NASCAR: Erik Jones ready for a Richard Petty reset

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA - JUNE 14: Erik Jones, driver of the #20 Toyota Accessories Toyota, stands on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on June 14, 2020 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Bid farewell from Joe Gibbs Racing, Erik Jones is ready to reboot his NASCAR Cup Series career in the iconic No. 43 car.

Erik Jones’ NASCAR name has been constantly mentioned alongside the sport’s most victorious characters. He has raced alongside Kyle Busch and 2020 Cup Series champion Chase Elliott in the famed Snowball Derby short track event, winning two of them. His memorable championship trek during the 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series was traversed in a truck owned by Busch. A debut season on the premier Cup Series level in 2017 was run at Furniture Row Racing, where he raced alongside that season’s ultimate winner: Martin Truex Jr. In the year after, he succeeded Matt Kenseth in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota…which previously hosted a pair of titles from Tony Stewart.

Now, with Jones seeking to hit the reset button on his Cup career, he’s working with arguably the most memorable name in the history of auto racing: Richard Petty.

Jones, 24, is set to be the driver of Petty’s iconic No. 43 car, a vehicle owned and operated by the seven-time champion and New York-based businessman Andrew M. Murstein. The protege of Richard Petty Motorsports was called upon to take the ride over in October with Bubba Wallace heading over to a new team funded by Michael Jordan and Jones’ race day competitor Denny Hamlin.

“It’s a little bit hard to totally grasp the impact that Richard Petty has had on NASCAR and the No. 43 itself,” Jones remarked in a meeting with reporters this week. “I never got to see The King race, so that’s kind of an interesting thing I think for me. But I know obviously his impact on the sport, what he means to NASCAR and what he means to NASCAR fans. Growing up, my grandmother was and still is a huge Richard Petty fan and there’s a lot of people that are really excited to see me in that car from back home.”

“It’s been hard to wrap my head around that a little bit and really think about all the history in that car and what it’s meant to the sport. But I hope I can go out and do it and its fans proud. I know there’s a lot of fans of that car, just from back when Richard was driving it himself, so hopefully, we can go out and make those fans happy.”

Jones and Petty will be partners in rebooting as NASCAR inches toward the 2021 Cup Series season. Once seen as one of NASCAR’s most intriguing prospects, Jones’ Cup Series career hit a bit of a roadblock last season, which wound up being his last in the No. 20 machine.

Things started off pleasant enough, as Jones won the season-opening exhibition known as the Busch Clash a week before the Daytona 500, leading only a single lap as one of six drivers to finish the wreck-filled race. But the regular season wound up being a struggle, as Jones was the only Gibbs driver to miss out on the Cup Series postseason. He also failed to add to his win total, leading JGR to end a collaboration that dated back to 2012. Christopher Bell will serve as the new driver of the No. 20, joining an all-star unit that includes Hamlin, Busch, and Truex Jr.

Jones will now join an RPM team struggling to recapture its glory days. The No. 43 car played host to all but eight of Petty’s record 200 victories on the Cup circuit, but hasn’t visited victory lane since July 2014, when Aric Almirola won a Daytona summer race shortened by rain. Wallace’s 22nd-place posting in 2020’s final standings was the first time that an RPM driver finished in the top 25 of the standings since Almirola’s finish in 17th five years prior.

Despite the relative downgrade, Jones is very enthusiastic about what he can accomplish at RPM. In some ways, he views the transfer from the massive operation at JGR to RPM’s single-car setting as having its share of benefits. It has allowed Jones to experience flashbacks to his days as a budding short track racer in his home state of Michigan.

“It just kind of brings me back to short track racing to me more than anything, what I grew up doing in Late Models and stuff there. Obviously, that was my family team, so it was really just me, my dad, we had a crew chief a couple of times and that was it,” Jones remarked of the change. “I’ve enjoyed it. It’s nice to just be able to walk into the shop and right off the bat get to say ‘hi’ to everybody and there’s nowhere to walk around all day trying to get to see everybody that you need to see. So, I’ve enjoyed it. The communication is really easy.”

Of course, the most attractive aspect of a Petty collaboration is the chance to talk shop with The King himself. Jones was incredibly impressed by and enjoyed the fact that, even in his advanced age, the 83-year-old Petty remains an active prescience in the RPM garage as the offseason continues.

“It’s really neat for me to see how in-tune he is with everything that’s going on,” he said. “You don’t really know until you spend time with somebody how much they’re really involved and what they’re doing. With The King, with his team, he’s all in. So, it’s been really neat to see and just get some advice from him right off the bat about dealing with sponsors, dealing with fans, and things he’s done over his time in the sport to really nurture those relationships and build strong relationships with sponsors and fans.”

“I’ve definitely enjoyed the time I’ve gotten to talk to him so far. For me, I’m looking forward to continuing that through the year and just being able to go to him, ask questions and get advice about something he’s been around his whole life. And most of the time the sport has been around itself, he’s been involved too. I’m excited to grow that relationship and get to chat with him about racing and obviously hope to make him proud on the track.”

If anything, Jones was able to create some strong momentum at the end of the 2020 season with a respectable output that he reached from outside the postseason limits. He was the best-finishing non-playoff driver in 17th place, earning four top-five postings over the concluding ten races (including a runner-up showing at Talladega in October).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags