Erik Jones feeling comfortable, showing potential with Petty GMS Racing
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas — Richard Petty is coming to the track more often these days, and he has good reason to watch his famous No. 43 car on the track.
Erik Jones has shown signs of the potential many have waited to see out of him throughout his six-year Cup career.
Jones sits 17th in the Cup standings at the halfway point of the regular season, the same spot he finished in the points in his final year at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020.
He was 24th in the standings last year at Petty Enterprises, where he had six top-10s and no top-5s in 36 races. He already has four top-10s and one top-5 this year.
The difference? A new team: GMS Racing bought out Petty Enterprises majority owner Andy Murstein and rebranded the organization as Petty GMS Racing. A new crew chief: Engineer Dave Elenz is now guiding the group.
And with all that, Jones has a little bit of a new attitude along with the new NASCAR Next Gen car that has reset the playing field at least for the moment as teams work on finding ways to gain speed.
"I've learned a lot in five years on the racetrack and gotten better as a driver, there's no doubt about that," Jones said. "But the comfort level is the highest it's ever been. I feel like I can go to anybody at the shop and ask them questions, give suggestions.
"I feel like those are taken into account. I’m just comfortable with the group and happy with the group just in the sense that I feel comfortable asking any question I need to make myself get better and make the team get better."
It hasn’t been all roses for Jones this year, and recently he has had a few rough weeks, but he feels his team is positioned better to weather such frustrations.
"I look at last year at this time, and we'd had, one, maybe two good runs by this point," Jones said. "But it was kind of sporadic. It wasn't like we were consistently running well.
"Whereas this year, I feel like we probably ran better than some of our finishes [have shown]."
Jones had a frustrating day Sunday at the All-Star Race but at least was able to compete in the main event after winning the fan vote.
It doesn’t hurt to be Petty’s driver when it comes to fan voting, but it also showed that Jones has some popularity. Fans like his story of perseverance. Jones was a highly touted prospect who won the Camping World Truck Series title in 2015 and won four Xfinity races in 2016 before being moved into Cup.
He spent one year at Furniture Row Racing and then three years at JGR, where he managed two wins before being out of a ride.
"I'm in the best spot that I've been in over the last five years and what I'm doing, so it feels good," Jones said. "I'm definitely the happiest and most comfortable I've been in a while."
That should make the executives at Petty GMS happy to hear. If Jones continues to post good finishes, he will be a candidate for open rides, and his name is often mentioned as a possibility to fill the vacancy at Stewart-Haas Racing that will be open when Aric Almirola retires at the end of the season.
That’s probably why Jones has already had initial talks about staying at Petty GMS. There’s something to be said for being a focal point of an organization that has two cars — the Petty legacy car of Jones and then Ty Dillon in the No. 42.
Certainly time will tell if Jones stays, but he knows that atmosphere and comfort level is important when choosing a race team.
"There hasn't been a single weekend I wasn't excited to come to the racetrack," Jones said about this season. "And that's a good feeling. That's what it's all about.
"And even the weekends that we struggled ... I was still having fun just because we were making it better."
It’s been a while since Jones has had that type of outlook.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't last year ... frustrated before the weekend. I knew it was going to be a tough weekend, just with what we had struggled with," Jones said.
"At times in the 20 car [at JGR], I felt frustrated and felt a little locked in and like I couldn't do what I needed."
The difference is that Jones has confidence in the engineering background of Elenz, who won Xfinity championships as a crew chief at JR Motorpsorts.
"I don't feel like I've changed my feedback at all," Jones said. "I think Dave and I really click well. I think he has a good intuition as far as what a car needs to begin with.
"And I feel like him and I are probably pretty similar in a lot of ways, and I think that makes things easy."
He’s also seeing his "boss" a little more often. Because of the pandemic, most of the race weekends last year weren’t weekends — teams just showed up, went through tech and raced all in one day.
Now the Cup teams practice and qualify the day prior to the race. And that format has increased the number of races that Petty, a NASCAR icon with a record 200 Cup victories and a record-tying seven titles, attends.
"It's just always fun to have him at the track," Jones said. "He's been coming a bit more now that we're practicing. He didn't really enjoy just coming for the race only.
"He didn't really get to hang out with the guys, and I think that is part he really enjoys, just spending time with everybody in the team and being involved in it. I love seeing him at the racetrack — especially when we run well."
Thinking out loud
It was a crazy finish to the All-Star Race on Sunday when Ryan Blaney thought he had won the race, realized the race would have another overtime restart and had to try to relatch his window net that he had lowered when he thought he had won.
NASCAR saw the window net up and Blaney with his hands on the wheel, which made NASCAR think it possibly was latched coming to the green of the ensuing restart.
Denny Hamlin, who finished second to Blaney, said it is impossible to latch the window net from the inside (it is latched by another crew member prior to the race) and it was an unsafe situation.
Blaney said he didn’t feel unsafe.
Considering this was a safety issue and the rules were different in the All-Star Race (normally, the race would have been over when Blaney thought it was over), NASCAR could have let Blaney come down pit road to make sure the window net was latched.
If it was latched, give him his spot back. If not, then make a decision whether he has to go to the rear of the field.
But to let it go with two laps to go and knowing a big wreck could happen, NASCAR should have erred on the side of making sure it was latched rather than going green because it didn’t know whether it was latched or not latched.
Stat of the day
Ryan Blaney ranks fourth in All-Star Race laps led with 171 in his career (all in the past three races).
They said it
"I’d be upset, too, if I was in his position. You're running second and the guy makes a mistake and puts the window net down, and you expect it to be handed to you and the leader get black-flagged." — Ryan Blaney on Denny Hamlin’s comments after the All-Star Race
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!