Erik Jones is a soft-spoken, unruffled, likable young gun in the NASCAR Cup Series garage. He is not a driver who makes headlines for having a meltdown or speaking out of turn. Jones is a just-the-facts type of guy, never one to call his shot.
Jones enters his third season driving the No. 43 Chevrolet. The look of the team has changed over the last three seasons as it was Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021 and then a two-car operation as Petty GMS in 2022 following the acquisition by Maury Gallagher. Now everyone is getting used to calling it Legacy Motor Club with the addition of Jimmie Johnson into the ownership fold.
The job remains the same regardless of the team’s look or name. But when asked, Jones didn’t bite on outright declaring it a ‘playoffs or bust’ season.
“It’s definitely our goal, 100%,” Jones says. “Missing the playoffs this year would be a disappointment. It was a disappointment last year, to be frank, because we got through the season and raised our expectations, and were in a position to win a few races. It would be disappointing (to miss it again).”
While the trio of team owners in Gallagher, Petty and Johnson all understand it takes time to build a formidable organization at NASCAR’s top level, they’re still trying to do so as quickly as possible. Team president Mike Beam jokes it’s because, given the ages of himself (68), Gallagher (72), and Petty (85), they don’t have time to wait for success to come to them.
The all-in mentality started with buying in on the Next Gen idea, not being afraid to make driver changes (Noah Gragson for Ty Dillon), and shuffling personnel, such as adding crew chief Luke Lambert, if necessary. Gallagher has also never shied away from ensuring his operation has the budget it needs to compete.
Jones last made the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in 2019 when he was still a Joe Gibbs Racing driver. The Petty group hasn’t been included in the postseason since 2014, when Aric Almirola won a race for them.
Gallagher and the GMS side of the equation are new to the Cup Series. It is just their second year at NASCAR’s top level.
“Our goal in the future is to become a championship team,” Jones says. “We don’t want to go into the playoffs and be out in the first round and carry that through the next five years. That’s not our goal; just making the playoffs to say we’re in it.
“It is a big marker for us (this season). Obviously, we missed it by a week last year, which was disappointing and also cool in a way. But yeah, it is definitely goal No. 1 to make the playoffs this season.”
Jones won the famed Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in September. It was the first postseason race, meaning the playoff field had been decided a week prior, and Jones had already missed the cut.
Unlike his driver, Richard Petty is always honest and blunt with his assessments. During the off-season he described Richard Petty Motorsports as a C team that became a B team with the Gallagher partnership. Petty believes it can be an A team going into the 2023 season.
Jones knows it’s going to take more than talk to get there.
“It’s not easy,” Jones says. “I’ve been there in the past with an A team and know what it’s like, what it takes, and what the expectations are for that. So that’s a pretty big jump. If you go from D to C to B, they’re all big steps, but they’re a lot easier to attain. There is a pretty clear pathway of what you need to do, and you can get there quickly if you do the right things.
“I see the B to A jump as a lot bigger. That’s where your magic is at; going and making that transition. A lot of it is people and relationships. It’s your OEM and partners. Obviously, we have an alliance with (Richard Childress Racing), so it’s maximizing those things and making the most of all those relationships and how we play them out through our team, people and cars.
“I think that’s what this season’s big swing is: focusing that energy on trying to build our relationship with Chevrolet, RCR, and trying to maximize that information to take us to that next level.”