After a solid start to the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, Erik Jones is all eyes ahead, focused solely on making his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet fast.
Last August, Joe Gibbs Racing announced it would be parting ways with Jones at the conclusion of the 2020 season, leaving him without a ride. In late October, it was announced the Michigan native would be driving the vaunted No. 43 Chevrolet for RPM for the 2021 season. And through the first handful of races with his new team, the promise is there for Jones despite finishing 39th in the Daytona 500. team debut
“We’ve had some good runs,” Jones recently told NASCAR.com. “We’ve got some things we can work on and get better at. It’s been smooth so far, really. We just need to pinpoint the stuff we need to get better at and keep trying to improve on it.”
Aside from his disappointing day at Daytona — he was wrecked out 15 laps in — Jones has a trio of top-20 efforts in four races, including a solid 10th-place run at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. In the early parts of last weekend’s race at Phoenix Raceway, the No. 43 spent time inside the top 10 before dropping to 20th in the last run of the race due to an ill-handling racecar.
And though it’s still early in the process of adjusting to a lower-funded RPM, Jones is pleased with the team’s ability.
“I’m optimistic at this point in what we can do and where we can excel at,” Jones said. “Definitely the short tracks and mile and a halves have been good to us so far.
“I’m really confident in RPM, what they have for equipment and especially the people. At some point, you can have as good of equipment as you want but it’s really about the people, who’s working on the stuff and who’s making it better.”
Prior to joining RPM, Jones didn’t know what the team was about or what it had for equipment. From the moment he was in discussions about potentially joining the team, however, he saw potential in the team of wanting to be better. After all, RPM hasn’t finished inside the top 15 in the owner’s standings since 2011 with AJ Allmendinger.
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However, Jones stated he isn’t surprised the team has shown flashes of real speed, believing the team is capable of running well on all styles of race tracks. Quite honestly, sitting 23rd in points has lived up to his expectations.
“I think we’re close to where I expected to be, so that’s good,” he said. “I just want to see the consistent improvement each and every week. We’ve done a good job of that so far of just getting better at every track we go to. Hopefully, we can keep that going and keep having these decent runs and we’ll keep climbing up through the points.”
Jones’ preseason goal was to hover around 20th in the championship standings and to be in contention for race victories when the opportunity arose. Currently, he’s three positions below his goal but just 35 markers behind the playoff cutoff, currently nailed down by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The young veteran genuinely believes the No. 43 can be in contention for a playoff berth, though – as it was much of the 2020 regular season with Bubba Wallace – as long as the team can keep improving weekly.
“If we keep running like we do, I really think we can keep moving our way up the rankings and get close to being in the playoff hunt,” he said. “Obviously there’s been a lot of different winners this year, which is making things tougher.”
Despite adjusting his preseason goals with a lesser-funded team, Jones believes moving away from a powerhouse organization such as JGR is where he can truly showcase his potential. It is also the first time in his career at the Cup level he doesn’t have a single teammate.
From his perspective, Jones is trying just as hard – if not harder – with RPM as he was with JGR.
“If [we] go out and run in the top 10, that’s a great week for us at RPM,” he said. “If I can go out and help this team in any way and make them a little better than what they were then that’s a great feeling. As a driver, you want to go in and make a group better that you’re working for and try to help them improve.
“I feel like I’m doing all I can to try to improve these guys and get the most out of what we have.”
Admittedly so, Jones feels “a little less pressure” with RPM than he did at JGR, given there’s not nearly as many employees working on the team.
Though a different perspective from years past, racing for a smaller team is enjoyable for Jones.
“It’s fun to go out and overachieve for what people think you should be running,” Jones stated. “To run better than that, it’s a really great feeling. That’s where I think part of the laid-back feel comes from, and part of it for me is being in the Cup Series for a few years now. I think I’ve got a better outlook on it all and what you’ve got to do.”
The Cup Series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend where Jones has an average finish of 15.0 in four starts. Meanwhile, RPM placed 21st at the 1.5-mile track last season with Wallace.