Jones always believed he would get back to this level even if some of his closest confidants might have doubted.
It’s 2020 and Jones is set to depart Joe Gibbs Racing after a four-year stint that included victories in the Firecracker 400, Southern 500 and a Clash at Daytona but a fair share of disappointment too.
Jones was the first crown jewel of the Toyota Racing Development system to graduate to the Cup Series, but a contractual crunch across the manufacturer and team left Jones without a ride and it became increasingly clear that his next stop wouldn’t be with a modern powerhouse.
And that meant, potentially, the end of the line for Jones as a perennial Cup Series contender.
"A lot of people, I guess, probably counted me out," Jones said. "After leaving the 20 car and leaving an organization that is in contention for wins and championships every week, every year, I think there were a lot of people that were like -- he is going to run out his career with that group and he’s done.
That included folks within his inner circle:
"So you’re not supposed to tell people what you’re doing but some my closest friends called and asked and I told them where I was going -- taking a deal with the (Richard Petty Motorsports) 43 -- and you can tell with your close friends’ voices when they’re disappointed."
For them, it was a letdown that someone they believed in so much wouldn’t be able to showcase his talent in a car that struggled to be decisively mid-pack most weeks, and that was arguably the case last season too.
But the acquisition of RPM by GMS Racing, alongside the debut of a spec car at the highest level has been an immediate game changer for the still 26-year-old, who clearly has much to offer.
The newly christened Petty GMS hired Dave Elenz away from JR Motorsports to serve as crew chief for Jones and the iconic 43 and they have raced around the top-10 more often than not this season. At a minimum, it has been a lateral move from his previous situation, and the skeptics are starting to come around too.
"I was talking to one of those close friends again a couple of weeks ago and he told me ‘I was really nervous for you’ but what you guys are doing right now is proving me wrong," Jones recounted.
Jones added that there was pressure, and nervousness, but that he never lost conviction in himself and abilities.
"I never found myself in a bad place," Jones said. "Sure, I was disappointed at times, but certainly, I never thought to myself, ‘man, I can't do this.’
Jones has been doing this a lot in 2022, even if the results don’t entirely show it.
They probably should have won the second race of the season at Fontana, and pretty much beat themselves in that race, but have also contended on road courses and superspeedways. Now Jones is really wishing they had won because now winning the Southern 500 would have advanced them to the Round of 12.
Instead, they are the first non-contender to win the opening race of the playoffs in 18 years using a variation of the format.
"I mean, it's definitely cool that we're the first ones to do it," Elenz said. "But I think the first thing Erik said to me is, 'Don't you wish we won Daytona?' It's very special that we've done it, but it’s definitely not close to being our ultimate goal."
Jones was intended to be a foundational hire by the old Richard Petty Motorsports front office. They viewed Jones as a young multi-race winner in his mid-20s who was capable in leading the team in developing their Next Gen and that is exactly what he has delivered to GMS Racing competition director Joey Cohen too.
"We had to spend a lot of time this past off-season between the Charlotte tests, preparing for various rules packages and a lot of conversations with our engineers and on the simulator and trying to give Erik what he needs to lead us," Cohen said.
"This is a lot of credit to him, our senior leader and a guy we trust to lead our engineers, the crew chief and lead our guys to work in the car so it's what he needs."
Jones conceded that he is active in the engineer’s room, but that leadership to him came down to the 43 team’s roster, and that meant targeting Elenz as soon as he was available.
"When we were at the end of last season and knew we were making a change as far as crew chief, there are obviously a few names you put on the board to go after and Dave was the resounding guy we wanted to get," Jones said.
"I knew as soon as we got him signed it was going to be a different season. … He's been a bigger game-changer than what I could ever bring to the table."
Regardless, two seasons after his dismissal from Joe Gibbs Racing, here was Jones racing in the top-five against Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, his former teammates. He held Hamlin off for the win after Busch and Truex fell out with mechanical issues.
He won’t admit it, but it had to be satisfying on some level.
"At the end of the day they gave me a great home for, whatever it was, three years, and I had a great time there," Jones said. "I learned a ton. What I've learned there is what I've brought with me to this camp the last two years, and without that experience, I don't know that we would have ever built to this point, to be totally honest with you.
"I'm always thankful for what they did for me in my career early on, through Trucks, Xfinity, early in Cup, and like I totally believe without them, I wouldn't have been at this point."
This point, again, is the operative phrase.
Jones looked like the future of Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing Development. While Jones didn’t stick in the 20 car for a variety of circumstances, he still carried the pedigree of the two-time Snowball Derby winner turned Truck Series champion and Xfinity Series wunderkind who appeared to be a young anchor for his previous team.
He doesn’t like the word ‘redemptive’ because Jones always believed that he would win again, and really sees the start of something special at Petty GMS based on what team owner Maury Gallagher has done in the Truck Series over the past 25 years.
That means connecting with Cohen, landing Elenz and formulating a strategy with team president Mike Beam. Those pieces didn’t immediately fall into place at Richard Petty Motorsports last season but now Jones gets to be the crown jewel of another program.
The new 43 team.
"I knew from the start there was a long-term outlook for me," Jones said. "I was like, alright, time to settle in, build and start figuring it out. It's not like I came in and just did this.
"There are a lot of great people that came in and were a huge part of getting this to where it is now.
"Coming from four-car powerhouse team like I was at, to what was a single car team last year, to now a two-car team and building it into a race-winning program has been the most rewarding part of my racing career."