Friday, December 9, 2022

Erik Jones the ‘happiest I’ve been in my career’ as he tries to return the Petty GMS No. 43 to Victory Lane

There is no single car in NASCAR, and arguably no car in all of motorsports, more synonymous with winning than Richard Petty’s No. 43.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the No. 43 was on the side of Petty’s cars for nearly all of his 200 Cup Series wins — a record that still stands today and likely will never be surpassed. And in the process, it took a permanent place in the imagination of race fans from the Petty family’s native Level Cross, N.C. to the edges of the Earth. But since Petty’s final victory in 1984, wins for the Petty No. 43 have been few and far in-between.

Bobby Hamilton ended a 14-year dry spell for Petty’s car, winning at Phoenix in 1996 and then adding another win at Rockingham the next year. John Andretti won one race in the No. 43 at Martinsville in 1999, and then it took 15 years for the car to earn a victory in the new millennium when Aric Almirola took it to Victory Lane at Daytona in 2014. And since then, the Petty No. 43 has been shut out.

In 2021, Erik Jones was introduced as the new driver of the No. 43 to help end that shutout. And after an offseason merger led to Petty merging his team with GMS Racing, Jones has reaped the rewards more than any other figure in the organization.

After scoring just six top-10 finishes all of last year, Jones has two top fives and nine top 10s this season. His 77 laps led are the most he’s led in any season since 2019, and the most for any driver of the No. 43 since Almirola led 78 in 2012. And earlier this month, a new multi-year contract ensured that Jones would be Petty’s driver for the next several years to come.

After going through the ups and downs of NASCAR in the formative years of his Cup career, Jones told CBS Sports that he is proud of the growth of his race team. And a major part of that pride is the deep satisfaction he takes in being competitive, running up front, and contending for wins again.

“I knew last year obviously there was things that we needed to do better, and I knew it wasn’t something that I was gonna be able to just hop in and obviously be successful right off the bat. I knew there was gonna be some growth there and some growing pains,” Jones said. “And [I’m] kind of just proud to see it through. It’s been a few years since I’ve had a multi-year deal in the Cup Series, and so [I’m] excited to do that with Petty GMS. I felt like this was the first time that I’ve had an opportunity to just grow the program and continue to get it better and better.

“So [I] was more than happy to try to do a multi-year deal with this group and grow the program and continue doing what we’re doing. So I’ve been pretty happy – Happiest I’ve been in my career, and a long time really, this year.”

That happiness has been hard-fought for Jones. The 2017 Cup Series Rookie of the Year, Jones was brought to the Cup Series as the next young superstar and next big thing for Joe Gibbs Racing. But despite two victories — including a win at Daytona and the Southern 500 at Darlington — Jones took a backseat in performance to his veteran teammates. And before anyone knew it, he was discarded after the 2020 season in favor of Christopher Bell.

Now, after spending years in the shadow of winning veteran drivers — and then being cast out and counted out — Jones has become the top dog at Petty GMS, and his status as the team’s flagship driver will take on a different dimension next season when he serves as the veteran complement to rookie teammate Noah Gragson. A role he admits he’ll have to get used to after years of being on the other end of that dynamic.

“It’s definitely different for me going into this role as the veteran guy,” Jones said. “I’ve been around the Cup Series now for awhile, and seen how it works. I remember coming in as a rookie … and it’s a big change.

“I hope to help Noah as much as I can to go through the Cup Series as a rookie. But definitely different for me. Gonna be a little bit of a learning experience for myself being in that older, veteran role I guess. But I’m excited to do that and excited to have Noah on board too.”

As he’s driven Petty GMS to the front, Jones has been able to gain an appreciation for how large the Petty No. 43’s following is and just how much history is behind the car he drives. And it adds an extra layer of intrigue around Jones entering his most important race of the season: Entering the regular season finale at Daytona, Jones is 17th in the Cup Series points standings, first of all drivers who must win the Coke Zero Sugar 400 in order to take one of two spots remaining in the Cup Series playoffs.

A victory for Jones would be monumental for him and his race team, and monumental towards returning Richard Petty’s famous car back to relevance. The trouble is, that victory almost came — and slipped away — several months ago.

In April at Talladega, Jones led 25 laps, including much of the final 10. He led at the white flag. He was leading coming off Turn 4 to take the checkered flag. Then, he let himself get too far ahead of the pack, allowing the cars behind him to get a run. Jones swung wide to the outside to try and block Kyle Larson, but in doing so left the inside wide open for Ross Chastain to make the winning pass.

Jones was left with a sixth-place finish that amounted to an agonizing missed opportunity. Now, that experience has influenced the approach that the Byron, Mich. native must take to Daytona on Saturday night, a race he expects to be as much of a barnburner as it’s ever been since being made the regular season finale in 2020.

“I do look back at it for sure and wish obviously we could have got that win and just been done with it,” Jones said. “Gonna be aggressive for sure going into Daytona and what we’ve got to do there. It’s been a good season to look back on and be a part of, but getting in the playoffs, obviously your expectations change as the year goes and kind of want to be more and more competitive as we’ve went this year.

“… I definitely think there’s gonna be a lot of guys that are gonna be really urgent at Daytona. It’s gonna be probably crazier than it’s ever been. I don’t know, it’s gonna be interesting to see how it all plays out. But I’m excited to be in it and just have a shot to win. It’s gonna be a crazy race for sure.”

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