A lot has changed when you think about Erik Jones’ life today compared to just two years ago. It’s not just the NASCAR Cup Series team fire suit that Jones wears now, but also the pace of his days.
Things are a bit slower with Petty GMS Motorsports. Quieter, even. Jones is in his second season driving the famed No. 43 Chevrolet after spending many years tucked away in the Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota pipeline. It was a place of high expectations and pressures, with constant review of performance and contractual situations.
It wasn’t that Jones wanted to leave this world – he had no choice when Christopher Bell received the car. But Jones embraced that chapter with Petty, who sold the majority of his racing team to Maury Gallagher last winter. It hasn’t changed anything for Jones, who is more involved than ever with his team.
“When I was with JGR there was involvement and time I spent there, but it was much less. It was more like, 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 the development of the car, the team, the choices. And that’s something that I enjoy and have had fun with over the past year.
Jones is a two-time Cup Series winner and former Camping World Truck Series champion. He doesn’t mind expectations, but having the opportunity to do something different, to have a different way of life, with crew chief Dave Elenz and his #43 group was a pleasant surprise.
“I look back on my career, I’m 26 now and I’ve been racing since I was seven and I’ve been racing stock car since I was 13 and I’ve been in NASCAR since I was 16,” said Jones. “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 bank of memory, many things I have 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 take that memory bank and come into a group like Petty GMS and take some of that notes and knowledge and try to integrate and try to build… Petty GMs has great people, and we’re getting more people, great people, every day. built the program. But it’s a work in progress. It was fun and I enjoyed being part of trying to improve each week.
Jones knows he can’t do the things in No. 43 that he did in No. 20 because his team isn’t there yet. They are not yet at the level of the dominant races, but they have had opportunities to fight for victories.
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 their advantage. Jones raced in the top 10 in Las Vegas and Phoenix the next two weeks but was involved in a late warning that dashed hopes of a strong result.
Being a playoff team isn’t a given for the Petty GMS Group, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be trying to earn a playoff spot.
“I think at the start of last year I knew it was going to be a little tough,” Jones said. “The car was in a development hole, and there was nothing I was going to be able to do to change the car, improve it with the aero, the chassis, whatever. I was kind of locked in what we had, and we worked on it and made the most of it. And we had a few good races here and there, but obviously for the most part it was a pretty tough year.
“A lot of difficult days and weekends, which has not been easy. As a driver, I think we are all competitive and especially at Cup level. Everyone in the Cup Series at some point won a lot of races wherever they raced before the Cup. Obviously, I had been in that position and I still had that drive and passion, but I knew how it was going to be.
“So it was more of a future perspective. It was what I had, and it was the only option I had, and I had to figure out how to make the most of it and how to keep improving.
Jones finished 24th in the points standings last season with six top-10 finishes. He did not score a top five.
Elenz was hired to work with Jones this year and then came Gallagher. Now Jones and company have even more resources and a teammate, Ty Dillon, to help sort through the data.
Jones used the word ‘interesting’ to describe the first half of his season before the break. The speed of the start of the season gave way to an Easter week of frustration at Bristol Motor Speedway. It was a turn in the wrong direction, but Jones felt the team was able to turn things around about a month later.
“Which really encouraged me,” he said.
A solid car in the Coca-Cola 600 didn’t show up in the finish after getting caught up in things beyond his control, but at World Wide Technology Raceway Jones was back in the top 10. The ovals took were the positives for Jones.
“But what’s really encouraging for me is that we were running well, and then we hit a path where we started to struggle, and we were able to turn around,” Jones said. “The playoffs are a big goal after Sonoma. I think a win is where we are. Before Sonoma, I thought we could show our way, but we are in a win situation, where we have good leads ahead that we can win on. So we’ll see. But I was proud of things. This is a huge improvement over last year.
Sixteen races into Season 21, Jones was 27th in points. A year later, he is 16th in the standings at the end of the weekend off.
“Just closing that kind of gap year over year is huge for us,” Jones said.
Experienced and proven after so much time in the sport, Jones is much more comfortable in his skin. This was never a problem in the Truck or Xfinity series, where it didn’t take long at all to win races, but it took more effort and patience to get to that point at the level of the cup.
“I look back now, having been in the Cup Series at 20, and I just wish I knew then what I know now,” Jones said. “It’s stuff where, yeah, maybe you stay in the Xfinity Series for a few more years and learn…but there’s nothing like it when you make that leap to the Cup Series. There’s There’s nothing that prepares you for this moment. There’s nothing you can really rely on to be ready. It’s learning as you go, and no matter how good and talented you are, nothing prepares you for this period.
“It’s just such a fit. Not just on the racing side, but also on the personal side to balance your weeks and your time.
Some of his time is now spent getting out of the NASCAR garage and racing late model cars. Jones comes from grassroots running, and the last time he was able to run as much as he is this year was in 2016. Not only does this keep him having fun, but it also serves as his help for his main work when necessary.
“There’s nothing quite like competing in a short track race,” Jones said. “Coming back into that mindset is so different when it’s a 150 lap race, which is so different for me to be a short race… Doing that again is just fun and learning how it’s changed. As a driver, I like to learn and improve, and I just have that knowledge or cars in general.
Jones has six races scheduled with the possibility of potentially doing more towards the end of the year. It helps that most NASCAR weekends are now two days instead of three with a travel day in advance.
Regardless, while life has a different calm, Jones still finds plenty of ways to stay fulfilled. It’s not just his Petty Team and latest models, but a foundation that Jones started in August 2021 that reads to kids through social media.
“I took on other responsibilities and other things to keep myself busy and involved and going in different ways,” he said.