James Gilbert | Getty Images
James Gilbert | Getty Images

Erik Jones, Petty GMS impress with fruitful third-place day at Auto Club

The preseason buzz about the prospects of a successful merger for the newly formed Petty GMS Motorsports is starting to pay some early dividends. Count in Erik Jones’ sterling Sunday drive at Auto Club Speedway as Exhibit A for that early assessment.

Jones pushed the No. 43 Petty GMS Chevrolet to a third-place finish, backing up the weekend-long speed he showed at the 2-mile California track. The result marked his first top-five finish since taking over Richard Petty’s No. 43 at the start of last season.

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“It was good. It feels good to be interviewed after the race, too,” Jones said. “It’s awesome, but it’s frustrating too. You’re that close and you have a car that you feel like can do it. The No. 43 FOCUSFactor Chevrolet definitely had it today. It was a matter of getting up front and taking advantage of clean air, and we did that a couple of times.

“A couple restarts just didn’t go our way. I probably could have done a better job here and there, and it just didn’t add up. I just haven’t raced up front a lot in the last year and a half. There are some things I need to be better at. Hopefully I have a lot of time to work on that. We want to keep running up front and if we keep doing that, we’re going to win some races.”

Jones led six times for 18 laps Sunday, a one-day doubling of the total he led in all of last season. He backed up his second-place effort in Saturday’s qualifying session, keeping pace with early dominator Tyler Reddick and finishing second behind him at each stage break. Jones was also the only driver who spent all 200 laps scored among the top 15.

Jones earned 52 points Sunday – tied for the most with race winner Kyle Larson – and used that bonanza to rebound nicely from a crashed-out 29th-place finish in the Daytona 500 opener. It’s a small sample size points-wise so far, but he gained 16 spots to jump to sixth in the Cup Series standings.

The Petty organization joined forces with Maury Gallagher’s GMS outfit on Dec. 7, growing to a two-car operation with Ty Dillon added as Jones’ new teammate. So far, early signs of a new direction performance-wise are also taking shape.

MORE: Petty GMS moves to two cars for 2022 | ’22 team preview

“I’m really proud of this whole group,” Jones said. “It’s been a big offseason with the merger and everything we’ve done, so this is a very satisfying run for everybody. and I just hope we can keep going.”