Eric Jones is “the happiest of my career” as he attempts to return Petty GMS number 43 to Victory Lane

There is not a single car in NASCAR, and arguably no car in all motorsports, which is more synonymous with winning than Richard Petty’s #43.

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, No. 43 was next to Petty’s cars in nearly all of his 200 Cup Series victories—a record that still stands today and will likely never be surpassed. And in the process it has held a lasting place in the imagination of racing enthusiasts from the Betty family’s original level, Level Cross, North Carolina to the edges of the earth. But since Betty’s final victory in 1984, Betty’s 43 wins have been few and far between.

Bobby Hamilton ended a 14-year drought for Petty’s car, winning at Phoenix in 1996 and then adding another win at Rockingham the following year. Jon Andretti won one race at race #43 in Martinsville in 1999, then it took 15 years for the car to take victory in the new millennium when Aric Almirola took it to Victory Lane in Daytona in 2014. Since then, the #43 bugger has been disqualified.

In 2021 Eric Jones was introduced as the new driver for the #43 car to help end this shutdown. And after an off-season merger that resulted in Petty merging his team with GMS Racing, Jones reaped more rewards than any other character in the organization.

After scoring just six times in the top ten last year, Jones has earned two sets of top five players and nine top ten spots this season. The 77 laps ahead is the most he’s driven in any season since 2019, and the most for any driver in 43rd place since Almerola’s 78th lead in 2012. Earlier this month, New multi-year contract Ensure that Jones will be my home driver for the next several years.

Having battled ups and downs in NASCAR in the formative years of his Cup career, Jones told CBS Sports he’s proud of his race team’s growth. And a big part of that pride is the deep satisfaction he gets from being a competitor, running up front, and competing to win again.

“I knew last year clearly that there were things we needed to do better, and I knew it wasn’t something I would be able to jump into and obviously be successful right away. I knew there would be some,” Jones said. [I’m] Kinda proud to see it through. It’s been a few years since I got a multi-year deal in the Cup Series, and so on [I’m] Excited to do so with Petty GMS. I felt that this was the first time I had the opportunity to develop the program and continue to make it better.

“So [I] Was more than happy to try to strike a multi-year deal with this group, develop the program and continue to do what we do. So I was very happy – the happiest I’ve had in my career, and for a really long time, this year.”

Jones fought this happiness so hard. Trophy Series Player of the Year 2017, Jones was brought to the Cup Series as the upcoming young star and next big thing for Joe Gibbs Racing. But despite two wins – including wins at Daytona and the Southern 500 in Darlington – Jones has slipped in performance to his fellow veterans. And before anyone knew him, he was eliminated after the 2020 season in favor of Christopher Bell.

Now, after spending years in the shadow of winning veteran drivers – then disqualified from the competition – Jones is Petty GMS’ best dog, and his place as the team’s lead driver will take on a different dimension next season when he served as the veteran’s complement. To fellow rookie Noah Gragson. A role he admits he will have to get used to after years of being on the other end of that dynamic.

“It’s definitely different for me in this role as a veteran,” Jones said. “I’ve been in the Cup Series now for a while, and watched how it works. I remember coming as a rookie…and that’s a big change.

“I hope to help Noah as much as I can to run into the Cup Series as a rookie. But it’s definitely different for me. It’s going to be a little learning experience for myself being in this older, veteran role I guess. But I’m excited to do it and excited to have Noah on board as well.”

Driving Petty GMS forward, Jones was able to get an appreciation of just how vast Petty No. 43 and the amount of history behind the car he drives. And it adds an extra layer of intrigue about Jones’ entry into his most important race of the season: entering the regular season finale in Daytona, Jones ranks 17th in the Cup Series points standings, and above all the drivers who must win the Coke Zero Sugar 400 in order to get One of two spots left in the Cup Series qualifiers.

Jones’ victory would be massive for him and his racing team, and it would be massive toward returning Richard Petty’s iconic car to its relevance. The problem is that that victory almost came – and faded – several months ago.

In April at Talladega, Jones led 25 laps, including a lot of the last 10. He was driving off the fourth turn to take the checkered flag. After that, he let himself far ahead of the herd, allowing the cars behind him to run. Jones swung outside to try to block Kyle Larson, but in doing so he left the inside wide open for Ross Chastain to pass the win.

Jones left sixth which was a painful missed opportunity. Now, that experience has affected the approach the Byron, Michigan native should take to Daytona Saturday night, a race he expects to be just as intense since he became the regular season finale in 2020.

“I definitely look back and hopefully we can get that win and it’s over,” Jones said. “I’m definitely going to be aggressive when we go to Daytona and what we have to do there. It’s been a good season to look back on and be involved in, but in the playoffs your expectations obviously change as the year goes on and nice we want to be more competitive as we’ve been this year.

“…I definitely think there are going to be a lot of guys who are going to be really urgent at Daytona. It’s probably crazier than it has ever been. I don’t know, it will be interesting to see how it all goes. But I am excited to be there. And I have a chance to win. It will be a crazy race for sure.”

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