Erik Jones said he felt pretty confident he would be able to land a Cup ride next season while he was on the hunt for a new team and that he had earned a spot in NASCAR’s top series despite the lack of personal sponsors.
“We’ve been able to win some races along the way,” Jones told The Observer on Friday. “And I felt like I could find a home somewhere here.”
The 24-year-old driver from Byron, Michigan, was searching for a new home starting in August, when Joe Gibbs Racing announced it would not renew his contract to drive the No. 20 Toyota next season. At the time, Jones said he was “burning up the phone” trying to determine his plans for next season.
But the stars aligned for Jones when Bubba Wallace announced his plans last month to part with Richard Petty Motorsports, leaving a seat open in the No. 43 Chevrolet. Jones said the team reached out to him fairly quickly after learning Wallace, who will race for a new Cup team backed by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, 23XI Racing, would not return for 2021.
“We got in talks right away,” Jones said. “And I was interested off the bat for a few reasons.”
Jones announced his plans to join RPM for 2021 on Wednesday. He said he felt like the team has been on a trajectory of fielding more competitive cars in recent years in terms of setup and speed, especially for a single-car operation, which was also part of the appeal.
The driver has been somewhat overshadowed by the biggest names of NASCAR at the four-car Gibbs operation, which he joined full-time in the Cup Series in 2018. Jones said he sees the concerted focus on a single car at RPM as a benefit.
“I think it will be good for me,” Jones said. “Just having a clean slate over there and then doing something totally different, and having a little bit of a different perspective of how you can run a team at the Cup level.”
Despite his race wins in 2018 and last season, Jones never achieved the playoff success of his veteran Gibbs teammates, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., nor will he have the opportunity to. He missed the Round of 16 this year for the first time since he has been with the team, but that is giving him more motivation.
He said that winning next season is a priority, and both he and his No. 43 team will be competing with “something to prove.”
“It is a big motivation,” Jones said of the unforeseen circumstances of having to search for another ride this year. “The biggest goal for us is obviously winning. We want to be able to get back to Victory Lane, for myself and for RPM.”
Jones said he was not offered an ownership stake in the organization, as Wallace was, but he signed a multi-year deal. While there has not been any animosity expressed between either Jones and JGR, nor RPM and Wallace, a slight chip on the shoulder could give the smaller team the competitive edge it needs to boost it to running with the leaders long enough to secure a playoff spot in 2021.
The transition won’t come without challenges, however, such as switching to a new Chevrolet manufacturer. Jones said he has never worked with Chevy before, as he was brought up through the NASCAR ranks by JGR and Toyota. He said the change does make a big difference in terms of the information-sharing and interactions.
“I’m definitely going to have to learn a lot about them and how they approach the series and what they do,” Jones said. “I think it’s going to be a pretty big switch.”
He said that he has been in preliminary contact with his new team, including his next crew chief Jerry Baxter. The two overlapped while competing with different Truck Series teams at Kyle Busch Motorsports and have some familiarity. Jones, however, said he’s focused on closing out the season with Gibbs. Then, he will turn his attention to what’s next.
“It’s definitely a restart for me, something brand new,” Jones said. “And I’m excited about that. I think gonna be a good, clean start and I think RPM is a good place to do it ...”
“I think it’s going to be a good match for both of us.”