NASCAR silly season is beginning to heat up, and while his destination may seem to be a foregone conclusion, Erik Jones is a driver to keep an eye on.
The annual NASCAR Cup Series silly season got off to an early start in 2022, when Aric Almirola announced before the 2022 season even started that it would be his fifth and final year behind the wheel of the #10 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.
This announcement immediately opened up a seat with a quality four-car organization for the 2023 season. But since then, silly season had been relatively quiet — that is, prior to Kyle Busch’s cryptic comments about his future, or lack thereof, with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Cup Series.
Things have gone somewhat quiet surrounding Busch and the #18 Toyota as of late, however, and aside from William Byron re-signing with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2025 season, a move that was widely expected, there hasn’t been much else to discuss from a silly season standpoint.
But this has given us the opportunity to turn our attention to another driver could very well become the focal point of silly season.
And that driver is Erik Jones.
The driver of the #43 Chevrolet for Petty GMS Motorsports has had an exceptional year that has flown somewhat under the radar.
He sits in 16th place in the point standings, just five points below the playoff cut line, with four top 10 finishes, including a top finish of third at Auto Club Speedway. He was a serious contender for the win at Auto Club Speedway and then again at Talladega Superspeedway, where he lost the lead on the final lap.
Jones arrived at the team last year when they were known as Richard Petty Motorsports. But GMS Racing partnering with the team and adding a second car for Ty Dillon for 2022 seems to be just what Jones needed to become a legitimate playoff contender.
Jones has gotten the most out of his equipment with Petty GMS Motorsports, consistently outperforming Dillon in their first year as teammates. He sits 77 points and nine positions ahead of him in the point standings.
The 26-year-old Byron, Michigan native also happens to be in a contract year, and he couldn’t have picked a better year to perform the way he has.
All signs point to Jones returning to Petty GMS Motorsports, as he seems to have found a home there. They have adapted quite well to the introduction of the Next Gen car, and there is little reason to believe that they won’t continue to improve following Maury Gallagher Jr.’s investment in Richard Petty’s outfit. All parties appear satisfied with the direction in which things are going.
But given the other openings in the Cup Series, it’s hard to see Jones not getting a second look by a number of other teams.
Jones should certainly be viewed as a potential replacement for Almirola at Stewart-Haas Racing, and don’t sleep on Joe Gibbs Racing. While Ty Gibbs is certainly the shoo-in candidate if Busch’s contract isn’t extended, there’s also a chance that Martin Truex Jr. won’t be back in 2023.
But would they really take a chance on a driver with whom they previously cut ties?
We know that Joe Gibbs Racing weren’t exactly keen on letting him go in 2020; it was a matter of keeping Jones or keeping Christopher Bell within the organization.
Had they opted to let go of Bell, that also would have meant Bell’s departure from Toyota. Given what he had shown in the lower series, the team chose to promote him to Jones’s seat, leaving Jones without a ride.
But there is little doubt that Jones has made some significant steps since his departure from Joe Gibbs Racing. Even his 24th place finish in last year’s championship standings with Richard Petty Motorsports was respectable when you consider the fact that Bubba Wallace, whom he replaced, finished in 28th in two of his three seasons with the team (he did finish slightly higher, 22nd, in the third) before signing with 23XI Racing.
So keep an eye on Jones and any decisions made regarding his future in the Cup Series over the next few months. Even if all he does is re-sign with Petty GMS Motorsports, that would be a very significant move as his future — and the future of the team — begin to take shape.