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Jones accepts new challenges at Petty GMS

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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’s protective suit that Jones wears now, but also the pace of his days.

Things are a bit slower with Petty GMS Motorsports. Calmer, even. Jones is in his second season driving the famed No. 43 Chevrolet after spending many years in the Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota pipeline. It was a place of high expectations and pressure, with constant scrutiny over performance and contractual situations.

It wasn’t that Jones wanted to leave that world: he was given no choice when he gave the car to Christopher Bell. But Jones has embraced this chapter with Petty, who sold most of his race team to Maury Gallagher last winter. It hasn’t affected Jones, who is more involved than ever with his team.

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“When I was with JGR, there was participation and time that I spent there, but it was much less. It was more, I was in the system and I was the driver, and we just 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 options. And that’s something I enjoy and have had fun with over the last year.”

Jones is a two-time Cup Series winner and a former Camping World Truck Series champion. The 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 nice 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 cars since I was 13 and I’ve 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 a lot I’ve learned in that time, and I feel like I have a great memory bank, a lot of things I’ve learned over the years. years.

“Obviously I’ve been with good, big 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 insights and trying to integrate and try to build… Petty GMs have great people, and we’re getting even more people, great people, every day. . And that’s what the program builds. But it is a work in progress. It’s been fun and I’ve enjoyed being a part of trying to get better every week.”

Jones knows he can’t do things at No. 43 that he did at No. 20 because his team isn’t there yet. They are not yet at the level of dominating races, but they have had chances to fight for wins.

Jones led 18 laps and finished third at Fontana in late February, raising early hope that Next Gen had really 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 ended hopes of a strong result.

Being a playoff team isn’t a given for Petty GMS’s group, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try to earn a postseason spot.

“I think going into 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 could do in terms of changing the car, improving it with aerodynamics, chassis, anything. I was a little bit locked into what we had, and we got over it and made the most of it. And we had some good races here and there, but obviously, for the most part, it was quite a challenging year.

“A lot of tough days and weekends, which was not 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 racing 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 perspective for the future. That was what she had, and that was the only option that she had, and he had to figure out how to make the most of it and how to keep getting better.”

Jones finished 24th in the points standings last season with six top-10 finishes. He did not get a top five finish.

Jones (left) has gone from being a small cog in Gibbs’ machine to a much more hands-on role at Petty GMS. As he and Elenz (right) find their groove, momentum begins to build. Images by Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport

Elenz was hired to work with Jones this year and then Gallagher came along. 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 at the start of the season gave way to a frustrating Easter at Bristol Motor Speedway. It was a turning point in the wrong direction, but Jones felt the team could turn things around a month or so later.

“Which was really encouraging to me,” he said.

A strong car in the Coca-Cola 600 didn’t reflect on the finish of being caught up in things out of his control, but at World Wide Technology Raceway, Jones was back in the top 10 again. The ovals have been the positives for Jones.

“But the really encouraging thing for me was that we were running well and then we hit a road where we started to struggle, and we were able to turn it 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 point our way, but we’re in a win-win situation, where we’ve got some good tracks that we can win on. Then we’ll see. But I’ve been proud of things. It’s a big improvement from last year.”

Sixteen races into the 2021 season, Jones was ranked 27th in the points. A year later, he is ranked 16th in the standings after the weekend off.

“Just making up that kind of gap from year to year is huge for us,” Jones said.

Experienced and combat-tested after so long in the sport, Jones is much more comfortable with himself. That was never a problem in the Truck Series or Xfinity, where it didn’t take him any time to win races, but it takes more effort and patience to get to that point at the Cup level.

“I look back now, having entered the Cup Series at age 20, and I wish I knew then what I know now,” Jones said. “Those are things where, yeah, maybe you stay in the Xfinity Series for a couple more years and you learn… but there’s nothing that compares when you make that jump to the Cup Series. prepare for that moment. There is nothing you can really lean on to be ready. It is learning as you go, and no matter how good and talented you are, there is nothing that prepares you for that moment.

“It’s just such an adjustment. Not only from a racing point of view, but also from a personal point of view to balance his weeks and his time.

Now he spends some of his time getting out of the NASCAR garage and racing the latest models. Jones comes from base running, and the last time he was able to run as much as he does this year was in 2016. Doing so not only allows him to have fun, but also serves as an encouragement for his core work when necessary. .

“There’s nothing like going to a short track race,” Jones said. “Going back to that mindset is very different when it comes to a 150-lap race, which is very different for me being a short race… Doing that again is just fun and learning how it has changed. As a driver, I love learning and getting better and just having that knowledge or cars in general.”

Jones has six races planned with the potential opportunity to do more later in the year. It helps that most NASCAR weekends are now two days instead of three with a day of travel beforehand.

No matter, although life has a different calm, Jones still finds many ways to keep himself satisfied. It’s not just about his Petty outfit and his latest models, but about a foundation Jones started in August 2021 and reading 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.

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