Race Weekend Central

Dropping the Hammer: How Erik Jones Got His ‘Groove’ Back

In August 2020, Erik Jones was “blindsided” when he found out that Joe Gibbs Racing — the race team he’d called home for seven years — would not retain him for a fourth NASCAR Cup Series season.

After three seasons and two wins while driving the No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing felt the need to move on from Jones (only 24 years old at the time) to the next “can’t miss” driver in Toyota’s seemingly endless pipeline of “can’t miss” talent, Christopher Bell.

Two months later, Jones called some of his friends to update them on his plans: He’d be the next driver to pilot the iconic No. 43 for Richard Petty.

The reception Jones got …. wasn’t exactly what you’d want to hear.

“You’re not supposed to tell everybody what you’re doing, but my close friends, I called them and said, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing; I’ve signed this deal with the 43 car,'” Jones said. “You can tell in your close friends’ voices (what they really think) when they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s good, man, I’m happy for you.’ I’m sitting there on the phone, like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Can you blame their awkward reception?

Jones was leaving JGR, a team that today has five Cup championships since 2000 and 198 race wins, to drive a car that, until Sunday’s (Sept. 4) Southern 500, had only four Cup wins since Richard Petty retired from racing after 1992.

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Two years later, Jones said he “was not in desperation mode” when he made the decision to join Petty.

“Obviously, I was a little in a bad spot towards the end of 2020 trying to find a new home, and the 43 car became that and took me in,” Jones said. “I knew at the start there was — it was a long-term outlook for me at least. I was like, ‘All right, we’ve got to settle in and build and figure it out.'”

Jones’ first year in the No. 43 wasn’t stellar. He ended the campaign with no top fives, a career-low six top 10s, nine laps led and 24th in points, his worst by five spots.

“There’s some nerves in there at times,” Jones said. “I think the big thing for me, I never doubted myself, man. I never found myself in a bad place. Sure, I was disappointed at times, last year, absolutely. But I never … I cannot say there was one time where I thought, ‘Man, I just can’t do this.'”

Watching “from afar” was then JR Motorsports crew chief Dave Elenz, who’d be paired with Jones for 2022 once Richard Petty Motorsports was bought out by GMS Racing to form Petty GMS Motorsports.

“Obviously, last year was a tough season for him,” Elenz said. “There was races that were good, a lot that weren’t great. But that’s resources. That’s cars that he’s having to run. That’s nothing to do with him.

“I think he believed in himself and what he’s capable of. I obviously believe in that.”

A lot changed for the No. 43 team going into 2022. New ownership (Maury Gallagher), a new crew chief and a new racecar, one with the goal of evening the playing field significantly for smaller teams.

“I think with this car, it’s obviously, very obviously, it’s put a lot of parity into the sport, and it takes a great team for sure,” Jones said. “When we were at the end of last season and knew we were making a change as far as crew chief, obviously there’s a few names you kind of put on the board like, okay, these are the guys we want to go after, and Dave was the resounding guy as far as who we wanted to get. I knew as soon as we got him signed it was going to be a different season.”

That belief was confirmed even before the Southern 500.

Entering the race at Darlington Raceway, Jones had two top fives and nine top 10s through 26 races, including close brushes with wins at Auto Club Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. One more top 10 would equal the most the No. 43 had earned in a season since AJ Allmendinger had 10 in 2011.

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Some side racing, including winning a late model race at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in early July, helped reintegrate Jones into the mindset of knowing what it would take to win a race.

“To be honest, I hadn’t been in position to win a race in a while,” Jones said. “I went through a year where we were not in contention to win. I went to Auto Club earlier this year with a winning car and didn’t win the race, and a lot of it was just because I was rusty. I was sloppy on restarts and car placement and stuff that I know I can be better at, and I was like, ‘Man, I’ve just got to get back in that groove.’

“But some of it’s just having been there, right? I looked back towards the other Southern 500 I won here (in 2019), and that was probably harder as a driver to be honest because I ran out the … felt like the entire last segment. We went through pit stops, racing with those guys, racing with Kyle (Busch) at the end for what felt like 50 laps.”

With all the pieces in place for the No. 43 team and Jones inhabiting a winning mentality again, Jones finally faced his best chance at a win in two years.

So of course it was in the Southern 500, the last race he won.

Of course it took place 55 years to the day after Petty’s last Darlington win.

And of course, it came down to Jones and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Before the final segment of the race played out, Jones’ former teammates of Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin led a combined 209 laps.

Jones had been quietly relevant all night, finishing eighth and ninth in the first two stages.

Jones actually got a kick out the situation.

“It was funny, at one point we were in the top five with four other JGR cars,” Jones said. “I was kind of laughing, but it’s cool to get to go up there and race against those guys.

“At the end of the day, they gave me a great home for, whatever it was, three years, and I had a great time there, I learned a ton,” he continued. “What I’ve learned there is what I’ve brought with me to this camp the last two years, and without that experience, I don’t know that we would have ever built to this point, to be totally honest with you.”

“I’m always thankful for what they did for me in my career early on, through Trucks, Xfinity, early in Cup, and like I totally believe without them, I wouldn’t have been at this point.”

Then, they started dropping like flies.

First, there was Truex. His No. 19 Toyota simultaneously lost power steering and began overheating while Truex led.

He was forced to the pits and ultimately the garage with 31 laps to go.

“When the 19 dropped out I was like, ‘OK, we’ve got a shot,'” Jones said. “Kyle had got into the wall pretty good, and I think he had some damage, enough that it was making a difference in his racecar.”

Thanks to a caution for a Cody Ware incident, the field was brought back together. In the pits, Busch was out first, followed by Jones.

With Busch visible in his windshield mirror, Jones began thinking about the 2019 race.

“Kyle was sitting in front of me … I was just like, ‘Man, this is just like three years ago; raced against you for this one last time,’ and I was hoping to do it again, and Kyle has meant a lot to my career, so I was looking forward to getting to go up against him,” Jones said.

The racing gods had other plans.

As the field paced the track for a restart with 20 laps to go, Busch’s engine expired. When he pulled off the track, it was Jones who held the lead.

“I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is a gift from above, right?'” Jones said. “I felt like it’s a sign. I can’t give it up at this point.

“I’ve never had anything like that happen in my racing career. But you’ve got to be there. We were in position. We were in second place before Kyle had his issue. I knew when we took the lead, I was like, ‘Geez, it’s really my race to lose now.'”

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When the green flag waved, Jones led over Tyler Reddick and Hamlin. Hamlin would quickly dispatch with Reddick, and the race between former teammates was on.

Jones called the next 19 laps the “calmest” he’s ever been going for a win in his career.

“I think back to the last time winning here, and I was driving my guts out, my nerves were pounding, my stomach was hurting, and today it was just business as usual.”

Just over two years after being “blindsided” by JGR, for Jones, the return to victory lane was made meaningful by all the people who had “counted me out.”

“After the 20 car and leaving that, and obviously that’s a very winning organization that’s in contention for wins, championships week-to-week and year-to-year, I think there was a lot of people that was like, ‘Wow, he’s going to run out whatever he can do with that group and he’s done.’

“I just never looked at it that way. My total view going in was to build and … I knew as soon as I met the group on the 43 team, which is almost all the same guys as it is today, that they had tons of potential. These are guys that have been at a few other teams but mostly the 43 group for a while. They had lots of potential.”

“I guess the biggest thing for me that I’m proud of personally is just to see the growth,” Jones said. “We went from a team last year that we were running 30th here last year and we blew a motor in the Southern 500, and to come this year and be a top-five car all day and then win the race, man, it’s just something to be pretty proud of.”

2022 is Daniel McFadin’s ninth year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his second year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can also be found at SpeedSport.com. You can hear more from him on his podcast, Dropping the Hammer.

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 7-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He's currently a freelancer and lead reporter and editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR show "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" on YouTube and in podcast form.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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Dale EarnHog

I became a diehard NASCAR fan about 10 years ago when EJ was an up and coming star. Dude was all the rage at KBM, then with JGR in Xfinity, and a lot of people, including myself, thought he could be a Cup champ one day. I’ll be honest, I thought he might fade into obscurity after leaving JGR, and I’ve happily been proven wrong. With Gragson coming in next year, Petty-GMS is gonna be a scary underdog team. Glad to see King Richard building momentum and bringing that program back to relevance, they’ve been on the upswing since the start of 2020 and there’s no looking back.

Jeremy

Well said. I too am glad to see a resurgence of both EJ and Petty-GMS.

Mike

Love seeing Erik win! He grew up just a few miles from me and it is cool to have a “local” guy rise to these heights!

wildcats2016

I enjoyed seeing Erik win that race too. I have a list of anybody but drivers that I don’t want to see win so whenever someone else wins, I’m a happy camper.

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