Erik Jones’ Surprise Win at Darlington Wasn’t the Underdog Story You Think It Was

Erik Jones and the No. 43 team for Petty GMS Motorsports pulled off one of the more surprising upsets in a season full of them Sunday at Darlington Raceway. But the win should be considered more of a Cinderella story for the team than the driver.

Jones has spent six years as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver with only two wins to his name before Sunday’s triumph, but he has previously raced for one of the most prominent organizations in the sport, has multiple appearances in the NASCAR Playoffs, and won a Camping World Truck Series championship at age 19 in 2015 during his only full-time campaign in the series.

Erik Jones’ NASCAR career quickly advanced to the Cup Series

Jones reached the Cup Series at the young age of 21 in 2017 when Joe Gibbs Racing loaned him to Furniture Row Racing for a year before Matt Kenseth retired and opened up the seat to the No. 20 car.

JGR then moved Jones to the No. 20 car in 2018 and tasked him with the high expectations of driving for a team with former champions and future Hall of Famers Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, and Kenseth behind that wheel for nearly two decades.

Jones rewarded the organization’s initial faith in him with a victory in his 18th race as the pilot of the No. 20 car when he triumphed in the July 2018 race at Daytona International Speedway.

That victory came amid a stretch of nine top-10s, including five top-fives, in the final 11 races of the regular season. 

He capped off the regular season with a runner-up finish in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and won the pole for the playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Jones had as much momentum as any driver in the series until lap 147 of the 267-lap race.

Kevin Harvick blew a right-front tire in Turn 1, and Jones piled into the backend of the No. 4 machine after it pounded the outside wall. The incident left Jones with a last-place finish, and he was eliminated after the first round of the playoffs two weeks later.

Jones ran well again the following year but was winless with two races left in the regular season. He sat 14th on the playoff grid when the series visited Darlington for the Southern 500, where he again clinched a spot in the postseason with a victory at another one of the sport’s most famous race tracks.

Daytona can occasionally produce fluke winners; Darlington, not so much.

Jones had just won at a track where the seven most recent victors had a combined 11 championships. The only two of that group without a title were Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, who have a combined 76 wins between them.

He began the 2019 playoffs seeded ninth of 16 drivers but finished 36th or worse in each of the three first-round events. However, one resulted from a disqualification that took away a fourth-place finish because of a post-race technical inspection problem.

He was cast aside quickly at Joe Gibbs Racing

Rumors had swirled around the NASCAR industry that Jones might be replaced at JGR with upstart Christopher Bell on his way to his second straight Championship 4 appearance in the Xfinity Series and 15 wins combined in two years.

Like the organization did with Jones, JGR loaned Bell to Leavine Family Racing to drive the No. 95 car in 2020. That opened the door for Bell to replace Jones in 2021 after Jones went winless in 2020 and failed to qualify for the playoffs.

He landed with Richard Petty Motorsports for 2021 to drive the famous No. 43 car, but that organization had long been a mid-tier team at that point. Jones recorded a career-low six top-10s and finished 24th in the points standings.

Next Gen car and new ownership gave Jones a boost for 2022

Erik Jones celebrates his win at the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500
Erik Jones celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 04, 2022 | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

A long-time owner in NASCAR’s lower series, Maury Gallagher bought RPM after the season and rebranded it Petty GMS Motorsports for 2022, which would be the debut season for NASCAR’s new Next Gen car model that was designed to promote more parity across the series.

Suddenly, Jones was back to being competitive most weeks. He scored a third-place finish in the second race of the season at Auto Club Speedway and finished the regular season 18th in the points standings.

Then came the Southern 500 at Darlington.

Jones took over the lead under caution when Kyle Busch had an engine failure with 23 laps to go. Jones held the lead on the restart and masterfully fended off playoff driver Hamlin to put the No. 43 car in Victory Lane for the first time in more than eight years.

This was a victory for essentially a rookie organization with a car number that waited nearly a decade to sit in Victory Lane for the 200th time, the second-most in NASCAR history behind 228 wins for the No. 11.

The underdog team got to celebrate in Victory Lane on Sunday at Darlington, but it was a driver still with a bundle of top-tier ability who got it there.

Stats courtesy of Racing Reference

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