As he has for the first four years of his full-time career in the NASCAR Cup Series, Erik Jones finds himself in an iconic ride for the 2021 season. However, this time it will not be a Joe Gibbs Racing ride but rather the No. 43 made famous by Richard Petty.
Jones has a pair of victories at the highest level of NASCAR and, at just 24 years old, has a lot of racing left in him
A Look Back
Jones came out of the Xfinity Series ranks with expectations for him as high as any newcomer in recent memory. He began to show flashes of brilliance with wins in 2018 and 2019, coupled with handfuls of top-five and top-10 finishes. Playoff appearances set the stage for an even bigger 2020 for the JGR No. 20, but things simply didn’t pan out quite in that manner.
It was feast or famine for the Michigan native, as his nine top fives were joined by more than a dozen finishes in the 20s. He had a strong push late, finishing third, eighth, second and third in a four-race stretch in the fall. However, as was the case all year, he stumbled in the final four events, ending three of those races 20th or worse.
Jones failed to finish just three times, all related to crash damage. The cars simply weren’t fast enough to contend with the front-runners most days. Even when the equipment was performing well, a pit miscue or strategy blunder would prove costly.
Unable to get any kind of consistent momentum going, Jones found himself on the outside looking in when the playoffs began. He wound up 17th in the final standings, the highest driver who failed to qualify for a shot at the title. It was little solace, as was watching his three teammates combine for nine wins.
For the first time since 2012, Jones did not make a single start in either the Xfinity or Camping World Truck series. Whether the 2015 Truck champion has any plans to change that in 2021 remains to be seen.
Jones has proven to be a strong competitor on superspeedways, picking up his first win at Daytona International Speedway in 2018 and his best finish of 2020, a second, at Talladega Superspeedway. He makes sound decisions in the draft and works through traffic well. His new team has also shown a propensity for running up front in such races, most recently with Bubba Wallace.
Tracks that are difficult to handle seem to also be a strength for Jones. He has been stout at places like Texas Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway.
Richard Petty Motorsports has seen a bit of an uptick in performance in the past couple years. The high-downforce tracks that make up the bulk of the Cup schedule have proven difficult, but when the playing field levels out a bit, the No. 43 can be found a bit closer to the front. Jones should probably look forward to short tracks, road courses and, of course, superspeedways.
Jones is not the likeliest of playoff contenders, but in the win-and-you’re-in playoff era, he certainly can’t be counted out either.
Jones and his team will need to acclimate to each other. The relationships he has with not only his crew chief but also spotter, team brass, and sponsor organizations will set the tone for their time together.
The best-case scenario for Jones and the No. 43 would of course be that he picks up the first Cup win for the team since 2014. Perhaps Jones could even land a second win. Will we see a year the likes of Clint Bowyer‘s 2012 season where a driver suddenly excels, smashing every expectation and accomplishing what seemed at the very least implausible with a team no one saw as a championship threat? It could happen to the Petty team and their new hotshoe.
As for worst-case scenarios, Jones could find himself victimized by bad luck or poor showings. There’s going to be plenty of scrutiny, especially considering who Jones is following in the seat. Comparisons are inevitable as neither driver has driven for a different Cup team until this year. If Jones is able to continue an upward trajectory, he could be viewed as a driver who is capable of elevating his whole team. If not, he could be labeled as a bust. The last thing he needs is for 2021 to give the impression that he has already peaked.
Jones had a top-level ride, but it didn’t quite work out. One interesting comparison that could be made is with another young driver who picked up just two wins in several years behind the wheel of the JGR No. 20. Joey Logano was prematurely labeled a bust and was shipped off to a new team, where he exceled. Could Jones experience similar success with his fresh start?