Darlington Raceway isn’t “Too Tough to Tame” for Erik Jones.
In his first-ever Cup Series race at the 1.366-mile South Carolina track in 2017, Jones finished fifth. He won his third visit two years later. And of his eight career starts overall, six produced top-10 results.
“It’s just one of those places that I went for the first time about six or seven years ago and ran and just enjoyed it, just had fun with it,” Jones told NASCAR.com. “Some places you go and you unload, it’s like wow, this is a struggle, I just can’t figure it out. But Darlington was never, never like that for me. I always felt comfortable.”
The same feeling is in place as NASCAR heads there this weekend for its annual throwback extravaganza. The Cup Series has practice and qualifying Saturday (10:30 a.m. ET, FS1) before Sunday’s Goodyear 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1), the 12th points-paying event of the 2022 season.
Jones’ No. 43 Petty GMS Motorsports Chevrolet will sport a 1959 “Petty Blue” paint scheme in honor of team co-owner and seven-time champion Richard Petty. Jones is excited about the all-blue wrap — wanted to run it last year but didn’t have the chance — and also the upcoming competition itself, understandably so.
For the first time since 2020, when he was with Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 20 Toyota, Jones is boasting back-to-back top 10s. He came in sixth at Talladega Superspeedway (led 25 circuits; lost the lead on the last lap) two weeks ago and 10th at Dover Motor Speedway last week.
“That’s just big momentum for the team, big confidence for the team,” Jones said. “Keeps the guys pushing forward. Keeps them focused. And keep me focused, right? Sometimes, when you go out and you’re struggling week to week, it’s hard to stay with your mind on it and keep going. And it can be mentally draining at times. When you’re running good, though, everything feels a lot better and it makes life a lot easier.”
Jones’ 2022 results are on pace to be, if not already are, better than 2021. He has one top five (Auto Club Speedway) and four top 10s. Last year, he closed out with no top fives, six top 10s.
This is Jones’ second season in the No. 43 machine. What’s different, though, is GMS Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports merged to form Petty GMS Motorsports. It’s now a two-car stable rather than one. Jones’ teammate is Ty Dillon in the No. 42.
“We’re in a way better spot than what we were a year ago, and that’s just a good feeling when you can improve your year like that,” Jones said. “I’ve seen improvement through this year week to week as a team, as an organization, getting stronger on a lot of different aspects. Not just the car, but the pit crew, the road crew and the shop crew. Everybody is just continuing to get better and better.”
Nowhere better to continue that trend than Darlington.
A goal of Jones’ is to put the No. 43 back in Victory Lane, where it has parked 199 times before. Ninety-four races have passed since Jones last won. It has been eight years since the No. 43 car captured a checkered flag (Aric Almirola, Daytona-2 2014). Petty powered it to three Darlington victories between 1966-67.
“A win definitely gives you confidence anywhere,” Jones said. “You feel like you’ve done it once, you can do it again, right? And coming back at Darlington, it’s always in the back of my mind.”