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Silly Season Produces Some Serious Cup Changes

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 22 2020

Erik Jones is jumping from the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing ride to the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – A pair of NASCAR Cup Series rides linked with iconic numbers have been filled this week, as non-Playoff organizations begin to re-tool for 2021.

Richard Petty Motorsports has signed Erik Jones to a multi-year contract to drive the No. 43 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE starting next year. The No. 43, of course, is synonymous with NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, Cup’s first seven-time champion and all-time wins leader with 200.

Meanwhile, Stewart-Haas Racing has tabbed NASCAR Xfinity Series breakout star Chase Briscoe to replace the retiring Clint Bowyer in the No. 14 Ford Mustang in 2021. The No. 14 is synonymous in NASCAR and INDYCAR circles with A.J. Foyt Jr. and Tony Stewart, a NASCAR Hall of Famer and co-owner of SHR with businessman Gene Haas.

The separate announcements in Welcome, N.C., and Kannapolis, N.C., respectively, are serving as preludes to the NASCAR Playoffs weekend at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval will play host to the Cup Series’ Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 Sunday (3:30 p.m., EDT, NBC Sports Network), set for 334-laps/501 miles. 

Dropped by Joe Gibbs Racing as driver of its No. 20 Toyota Camry in favor of Christopher Bell, Jones said he is looking forward to becoming the focus of RPM’s single-car effort.

“Yeah, I think it’s great,” said Jones, 24. “That was one of the things that when RPM reached out I was excited about _ the opportunity to be a single-car team and just have everybody working in the same direction. The cool part is I’ll have the chance to get to know everybody at RPM _ everybody that’s working on the car in the shop and getting it to the racetrack.

“Coming from JGR, I never got the chance to meet everybody. It’s a pretty big company and there’s a lot of people that I never had the chance to really interact with too much. So, that was always a little strange for me with growing up racing and working on my own stuff with my family and getting to know everybody that had a hand in working on the race car. So, kind of getting back to that small town and small team feel I think is going to be really kind of nice. Just having one voice, which is mine and (crew chief) Jerry Baxter’s to kind of lead the team in the direction we think we need to go, I think is going to be a good thing.”

The iconic Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 car will have a new driver next season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

“King” Richard collected 192 of his record 200 career Cup victories in a No. 43 car. NASCAR pioneer Lee Petty, Richard’s father, also placed the No. 43 in Victory Lane. Jim Paschal was the first to collect a victory in the No. 43 without the Petty surname.

Following the Richard Petty 1992 Fan Appreciation Tour, the number was retired for two years before returning to the track with Wally Dallenbach Jr., and later John Andretti. In 1995, Bobby Hamilton added his name to the history of the No. 43, capturing two wins for the team. In addition, Andretti (1999) and Aric Almirola (2014) each added their names to the list of winners in the No. 43.

Jones will replace current RPM driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, who recently announced he will compete in Cup beginning in 2021 for new team co-owners Denny Hamlin, a series star with JGR, and NBA legend Michael Jordan.

“It’s an incredible honor to have Richard Petty want you to drive for his race team and with the car number he made famous,” Jones said. “Richard Petty Motorsports has a rich history in the sport, but they’re not resting on that history. They still have something to prove, and I have something to prove. We’re both motivated to write a new chapter. I’m proud to be a part of Richard Petty Motorsports.

“There is definitely a heritage you want to uphold. I think that number is one of the most successful numbers in the history of the sport and one of the biggest numbers. You want to do it proud. You want to run well and you want to be up-front. I don’t know that there’s extra pressure from that. I always feel like I think the pressure that’s on me is really internally just from myself. I want to go out and run well. I want to go out and compete and win races. I’ve never tried to let too many things from the outside come in and influence that.”

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer at RPM, said Jones is a part of NASCAR’s next generation of stars. “Erik is a proven winner and we look forward to providing him with the opportunity to add more wins to his already impressive resume,” Moffitt said.

In his fourth fulltime Cup season, Jones has recorded two wins, 33 top-five and 62 top-10 finishes in 144 career starts. In addition, the Byron, Mich., native has collected two poles (Bristol, Las Vegas), and has led 645 laps through five years in the series. Jones captured his first-career Cup win at Daytona International Speedway on July 7, 2018, and collected his second-career win on Sept. 1, 2019 in the historic Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

Jones was the first driver to win Rookie of the Year honors in all of NASCAR’s three national touring series. In 2015 Jones captured the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series championship. The next year, he finished fourth in the Xfinity championship standings.

Jones said he spoke with “a variety of different teams” before deciding to sign with RPM. “As things started to shake out and people started finding their rides, we were starting to work towards one direction,” Jones said. “I think RPM became a pretty clear choice for us and the place that we wanted to go.

“The thing that meant a lot to me was RPM reached out to us and I thought that was really encouraging. As a driver and a person, you want to be somewhere where you’re wanted. RPM showed that interest right off the bat when they were looking for a driver. Like I said, you want to be somewhere where you’re wanted, you’re appreciated and I think RPM is definitely going to be that place.”

Baxter will continue to lead the No. 43 Chevy in a reunion with Jones. The two have a connection via Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM) in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series for three seasons.

RPM is co-owned by NASCAR Hall of Famer Petty and entrepreneur Andrew Murstein. The team has a technical alliance with GM partner Richard Childress Racing and will have engines supplied by the Hendrick Group.

“Yeah, I think they’re going to have great equipment,” Jones said. “The way that they’ve been trending the last few years, continuing to get their stuff better and better. I think their alliance with RCR has been great to keep developing their equipment. And I hope I can help with that. I hope that I can bring something to the table that’s going to help them continue to get better and better. Obviously, I have four years of experience at JGR _ what we did over there and can bring a lot of knowledge from that situation. I think that’s going to be helpful going into it _ that we can continue to improve the stuff. But I definitely think going into it, watching from afar, I think they are continuing to improve and can run up-front.”

While Jones has spent his entire NASCAR career driving Toyota vehicles, he indicated he is ready for a re-boot with a Bow-tie.

“I spent seven years really with Toyota and what they had going on between KBM and Joe Gibbs Racing, and that was great,” Jones said. “They did a lot for me and, obviously, took me from the Truck Series all the way to the Cup Series for the last few years and it was a great ride. I got a lot of great things out of that, won races with them and did a lot of good things.

“I think it was to a point where it was time to do something different for maybe both sides and this is definitely a fresh start for me _ a new manufacturer, a new team. It’s definitely the most change that I’ve ever had since 2013, my first year in the Truck Series coming from Late Models. So, it’s a whole new slate for me. I think both sides are really motivated and I think it’s going to be a good, clean slate and a breath of fresh air to start over.”

Meanwhile, veteran Cup driver Bowyer is taking his aw-shucks, Midwest wit-and-wisdom to the FOX Sports TV booth next season, and who knows, maybe a future gig on Comedy Central.

Chase Briscoe is joining Stewart-Haas for a Cup ride. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

The resulting open seat at Stewart-Haas Racing will be filled by Briscoe, a nine-race Xfinity Series winner in 2020 and heir to motorsports’ iconic No. 14.

“To me it’s more than just a number,” Briscoe said during a Zoom meeting with national media on Tuesday. “I truly care about that number and the history of that number going from A.J. Foyt to Tony Stewart and even Clint. There’s a lot of pride in that number being a dirt (track) guy and to drive that car and drive for Stewart-Haas. It’s still unbelievable. I’ve been texting with my mom and dad and wife about how it all just doesn’t seem real. I’m ready to get to Daytona though, that’s for sure.”

Briscoe is scheduled to make his debut in the No. 14 HighPoint.com Ford Mustang in the 2021 Daytona 500, NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 14. But he has plenty of unfinished Xfinity business this weekend at TMS, site of Saturday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 (4:30 p.m., EDT, NBC Sports Network). Briscoe will start the 200-lap/300-miler from pole position.

Briscoe has four starts at “The Great American Speedway” with two top-five and two-top 10 results. His best finish came earlier this season as runnerup to Ford Racing’s Austin Cindric of Team Penske. Briscoe has an average start of 13.2 and average finish of 9.8 at TMS.  

Briscoe set a Ford Racing season record for Xfinity wins with his ninth last Saturday at Kansas Speedway.  The previous mark of eight was set by Carl Edwards in 2011. Briscoe swept both stages and led 159 of 200 laps around the 1.5-mile oval. Briscoe’s victory secured the first spot in the series’ Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7, where a title and trophy would serve as fitting exclamation points.

“It’s still doesn’t really feel real,” said Briscoe, a 25-year-old native of Mitchell, Ind., and graduate of the Ford Performance driver development program. “When I first signed with Ford, obviously the goal was to go Cup racing and for me, I would always tell them that Stewart-Haas was my dream situation because I was a diehard Tony fan. The goal and dream was always the No. 14 car, but I don’t think it was always necessarily believable that it was going to happen the way it all worked out.”

Briscoe has compiled 11 wins, 30 top-five, 50 top-10 and two poles during a three-year Xfinity career that began in 2018.

Bowyer’s decision to accept FOX’s offer to wear makeup and work alongside former four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon and host Mike Joy cleared the way for Briscoe’s promotion.

“Oh my gosh. Makeup is going to be the worst part about all of it,” said Bowyer, a 41-year-old native of Emporia, Kan. “Honestly, I never really said this, I’m an old kid from Kansas. If you’re gonna put makeup on me, it’s gonna take the tackle box. It’s gonna take everything you’ve got. I need to get some pointers from my wife or somebody, but it’s gonna take all of it _ all of the arsenal of makeup to make my ugly ass look good.”

Bowyer’s 538-race Cup resume features 10 wins, 82 top-fives, 225 top-10s and four poles dating to his single-race debut in 2005. Bowyer will make his 30th/final appearance as a driver Sunday at TMS, where he owns four top-fives and 12 top-10s in 29 starts. Bowyer’s No. 14 Mustang will carry the colors of cornerstone partner Rush Truck Centers, headquartered near San Antonio, and Cummins.

Bowyer’s grit and self-deprecating humor are traits that Stewart, a NASCAR Hall of Famer and co-owner of SHR with businessman Gene Haas, will miss at the team’s campus.

“I love Clint,” said Stewart, a three-time Cup champion. “You’re not gonna have more fun with anybody than Clint Bowyer and you’re not gonna have anybody that’s got any more passion, drive and desire than Clint Bowyer, so losing him is a detriment, obviously.  But looking down the road in the future of Stewart-Haas Racing, knowing that Clint was going to the booth we had an opportunity to get Chase _ I think now is the right time to get him in a car and work on the future.

“The competition level goes up when you go to the Cup Series, but we feel and have a lot of confidence that he has what it takes to be a great Cup driver.”

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 22 2020
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