Erik Jones is in a situation he’s never faced in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Jones, 25, always had top-tier equipment at Joe Gibbs Racing, all the way from Kyle Busch Motorsports equipment in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series through the Xfinity and Cup series with JGR.
Now driving the No. 43 Chevrolet for Richard Petty Motorsports, Jones knows the same effort is put into his current ride but without the same budget.
With two top 10s through the first 16 races of the season, the 2017 Rookie of the Year is maximizing his opportunity as he adapts to driving the famed No. 43 car.
“I don’t know that the mindset changes too much,” Jones said Wednesday (June 16) of adjusting to RPM. “I mean you’re still trying to go out there and just run the best you can and make the most of your day. There’s a little bit more of just optimizing your day. We don’t always have the speed we need, so we just have to figure out how to take advantage of what the day is giving us. Whether that’s a top-20 day or a top-10 day, we just have to make sure that we’re taking advantage of that and making the most of it. ”
Despite a crash during the All-Star Open on Sunday (June 13) that wiped out any opportunity to advance into the main show, Jones has seen a relative uptick in performance. He came home 11th at Sonoma Raceway while rallying back from multiple on-track incidents. He finished 16th at both Charlotte Motor Speedway and Circuit of the Americas in the weeks prior.
“Obviously, it’s always challenging changing teams, and especially right now with no practice or anything, it makes it a little bit tougher,” Jones said. “But overall, I think it’s been going pretty well. We’ve been getting to know each other better and better each week and working together better and better each week.
“We’ve just got to keep building on that and take advantage of the practice time we do get, take advantage of the simulator time that we can and continue to try to make our stuff better and make it drive more how I like it.”
Jones getting behind the wheel of a Chevrolet only makes sense, even if he had only driven Toyotas in NASCAR competition through last year. His late father, Dave, had an affinity for Corvettes and was previously the co-owner of Paragon Corvette Reproductions, a parts and restoration company in their home state of Michigan. Dave Jones passed in June 2016 after a battle with cancer at age 53.
Hard to believe it’s been five years without my best friend. A lot more smiles than tears though on this day as time goes by. Think about you everyday papa bear. pic.twitter.com/hbTQY5njFO
— Erik Jones (@Erik_Jones) June 7, 2021
“It’s definitely been fun to work with [Chevrolet] this year, especially with the relationship that we had growing up with Chevrolet, being in the Corvette business and a lot of my family actually working for General Motors,” Jones said. “Working with them this year has been a really easy story to tell a bit for me, being able to just share some of my Corvettes that I have in my collection and talk about my history with Chevrolet itself.
“That part’s been really fun and I’ve enjoyed that and feel like it’s always easy to share a story when you have a connection like that with somebody.”
Speaking of stories, Jones has been telling plenty of stories over the past year on his social media channels. Jones debuted “Erik’s Reading Circle” across his platforms in April 2020, reading children’s books aloud and streaming them via Facebook Live and later uploading to his YouTube channel.
That series evolved to fans even sending him books, just like this week’s “A House for Hermit Crab” by Eric Carle.
— Erik Jones (@Erik_Jones) June 15, 2021
“Yeah, it’s definitely been cool,” Jones said. “It’s been about a year now that we’ve been reading the kids books, and I really like it. It’s been cool to try to connect with fans in some way, and I think they’ve been really enjoying it as well. So, I hope to keep it going and especially now with fans sending in book suggestions and sending inputs.”
Away from the track, he’s also busy having fun being a dog dad to Oscar, his 4-year-old German Shepherd.
Oscar wants to be just like me! 😂 pic.twitter.com/ezOr7AhsM2
— Erik Jones (@Erik_Jones) June 12, 2021
“Over four years, obviously, he’s been at the racetrack a lot of that time and traveled with me,” Jones said. “It’s always fun just to have a buddy on the road with you, and Oscar’s just been a great dog. I definitely got lucky. He’s smart – people-smart, just kind of gets the deal. He’s a great dog and still goes to the racetrack pretty much every week other than the super long flights.”
Work, though, remains work. Jones signed a “multi-year deal” to drive for RPM in October 2020 but the sport’s silly season is quickly taking shape as new teams look to expand or enter the sport, such as 23XI Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Kaulig Racing.
While those teams work on their 2022 plans, Jones’ sights are “focused on RPM right now.”
“I’ve obviously seen the teams coming in and see stuff moving and shaking, but to be honest, it really hasn’t affected me a whole lot,” Jones said. “I think it’s great for the sport – teams coming in, that is – and having new ownership groups in the sport is great any time. But as far as it goes for me, to be honest, it really hasn’t affected much of what I’ve been doing.
“We’re definitely working through things right now to get things set for next year. Certainly in a great direction right now and, like I said, it’s been a great year I think so far for us, just building and working together, and I am excited for next year with the new car to see what it’s going to bring.”
The foundation of Jones’ career was set at JGR, where he claimed a win at Daytona International Speedway in 2018 and the 2019 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. And while he knows what he’d like to accomplish moving forward, setting expectations for 2022 and beyond is more difficult than ever with the incoming Next Gen car providing so many question marks.
“Next year is such an unknown going in with a new car, and obviously, nobody really knows much about it other than the testing we have done,” Jones said. “For me, I obviously want to win more races in the Cup Series. That’s for sure my goal. I’ve been fortunate enough to be there and win some races and I want to get back to that.
“I’ve been really enjoying my time at Richard Petty Motorsports and really feel like we are building in the right direction. [I’m] excited to see what the new car is gonna bring and how that’s going to honestly, I think, probably level the playing field a bit with everybody buying the same parts and be with the same manufacturer.”
In the immediate future sits this weekend’s race at Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.33-mile concrete oval that hasn’t hosted NASCAR action since 2011. Jones tested a truck there a number of years ago, but he’s eager for the sport to re-enter a market long abandoned by the sanctioning body.
“It’s great to get back there for sure,” he said. “I think Nashville is obviously such a growing city and it seems like it gets bigger and bigger every year. And so for us to get back I think is great. I think there’s a lot of NASCAR fans there and it’s going to be a great market for the future as well.”
It’s also a perfect city for a music buff like Jones, who’s currently listening to plenty of country (“Tyler Childers and those guys”) and is still playing the guitar a bit.
But he knows things get serious behind the wheel in a hurry. With 10 races remaining in the regular season, Jones sits 25th in points with just two top 10s – 10th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and ninth at Bristol dirt. Chances to make it into the playoffs without a win are slim to none, but any improvement over that span will be a step in the right direction.
“We’ve been right on the cusp of running the in the top 10 the last few points races, and we just need to close those out,” Jones said. “Top 10s are great for us and 11th at Sonoma was a great race. Just need to keep building that way, and I think we learned some good stuff, even in the limited time there at the All-Star Race that we can probably continue to work out for some of the mile-and-a-half stuff and even like a Michigan or a Pocono.
“It is encouraging from that and hopefully, like I said, we can just keep right on that top 10 and definitely close out the season here with with a few top 10s.”
The Ally 400 from Nashville Superspeedway kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.