There were several wonderful things that came out of Erik Jones‘ victory at Darlington Raceway this past weekend. Jones won his third career NASCAR Cup Series race, crew chief Dave Elenz won his first career Cup Series event and Petty GMS Motorsports won its first race as an organization.
The organization was formed prior to the 2022 season as a two-car operation, taking the two charters from Richard Petty Motorsports. There weren’t many expectations for the team but after Jones’ victory and young polarizing Noah Gragson driving the second car in 2023, those expectations may change heading into next year.
But how much? That is the question. Will Petty GMS be a champion contender in the near future? Amy Henderson and Vito Pugliese debate just how good the organization will be in the coming years.
Who’s Down with STP – Yeah You Know Me!
2022 has been a transition year for many reasons in the NASCAR Cup Series. A completely new car in the Next Gen platform, new venues and calendar shakeups, and a changing of the guard is underway with new teams and drivers becoming perennial contenders.
Some familiar images have returned as well in recent weeks, most recently with the No. 3 in victory lane at Daytona International Speedway, and in last weekend’s Southern 500, the No. 43 notched win No. 200 with Jones bringing the most storied number in NASCAR back to prominence. While the No. 43 has shown flashes of brilliance over the last 25 years, it has been far removed from its heyday in the early-mid 1970s, when Petty Enterprises was the target everyone was aiming for.
Is its latest iteration in the form of Petty GMS Motorsports a fleeting moment of glory or is it about to become the latest team to become a threat to win each week?
I believe it’s the real deal.
This isn’t simply a euphoric feel-good comment on the heels of a signature victory – we’re not going to start counting down 10 consecutive wins like it’s 1967, with the 11th win to be the first of seven Daytona 500s in February next year.
The emergence of this group started back at the LA Coliseum with a fourth-place finish in the Busch Clash and carried over through to the Daytona 500. If you’ve tracked the No. 43 this year, this is a team that has been punching well above its weight, and in no way resembles the one that was in place when Jones first joined the team – or when Bubba Wallace departed. Consistently hovering around the low teens and top 10, the No. 43 has never had this kind of consistent speed and ability to advance during a race since arguably when John Andretti and Bobby Hamilton were at the controls.
The No. 43 was in the top 10 for most of this year’s Daytona 500 before getting caught up in an accident with eight laps to go.
It followed that up with a front row start at Auto Club Speedway, leading laps through pure speed – not pit cycles – and closing it out with a third-place finish. Jones narrowly missed another win at Talladega Superspeedway had he not wandered out too far in front of the field exiting turn 4 on the final lap, and couldn’t block three lanes of traffic at once.
The final lap at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jones was behind Corey LaJoie shoving him to the lead heading into turn 1 on the final lap. At Daytona two weeks ago, Jones led 22 laps before getting caught up in the rainstorm wreckage with 21 laps to go. Had he even managed a top 10, the team would have three consecutive top-10 finishes following their win at Darlington. As it is, they have three top 10s in the last five races.
Point being, this isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan win. This is a team building consistency.
What’s more, it’s a team that has a teammate that is destined to go elsewhere next season, with Ty Dillon departing and Noah Gragson replacing him in the No. 42. Gragson managed his first top five at Daytona (sure, three-fourths of the field was eliminated…) and as Richard Petty said on Sirius XM Monday with regards to Gragson, “If there’s a hole there, he’ll go for it; if there ain’t, he’s making one.”
This is a burgeoning organization that reminds me of Trackhouse Racing Team. Instead of Mr. Worldwide, they have The King.
Maury Gallagher might not have the driver resume or tattoos like Justin Marks, but he also didn’t start with Chip Ganassi Racing’s infrastructure either. The Allegiant Airline CEO purchased the team and placed Mike Beam as President of the reborn race team, and they’ve been gradually building a program to be proud of. Jones, not unlike Daniel Suarez, had a similar “thanks for coming, now leave” go around at Joe Gibbs Racing – despite winning at Daytona and Darlington – and not without Kyle Busch’s former championship-winning team and crew chief like Christopher Bell has received.
Gragson has had enough contact with competitors to conjure up images of Ross Chastain – trading a five o’clock shadow and melon smashing for a mullet and shot-gunning a Busch Light with the fans after a win.
This is going to be a fun team to follow, with enough legacy nostalgia to harken back to a new era, while building its own vision of a winning race team.
It used to be that the only races that you’d expect to see the No. 43 as a threat would be at Daytona or Talladega, or a road course when Marcos Ambrose was driving the No. 9 in the 2010s. After winning the Southern 500, 55 years to the day of the last time the iconic number was in victory lane, it’s helped establish a new standard of expectations for performance of the team that largely existed as a stroll down memory lane a few times a year. This is a group that will be in the playoff conversation in the seasons to come. – Vito Pugliese
Without a True Teammate for Jones, A Title Run Won’t Happen
Erik Jones’ win on Sunday (Sept. 4) was popular, and a good one for the sport and the fans.
You had Richard Petty, forever NASCAR’s King, returning to victory lane as an owner for the 200th time. You had Jones, a driver who was labeled the future by Joe Gibbs Racing … until Bell came along and Jones was unceremoniously dumped.
It’s the first win for Maury Gallagher in the Cup Series, and a victory for an underfunded two-car team.
There’s nothing not to like here.
Jones has been solid all year, and he could definitely put together a similar run or two next year to make the playoffs. But is the team on the way to being a true contender?
No. And it has nothing to do with Jones.
Smaller teams have a tough row to hoe to be competitive. That’s not to say they can’t. Trackhouse is running with the top teams every week, and sometimes beating them. It has two drivers in the playoffs this year. 23XI Racing has put two different drivers in victory lane since last fall, and is currently running for an owner’s title.
Those teams may be a step ahead of Petty GMS Motorsports in terms of funding, and that’s a big part of the equation. Sponsorship isn’t easy to drum up.
But what’s holding the team back as a whole is the driver of the No. 42.
Money and equipment are hard to come by. So when a team can bring in a driver who can add something in that category, it’s a major boon. But it’s also a double-edged sword, because not every driver who can give the team something is the right person for the job.
It’s not just about Ty Dillon; in fact he’s not really a factor in discussion about the future at this point. He’s a symptom of a bigger problem in the sport through little fault of his own.
Dillon can bring a team something important: a bit more from a team’s relationship with Richard Childress Racing. Be it equipment or information, it’s attractive to a team looking to gain a foothold. But two times Dillon has come to a team with hopes of improved performance for the organization and twice he hasn’t delivered. Jones may have benefitted from anything the team gained from RCR but Dillon’s numbers don’t deliver.
Jones is 18th in points with one win, three top fives and 10 top 10s. With a little luck he might have had a few more. Dillon has one top 10 and is 29th in points. When a driver is struggling, it’s hard to bring a lot to the table that will help a team progress; he’s trying to figure out how to run better himself.
Dillon will not return to the No. 42 next year. He’ll be replaced by Gragson, another driver with money behind his career.
If their Xfinity careers are any indication, Gragson may be the more talented between himself and Dillon. He has four wins this season, a career-high and could well be a title contender.
So why is he the wrong choice for the No. 42?
Gragson hasn’t shown that he can be the kind of team player that the team needs to get to the next level. On track, he’s a hothead who often forgets the bigger picture for both himself and his teammates. His driving style is one he can use to his advantage in the Xfinity Series with less-experienced drivers and lower-budget teams, but it won’t win him any friends at the Cup level except maybe Ross Chastain for taking the heat off him.
To take the team to the next level, everyone has to be a leader in his own right. Gragson hasn’t shown that ability yet. Jones has shown maturity and teamwork, beginning in his own Xfinity days. You can’t say it’s an age difference. Jones is just two years older than Gragson.
When Gragson moved from the clogged Toyota pipeline and Kyle Busch Motorsports to JR Motorsports, the main talent supplier for Hendrick Motorsports, he looked to be positioning himself for a shot at the No. 48 car after Jimmie Johnson’s retirement, but that didn’t materialize.
There’s a reason for that, and if Petty GMS is overlooking or discounting that reason, they could be in for a rougher ride than they think.
Gragson has talent, and he can probably contend for a win or two as Jones has. But the question is whether he can become the leader that helps to elevate both his team and Jones’.
Chemistry matters in racing. Gragson hasn’t made many friends, and has even received public criticism from team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his on-track actions.
Petty GMS is a team that has already shown it can grow as an organization, putting together strong runs for Jones until every piece fell into place for the win. To take it to the next level, they need a strong connection among crew chiefs, car chiefs, drivers and teams. As a smaller team, they’re already behind the eight-ball, and can’t afford a weak link.
To make either team a title contender, the organization needs them to both perform … and then to work together and share and learn from one another. Right now, I’m not confident that they’ll have that. The No. 42 has the feel of a rich-kid ride more than a part of a larger team. A driver can bring money and backing, but if he doesn’t bring a willingness and ability to work toward the bigger picture, nobody really wins. -Amy Henderson