(Photo Source: Twitter.com/Erik_Jones)
As we all know this silly season has been unprecedented in a flurry of twists and turns, not unlike a road course. Perhaps the most surprising move of the Silly season has been Erik Jones heading to the iconic 43 to drive for Richard Petty Motorsports. It certainly wasn’t a major shock when it was announced Jones wouldn’t be returning to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021. When you’re teammates of 2 cup champions still in their primes and a 3 time Daytona 500 winner who has as many Cup wins as Bill Eliott it’s not hard to figure out who the replaceable driver is. Of course, we have to factor in the success of the man who is replacing Jones, Christopher Bell. Bell won the Truck Series Championship in 2017. He would go on to win 16 Xfinity series races with 46 top tens. He drove in the Cup Series this season for Levine Family Racing where he finished 20th in points, highlighted by 2 top 5’s and 7 top 10’s.
None of this is meant as a knock on Jones. He’s had his share of success. He too is a Truck Series champion. He has 9 Xfinity Series wins and most importantly 2 Cup series victories. Some may scoff at being overly impressed with the two victories, but when you look around at this season’s crop of free-agent drivers it’s easy to see how tough it is to win in the sport’s top series. Anyone that watches our weekly show knows I love Richard Petty Motorsports. You also know that we universally agreed that Jones was likely too big of a get for the team. As it turned out we were wrong. “Bubba” Wallace leaving the team was nothing short of a gut punch in terms of all the funding and momentum he was taking with him, but serious credit has to be given to Petty and company for signing a driver that regains some of that lost momentum.
Naysayers will undeniably point out that this is a giant step back for Jones and on paper, it’s tough to disagree. There’s no denying the team’s overall lack of success for the better part of 4 decades. Whether we’re discussing the final decade of Richard Petty’s career with Petty Enterprises or its current form as Richard Petty Motorsports. Overall since roughly 1980, the team has been on a slow and steady decline. Richard Petty would win his final race in 1984 and to top it off the last two wins of his career were for Curb Racing after he left Petty Enterprises in 1984. He would return to the team in 1986. From then on he and the team would have their moments occasionally but the magic was gone. Since Petty retired in 1992 the team has just won 6 times. It hasn’t been all bad for the team since The King’s prime though, there have been bright spots. Whether it’s John Andretti getting what would be Petty Enterprise’s final win in 1999. Bobby Labonte stabilized the team in his first two seasons. Later on, after becoming Richard Petty Motorsports Kasey Kahne would give the new incarnation of the team two wins in its inaugural season but would depart from the team before the completion of the 2010 season. A.J. Allmendinger proved to be a step in the right direction. As did Aric Almirola who provided the team with their most recent win in 2014 in the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Unfortunately, things would go south in the 2017 silly season. Almirola would leave for Stewart-Hass Racing and Smithfield would go with him after a messy exit. Then came Bubba Wallace. After two seasons of stagnant results and sponsorship trouble, the 2020 season was the latest bright spot.
RPM and Wallace showed considerable improvement spending much of the summer on the playoff bubble. Wallace would finish 22nd in the season’s standings after results faded some as the unique season went on. While that may seem like nothing to get too excited about it’s a sizable improvement from finishing 28th and 30th in the two previous seasons for Wallace. Much of the credit must be given to Bubba for running so strongly and with the help of his advocacy for racial injustice, he was able to help acquire a lot of funding for the team. No matter what your opinion is on Wallace and his views he certainly helped raise the notoriety of the team. However, credit must also go to the team at the shop and crew chief Jerry Baxter, who will be back atop the box next season.
Now, with Erik Jones behind the wheel, the team enters 2021 in what I believe is the most momentum they’ve had since at least the Almirola years. However, I also believe this the most pressure they’ve been under since Petty Enterprises closed. We must consider the fact that Richard Petty will turn 84 next year. You do have to wonder if this will be the last time he’s able to start over with a new driver? By all accounts, he remains in very good health so it’s very possible, perhaps even likely that he remains involved with the team for years to come. However at that age, you just never know. I’m sure some of you have read this entire article thinking something along the lines “Petty doesn’t really own the team.” Yes, I’m aware that the co-owner and the money behind the operation is Andrew Murstein, but reports of just how much power and influence Petty has over the team have been conflicting since Murstein got involved in 2011. No matter who owns what, Richard Petty is still the face of the organization.
Speaking of Murstein, it’s fair to wonder how much longer he’s willing to supply the necessary funding for the team to operate? It’s safe to assume that as long as “The King” is alive and well the odds are good that Murstein will do what he can to support the race team, especially with Petty’s influence. Again, I have to ponder, what about afterward? In most ownership operations it’s a safe assumption that at some point the children of the owner either step in or are handed ownership once the elder family is no longer able to run the show. The issue in this unique case is that Petty’s kids likely don’t want the team. Kyle Petty has come and gone from the Petty organization multiple times. He ran the team in the two seasons his father was at Curb Racing. He would leave and go on to drive for the Wood Brothers. He spent several seasons at SABCO Racing before returning to Petty in the late 90s. When the team closed and was reborn as RPM Kyle Petty was forced out. Since then he has never returned to the team in any role and shows no sign of doing so. Richard’s daughters have never shown any interest in the team so the future without The King would be a complete mystery. The most immediate question though is can Erik Jones be the guy that brings the 43 back to prominence?" He signed a multi-year deal so that helps the process. The next-gen car debuting in 2022 is expected to be much cheaper and make it easier for smaller teams such as RPM to compete. Looking straight ahead to next season, naysayers will say that the equipment just isn’t good enough to win, but I think there are reasons to be optimistic that Jones can get the 43 in victory lane in 2021.
Let’s start with the obvious, the 4 super-speedway races. One of Jones' two Cup Series wins came at Daytona. On top of that RPM has shown the ability to run up front at these tracks. The winners of these races tend to be those that have done it before, at least in recent memory. As I mentioned earlier Denny Hamlin is a 3 time Daytona 500 winner. How often do we see members of Team Penske up front at Talladega? The times we saw “Bubba” Wallace leading these races, from a tv viewer’s perspective it always felt like he was anxious and trying to do too much. I know it’s easy to diagnose it from my couch but it always seemed like he was feeling the pressure of the moment, not that anyone could blame him. I spent most of this article sparring you few details of just how hard it has been for this team to get a win since the last century. Maybe with Jones at the helm, someone who has won before in a pressure-packed situation, a win will be a little easier to come by. Jones’s other win came at the Southern 500 in 2019, one of the crown jewel events. So, he has a crown jewel to his credit and while it’s not “The Great American Race” any win at Daytona is pretty special. Let's not forget that he won the Clash in 2020 as well. My point being, Jones can obviously perform under pressure.
Say what you will about the organization, but there’s no denying there’s pressure in driving the 43, especially when the man that made the number famous still looms over the team. Another thing to factor in is the fact that Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports are going to join forces in building engines for Chevy next season. RPM has a technical alliance with RCR so there’s no little doubt they’ll benefit from this move, as will every other Chevy team in the sport. Another underrated factor is that Covid restrictions will likely get lighter as next season goes on. Many crew chiefs and drivers were barely at their shops last season. It wasn’t all that long ago where that would be unheard of. RPM was able to pull off a respectable improvement during a year in which there were more restrictions than ever and less time in between races than ever. While NASCAR was able to pull off the scheduled 36 races it was not without numerous changing circumstances. At times races this season felt like we were watching one big conveyor belt, churning one after another with little to no time in between. Assuming this season can be much closer to normal it’s fair to speculate that it very well could help RPM’s performance.
Finally, let’s not forget all the schedule changes scheduled for next season. The added road Courses at COTA, Road America, and the now road course at The Brickyard are complete wild cards. We saw what kind of chaos the Roval created, maybe Jones finds himself at the right place and the right time at one of these races next season? While results for Jones in terms of road courses have been a mixed bag, he did win the Canadian Tire road course during his championship season in the Truck Series in 2015. There’s the Bristol dirt race but the returning Kyle Larson has to be considered the heavy favorite there. However, if Larson were to falter that day all bets would be off. Traditional Bristol could be a race to keep our eye on. RPM showed a lot of improvement in their short track program this season and shows has won twice at Bristol in his Xfinity career. Another track he had plenty of success at during his Xfinity days was Texas. Mile and half “cookie cutters” are still mostly the name of the game and Jones will without question help the team there. Dover and Phoenix have been other strong points to keep an eye on. In summary, Jones’s resume has success sprinkled at every type of track, and that’s something that thus far the driver he’s replacing can’t lay claim to. There are serious questions in terms of sponsorship for 2021 but Jones is young and has had a level of success, and perhaps it should be noted he isn’t controversial and that helps market to the “old school” NASCAR fan who wants drivers to stay away from our social and political fray. For better or worse those individuals make up an extremely large portion of the sports fan base, teams and sponsors know that. The most controversial thing about Jones was his once infamous mullet. While 2021 could be a year of adjustments for “That Jones Boy” and “The King” there’s plenty of reasons for optimism about next year and beyond. However, if it doesn’t work out it’s fair to wonder if this will be a type of last stand for one of the true icons of the sport, but with Jones’s impressive resume and the next-gen car quickly approaching I wouldn’t write Petty and company off just yet. It’s not insanity... it’s Loganity!