Michigan native Erik Jones finishes busy week in home state with 18th place finish at MIS

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Brooklyn — Erik Jones made his first run at Michigan International Speedway while driving for the legendary Richard Petty, a seven-time Cup series champion, in the famed No. 43 Chevrolet on Sunday afternoon.

And, Jones — the 25-year-old Byron, Michigan native — was coming off a season-best seventh-place finish last weekend on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course.

Kyle Larson, left, leads the field to start the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Michigan International Speedway, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, in Brooklyn, Mich.

Top-10 finishes have been hard to come by for Jones, who wasn’t offered a contract extension last year by Joe Gibbs after winning two races in three years at JGR, finishing 15th (2018), 16th (2019) and 17th (2020) in points and failing to make the playoffs last season.

After his three years with the highly-funded JGR team, which includes drivers Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jones is finding things are tougher on a lesser-funded team, especially while trying to find chemistry with a new team during the pandemic world with no practice or qualifying.

Jones entered MIS with three top-10 finishes — including 10th at Las Vegas and ninth at Bristol — in the first 24 races with 16 races between the top-10 finish at Bristol and Indianapolis.

“It’s definitely a confidence boost for us and we needed a good, solid run like that, and hopefully we can string together some good runs,” Jones said of finishing seventh at the Brickyard.

“It’s totally different when you go to a new team, just trying to meet everybody, learn everybody, build that chemistry and it makes it even more challenging with no practice. You don’t have the three-day weekend to spend with the crew and the crew chief and everybody and work on your car and everybody can kind of learn how everybody works together.

“It’s harder to build that chemistry this year and the way things are right now, but I think we’ve done a good job with it, just trying to get better each week.

“It’s just tough when you show up at the race track and you don’t have practice. The car has to be pretty good when you unload and hit the race track and you only have a few chances to really adjust to make it better obviously through the race so you have to be making sure you’re hitting those adjustments really good.”

Jones couldn’t continue the momentum Sunday, finishing 18th.

Jones did have a great week in his home state, throwing out the first pitch at the Tigers game Tuesday night while trying to watch Miguel Cabrera hit his 500th career homer. Cabrera didn’t get that milestone homer that night, waiting until Sunday’s game in Toronto to collect that big home run.

Jones also announced the formation of the Erik Jones Foundation on Friday and made the first donation to the Genesee District Library’s 1000 Books Before Kindergarten program, then attended the Woodward Dream Cruise with Chevrolet Racing on Saturday.

Jones enjoys competing for Richard Petty Motorsports with a goal of earning more top-10 finishes this season with an eye on the 2022 season with the team as well with the Next Gen car in play.

“If you can build those notes as you go, that’s a huge part of it,” Jones said. “Coming in and not having anything to go off of, especially when you don’t have practice makes things challenging, but now working together and having a year under our belt is going to be really important.

“For us it’s just constant improvement. Obviously, at RPM we’re trying to get better each week and get back to being in more contention consistently. It’s going to take time and everything is going to be different again next year with the new car so it will change up a little bit more but we’ve built the foundation of working with each other and that makes things easier.

“Obviously the goal of that car (Next Gen) is to level things out a bit and kind of get the playing field a little bit closer to everybody. We don’t totally know just what it’s going to do yet, won’t until we all get the cars on the track and see how they react. I do think for sure at the start of the year it’s going to help us out having that car and having everybody on a little bit more level of a playing field.”

Keselowski agrees with Jones

Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski, who earned 34 of his 35 career wins in his dozen years with Penske, is now 0-for-24 at MIS after a ninth-place finish Sunday. He was leading with 26 laps remaining when he had to take his final pit stop.

Keselowski will be competing for 79-year-old Livonia businessman Jack Roush next year. Roush drivers won multiple Cup championships with Matt Kenseth (2003) and Kurt Busch (2004), but haven’t won a race or been in the Cup playoffs since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2017 when he won at Talladega, then the July race at Daytona. Stenhouse finished 13th in points that season.

Keselowski feels the Roush/Fenway Racing team will be aided with the arrival of the Next Gen car.

“Next Gen had a huge effect on the new ownership model,” Keselowski said. “In order to be a successful NASCAR team right now you need significant resources with the current car in some very expensive areas, specifically on the construction of the car side and even the engineering to support it, and so with the new car and some of those limitations a lot of that goes away because you’re not building the car. I think it’s important for people to understand that.

“The current team model really turns the race teams into low volume car manufacturers. The current car at Team Penske, I mean we produced almost 100 cars a year and so that’s a lot of cars to build. With the new car model, you’re going to see 20 to 30 a year, so pretty significant reduction.

“Oh, and by the way you assemble it, you don’t fabricate it and build it from the ground up, so that reduction, burden or infrastructure or however you want to look at it is very significant to the team owners and I think it’s generated significant interest so it’s a byproduct for sure of the Next Gen car.”

Pair need rides

Kurt Busch is locked into the playoffs, the 16-car field for the final 10 races of the Cup season with his win at Atlanta.

Still, Busch is in search for a ride for the 2022 season after Chip Ganassi sold his team to Trackhouse Racing, which announced that Ross Chastain will be taking over for Busch next year.

Busch finished fourth in Sunday’s race at MIS.

Matt DiBenedetto, who finished sixth, is also looking for a seat after the Woods Brothers announced Harrison Burton will be driving the No. 21 Ford next year.

The 23XI Racing team — owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan — is expected to have a second car for the 2022 season with Busch possibly becoming Bubba Wallace’s teammate.

When asked to update the status on the second car for the 23XI team Sunday, Hamlin replied: “I don't have anything yet.”