A lot has changed when you think about life for Erik Jones today versus just a short two years ago. It’s not just the NASCAR Cup Series team firesuit Jones wears now, but also the pace of his days.
Things are a little slower with Petty GMS Motorsports. Calmer, even. Jones is in his second season driving the famed No. 43 Chevrolet after spending many years nestled in the Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota pipeline. It was a place of high expectations and pressure, with constant scrutiny over performance and contract situations.
It wasn’t that Jones wanted to leave that world – he wasn’t given a choice when Christopher Bell was given the car. But Jones has embraced this chapter with Petty, who sold the majority of his race team to Maury Gallagher last winter. It hasn’t affected anything for Jones, who is more involved with his team than ever before.
“When I was with JGR, there was involvement and time I spent over there, but it was a lot less. It was more of, I was in the system and I was the driver, and we went with the flow,” Jones told RACER. “I feel like at Petty GMS right now, I’m more involved week to week, day to day, with development of the car, the team, choices. And that’s something I enjoy and have had fun with over the last year.”
Jones is a two-time winner in the Cup Series and a former Camping World Truck Series champion. Expectations don’t bother him, but getting the opportunity to do something different, have a different way of life, with crew chief Dave Elenz and his No. 43 group has been a pleasant surprise.
“I look back at my career, I’m 26 now and have been racing since I was seven and have been racing stock car since I was 13 and have been in NASCAR since I was 16,” Jones said. “So I’ve been doing stuff for almost 10 years at the Truck level and then Xfinity and Cup. There’s so much I’ve learned in that time, and I feel like I have a big memory bank, a lot of things I’ve learned over the years.
“Obviously, I’ve been with good and great teams and teams that have won a lot of races, and I’ve been able to win races at every level. So taking that memory bank and coming to a group like Petty GMS and taking some of those notes and knowledge and try to integrate and try to build… Petty GMs has great people, and we’re getting even more people, great people, every day. And that’s what builds the program. But it’s a work in progress. That’s been fun, and I’ve enjoyed being a part of trying to get better each week.”
Jones knows he can’t do things in the No. 43 that he did in the No. 20 because his team isn’t there yet. Not yet are they at the level of dominating races, but they have had opportunities to contend for wins.
Jones led 18 laps and finished third at Fontana in late February, bringing early hope that Next Gen had indeed leveled the playing field and would be to his advantage. Jones ran inside the top 10 at Las Vegas and Phoenix the next two weeks, but was involved in a late caution that dashed hopes of a solid result.
Being a playoff team isn’t a given for the Petty GMS group, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to try and earn a postseason berth.
“I think going into last year, I knew it was going to be just somewhat of a struggle,” Jones said. “The car was in a development hole, and there was nothing I was going to be able to do as far as changing the car, making it better with aero, chassis, anything. I was kind of locked into what we had, and we worked through that and made the best of it. And we had some good runs here and there, but obviously, for the most part, it was a fairly challenging year.
“A lot of tough days and weekends, which wasn’t easy. As a driver, I think we’re all competitive and especially at the Cup level. Everybody in the Cup Series at some point won a lot of races wherever they were running before Cup. Obviously, I’d been in that position and still had that drive and passion, but knew how it was going to be.
“So it was more of an outlook for the future. That was what I had, and that was the only option I had, and I had to figure out how to make the best of it and how to continue to get better.”
Jones finished 24th in the point standings last season with six top-10 finishes. He did not score a top-five finish.
Jones (left) has gone from being a small cog in the machine at Gibbs to having a far more hands-on role at Petty GMS. As he and Elenz (right) find their groove, momentum is starting to build. Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images
Elenz was hired to work with Jones this year and then along came Gallagher. Now Jones and company have even more resources and a teammate, Ty Dillon, to help sort through data.
Jones used the word “interesting” to describe the first half of his season before the break. Early season speed gave way to an Easter week of frustration at Bristol Motor Speedway. It was a turning point in the wrong direction, but Jones felt the team was able to turn things around about a month later.
“Which was really encouraging to me,” he said.
A strong car in the Coca-Cola 600 didn’t reflect in the finish having been caught up in things outside of their control, but at World Wide Technology Raceway, Jones was back in the top 10. Ovals have been the positives for Jones.
“But the really encouraging thing for me was we were running well and then went down a path where we started to struggle, and we were able to turn it back around,” Jones said. “The playoffs are a big goal after Sonoma. I think a win is where we’re at. Before Sonoma, I thought we could point our way in, but we’re in a win situation, which we’ve got some good tracks coming up that we can win at. So, we’ll see. But I’ve been proud of things. It’s a huge improvement from last year.”
Sixteen races into the ’21 season, Jones sat 27th in points. A year later, he is 16th in the standings coming out of the off weekend.
“Just picking up that kind of gap from one year to the next is huge for us,” said Jones.
Experienced and battled-tested after so much time in the sport, Jones is much more comfortable in his own skin. That was never a problem in the Truck or Xfinity Series, where it took no time at all to win races, but it’s taken more effort and patience to get to that point at the Cup level.
“I look back now, having gotten into the Cup Series at 20 years old, and I just wish I knew then what I know now,” said Jones. “It’s stuff where, yeah, maybe you stay in the Xfinity Series a couple more years and learn… but there’s nothing that compares when you make that jump to the Cup Series. There’s nothing that prepares you for that moment. There is nothing you can really lean on to be ready. It’s learn as you go, and no matter how good and talented you are, there is nothing that gets you ready for that time.
“It’s just such an adjustment. Not only from a racing side but a personal side in balancing your weeks and your time.”
Part of his time now is spent being able to get out of the NASCAR garage and race late models. Jones comes from grassroots racing, and the last time he was able to run as much as he is this year was 2016. Not only does doing so let him have fun, but it’s also serving as a shot in the arm for his primary job when needed.
“There is nothing like getting to go short track race,” Jones said. “Getting back into that mindset is so different when it’s a 150-lap race, which is so different for me being a short race… Doing that again is just fun and learning how it’s changed. As a driver, I love to learn and love to get better, and just have that knowledge or cars in general.”
Jones has six races planned with the opportunity to potentially do more toward the end of the year. It helps that most NASCAR weekends are now two days instead of three with a day of travel beforehand.
No matter, while life has a different calmness to it, Jones is still finding plenty of ways to stay fulfilled. It’s not just his Petty team and late models, but a foundation Jones started in August 2021 and reading to children through social media.
“I’ve taken on other responsibilities and other things to keep me busy, involved and going in different ways,” he said.