It's going to be a new perspective for Erik Jones this season. For the first time since his 2013 debut, Jones won't be driving for a team that is considered a threat to win each week.
That's the expectation Jones faced when he debuted as an 18-year-old with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series in 2013. It was the expectation when Jones won the 2015 Truck Series title and advanced the next season to a full-time Xfinity Series ride with Joe Gibbs Racing. And it continued when, after four Xfinity race wins in 2016, Jones transitioned to a full-time Cup Series seat with Furniture Row Racing for a one-year stint before his move into the JGR No. 20 in 2018.
But after four total seasons in a Cup Series seat, Jones became the most expendable Toyota driver asset as the manufacturer sought to make room at its flagship JGR operation for Christopher Bell. That meant the end of the road for Jones after seven years as a Toyota driver despite two wins at the Cup level.
"I think it was at a point where it was time to do something different from maybe both sides," Jones says. "[It's] definitely a fresh start for me, a new manufacturer [and] obviously a new team."
Jones takes over the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, where he and the single-car team will be overachieving if they earn top-15 finishes. That's a world away from life as a member of JGR's high-flying juggernaut with wins and postseason advancement seen as the only metrics of success. But it's also a world where Jones feels more important — and more wanted. RPM made a good impression on Jones when he became a free agent by contacting him about driving for the team.
"I thought that was really encouraging," Jones says. "As a driver and as a person, you want to be somewhere where you're wanted."
The Byron, Mich., native signed a multi-year contract with RPM for the ride vacated by Bubba Wallace. He'll be paired with Wallace's former crew chief, Jerry Baxter. Jones and Baxter know each other from when they worked together on separate teams at the KBM Truck Series operation.
Jones joins a team that has started to gain a footing on the track while also continually beating back the threat of extinction faced by teams of its size. Last season, Wallace drove the No. 43 to its best points finish (22nd) since 2015 and best average finish (21.1) since 2017. Meanwhile, the single-car teams that finished one position ahead (Leavine Family Racing) and five spots behind (Germain Racing) of the No. 43 in driver points closed their doors in the offseason.
Much of the pressure for RPM to stay afloat as a mid-pack NASCAR team will rest on Jones' shoulders. He'll be asked to capitalize on situations where the disparity between team size and spending is reduced — such as short tracks and races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway — while minimizing on-track accidents and mistakes that inevitably put small teams behind. The short track at Bristol Motor Speedway in particular could serve as Jones' chance to exceed expectations. He grew up racing and winning on the short tracks of the Midwest and has four top-5 finishes in eight Cup starts at Bristol.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 100/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)