NASCAR Cup Series drivers make a lot more money than the typical everyday person, but that doesn’t make getting fired any easier.
Just ask Erik Jones, who learned in August 2020 that he would not be retained by Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2021 season after previously feeling confident that he would be back with the organization that’s one of the best in the sport.
Speaking on a recent episode of The Dale Jr. Download podcast with co-hosts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mike Davis, Jones described in great detail the unusual way he found out he was being let go from JGR, the pain he felt after being informed of this, and how he ultimately landed on his feet.
Erik Jones was back home in Michigan when the bad news came
Even before the day Erik Jones became the youngest ever NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion at 19 years, 5 months, and 21 days old, it was clear that the Byron, Michigan native had a bright future in the sport.
That future began to crystallize like never before in 2018 when he landed a full-time NASCAR Cup Series ride with Joe Gibbs Racing — a perennial championship contender and winner of multiple championships at NASCAR’s highest level. Jones won a race in each of his first two Cup seasons at JGR — with whom he’d previously enjoyed even more success in the NASCAR Xfinity Series — but was sputtering through a somewhat disappointing 2020 when he got a call out of the blue that August from team owner Joe Gibbs.
“I’m at my mom’s place in Michigan because it was Michigan race week, and it was like a Tuesday, maybe,” Jones recalled on The Dale Jr. Download. “I’m in the shower, get out, and I’ve missed a call from Joe Gibbs. And I’m like, ‘Weird time for Joe to call.’ Joe always called at the same time. For Joe to call at that time, it was something probably not good. Immediately, after I missed that call, [my attorney] Alan Miller is calling me. I’m like, ‘This is really not good.’”
Miller told Jones that JGR was going in a different direction for the 2021 season and that his services would no longer be needed after 2020 — the only season on his one-year contract. It was a bitter bill for Jones to swallow, especially considering the timing of the news and where he happened to be spending the day when he learned he’d be losing his ride.
“My mind is going a thousand miles an hour now,” Jones said on the podcast. “It’s already like August, it’s late in the year, I’m trying to put pieces together of what’s even available in the Cup garage — No. 1 at a competitive level, and No. 2, of anything. So my mind’s spinning. I hang up and call Joe back. Same thing, right? It was the typical ‘you’re getting fired’ conversation. That’s the first time in my life I’ve been fired from anything.”
Erik Jones felt blindsided by his pink slip from Joe Gibbs Racing
Even though Erik Jones’ 2020 season hadn’t been great by his standards or the standards of Joe Gibbs Racing, the then-24-year-old felt optimistic he could bounce back in a big way in 2021.
“I was led to believe we were going to re-sign and make some changes for the next year and give it a go,” Jones said on The Dale Jr. Download. “I had won a couple of races [with JGR] and was frustrated I hadn’t won more, but I had no major inclination I was not coming back.”
Then the news from his attorney and Joe Gibbs that he wouldn’t remain with JGR’s Cup program for a fourth season.
“That hurt, right?” Jones said. “I’m just sitting there staring out the window like I don’t know what to do. I’m sitting at my mom’s house, my girlfriend Holly is up there, my sister and my whole family is there, and I just lost my job at Joe Gibbs Racing, and I’m like, ‘Well now what?’ I was like so embarrassed to even leave the room and go talk to anyone. It was probably 20 minutes I was just sitting there.”
For Jones, one of the hardest parts was having to let his family members and friends know what had happened before the word of his imminent dismissal became public.
“I’m telling everybody, and it’s a terrible day,” he said on The Download.
Erik Jones has landed in a good spot, and his future once again appears bright
Thankfully for Erik Jones, he didn’t stay unemployed long. In fact, he technically wasn’t unemployed at all since he found a ride for 2021 prior to his time at Joe Gibbs Racing coming to a close.
But his first couple of months as a lame-duck driver were stressful, to say the least. He recalls spending several hours a day on the phone trying to firm up a plan for 2021. One of the teams he spoke with was JTG Daugherty Racing.
“We came very close to a deal that fell through last minute,” Jones said on The Dale Jr. Download. Jones also said he engaged in talks with Stewart-Haas Racing, but nothing ultimately came from that, either.
Finally, in the last full month of the season, Jones was able to find his next racing home. That’s when Bubba Wallace unexpectedly announced he was leaving the organization now known as Petty GMS to take a ride with the newly formed 23XI Racing in 2021.
Needing a driver to replace Wallace, Petty GMS came calling for Jones.
“They found he was not coming back, in like October — really late in the game,” Jones said on The Download. “They were hunting hard for someone. It came at a perfect time for me because I was running out of options quick. I was starting to get nervous. I was starting to try to decide, ‘OK, do I really want to take a bottom-of-the-barrel-deal to stay in [the Cup Series], or is this it?’”
Now in his second year with Petty GMS, Jones couldn’t be any happier. Not only has he enjoyed steady improvements from Year One to Year Two with the organization, but he captured his third career Cup win — and first with his current team — at Darlington on Labor Day weekend.
Part of his prize for winning that race was a cowboy hat gifted to him by Petty GMS chairman Richard Petty — the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, NASCAR Hall of Famer, and all-time Cup Series wins leader.
But even before winning at Darlington and getting the hat made in the likeness of the one Petty has made famous over many decades, Jones had signed a multiyear agreement to remain with Petty GMS for 2023 and beyond.
So even though Jones’ time at JGR ended sooner than he had in mind, he’s still in the game. And doing quite well at it, too.
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