Following a subpar 27th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway last weekend, Erik Jones and the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team captured some much needed momentum with a 10th-place effort in Las Vegas and they overcame adversity on the path to their great finish.
Jones, 24, started the 2021 Pennzoil 400 from the 29th starting spot.
In the opening laps of the race, Jones had a rocket ship. The Michigan-native reported that his car in turn, “1 and 2 is pretty good, 3 and 4 I’m loose in traffic, but pretty good by myself.”
By the competition caution on lap 25, Jones had worked his way up to 18th.
When the race went back to green, Jones wasted little time working his way further up the field as he broke into the top-15 shortly after the restart. It looked like Jones could potentially be in line to score Stage points in Stage 1, but he made contact with Kevin Harvick just before a debris caution on lap 46 re-racked the field and set everyone up for another wild restart.
With a car that had gone quite a bit more loose than it had been earlier in the race, Jones slipped back from the top-15 to 17th at the end of Stage 1.
If Jones felt his car was loose at the end of Stage 1, he had no idea the condition would worsen in Stage 2.
On lap 94, Jones went sideways, made one hell of a save, but scraped the wall with the right rear of his car in the process. Luckily, for Jones, the damage wasn’t bad at all.
“Hope they at least got that on TV,” Jones joked with his crew.
Jones would maintain through a calm Stage 2 and would wind up 18th at the end of the Stage. The No. 43 team hadn’t scored any Stage Points, but they knew if they could adjust some of the looseness out of their car, they had a Chevrolet Camaro capable of a decent finish based on the opening few laps of the race.
In the final Stage, Jones and the No. 43 team would start trying some things to work their way up the leaderboard.
With 88 laps to go, Aric Almirola cut a tire and slammed the wall to bring out the caution. Jones and crew chief Jerry Baxter opted to remain on the track, instead of pitting, which moved them from 18th to 10th in the running order.
The move was a good one, as Jones finally had near-perfect handling on his No. 43 machine.
As the run began to go long, Jones started firing off some of the quickest laps on the track, and his once ultra-loose condition had become, “snug,” with around 60 laps to go.
After a pit stop on lap 221 during a green-flag pit sequence, Jones fell to 13th, but there was just no keeping that No. 43 car down on the long run.
Over the final 45 laps, Jones worked his way to his first top-10 finish with Richard Petty Motorsports with a solid 10th-place effort.
At the conclusion of 400-miles on Sunday, Jones felt that his team has some good things building.
“It was a really good day for us in the Richard Petty Motorsports Medallion Bank No. 43 Chevy,” Jones said. “It was a good day to build. It was way better than last week. We’re really headed in the right direction. We tried a lot of different things this week and made a lot of different changes and it’s just nice to see them pay off and get a Top 10 out of it. That was definitely our goal for today, I felt like. So, hopefully we can keep building on that and continue to get better and better each week.”
Jones now sits 23rd in the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings as the Series heads to Phoenix Raceway. RPM has had decent results in recent years at the 1-mile oval in the desert.
Last year, Bubba Wallace finished 19th and 15th for RPM in the two races at Phoenix, and in 2018 Wallace scored a 10th-place finish for the team in the fall at Phoenix.
Jones has a career-best finish of fourth at Phoenix, which came in 2017 (his rookie season) while driving for Furniture Row Racing. If Jones can harness some of his experience of running up front, and Richard Petty Motorsports can bring another good car next week, Jones could continue opening up some eyes as the 2021 season rolls on.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.