DARLINGTON, S.C. – When Erik Jones aligned himself with the No. 43 team for the 2021 NASCAR season after a three-year stint at powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing, he admitted that his close friends offered polite approval upon hearing the news, but cautiously so, he sensed. Confessions about those doubts weren’t voiced until much later, only after Jones’ place with the organization had found solid footing.
“You know, I was really nervous when you first told me about this deal,” Jones recalled a confidant saying, “and to see what you guys have done this year has really proved me wrong.”
Jones admitted to probably having some of his own misgivings, but times have certainly changed since that semi-shaky start. After a masterful Sunday drive at Darlington Raceway, Jones basked in the team’s growth into a Cup Series winner after a triumphant run in the Cook Out Southern 500.
Jones’ connections to the car number that Richard Petty made famous were prominent celebration points. Sunday’s outcome marked the 200th win for the No. 43, which Petty fielded in 192 of his record 200 victories. And Jones said he plans to cash in on the stock-car racing king’s promise of a signature cowboy hat after he drove to the No. 43’s first Cup Series win since 2014.
All the history added up for one of the sport’s most royal of numbers, but the striking reality was that the team celebrating in Victory Lane after a grueling 500-miler had only officially launched last December. GMS Racing, which had established roots in other NASCAR national series, had intended to jump to the Cup level in 2022 as a one-car outfit with driver Ty Dillon. That all changed in its merger with the former Richard Petty Motorsports team in the offseason and a re-christening as a two-car operation under the Petty GMS Motorsports banner.
The iconic No. 43 carried over, but the newly branded organization was essentially a start-up – a point that Petty GMS competition director Joey Cohen illustrated in a Monday morning tweet, depicting the vast and vacant shop floor from July 2021 before the team had taken shape. Jones had kept his head down during an uneven 2021 campaign, his first with RPM, but this season represented an opportunity for growth in a new direction.
“Obviously I was a little in a bad spot towards the end of 2020 trying to find a new home, and the 43 car became that and took me in,” Jones said. “I knew at the start there was — it was a long-term outlook for me at least. I was like, all right, we’ve got to settle in and build and figure it out. It’s not like I just came in and did that. There’s a lot of great people that came in and were a huge part of that, to build to where we are now.
“But it’s just been cool to see, cool to be a part of. Coming from a four-car powerhouse team like I was at to what was a single-car team last year to now a two-car team this year and building into a race-winning program now has been very … probably the most rewarding of my racing career.”
Those expectations spiked early on this year. In just the season’s second race, Jones qualified on the front row at Auto Club Speedway, then backed it up with a stout third-place run. Aside from a close brush with Victory Lane at Talladega in May, the No. 43’s performance tapered off after that Auto Club podium, and the team regrouped to boost its efforts on intermediate-sized tracks.
“Throughout that time, Erik never really got down on us,” said No. 43 crew chief Dave Elenz, one of the organization’s key offseason hires. “He kept giving us guidance, kept giving us direction to keep building that program better, which I feel we have.”
Credit part of the team’s breakthrough to Jones’ knack for navigating the treacherous South Carolina oval, which also produced his final win with Gibbs back in 2019. But also tip the cap to Jones’ valuable feedback and support as the team tried to plant Cup Series roots and expand its resources, all while adapting to the challenge of the new next-generation car. Besides his natural driving ability, it’s a big reason why Petty GMS moved to re-sign him to a multiyear extension in July to keep that momentum rolling.
“A lot of credit to him,” Cohen said. “He’s our senior leader. He’s our guy that is going to lead the engineers, lead the crew chief, lead our guys to work on the car as to what he needs.”
On a night that threw plenty of obstacles at the 16 playoff contenders, Jones found relatively steady sailing in the opening event of the 10-race postseason. His No. 43 Chevy was a consistent top-five runner, and when primary competitors Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch both dropped out within a 10-lap span in the late going, Jones pounced.
“I was like, holy cow, this is a gift from above, right?” he said. “I felt like it’s a sign. I can’t give it up at this point. I’ve never had anything like that happen in my racing career.”
That series of events was fortunate, but Jones was reminded of how timely his first victory of the year could have been if it had occurred a week earlier. A win in the regular-season finale at Daytona would have opened the door into the Cup Series Playoffs.
Settling – if you can call it that – for being a two-time Southern 500 winner and providing Petty GMS with a crown-jewel moment will have to do.
“Yeah, it’s hard to get attention in the playoffs when you’re not a playoff guy,” Jones said. “What better way to do it than that?”