By Jeff O'Brien

Erik Jones will drive NASCAR’s iconic No. 43 next season for Richard Petty Motorsports, a pairing of a driver and a team both in need of fresh starts.

BROOKLYN, MICHIGAN – AUGUST 09: Erik Jones, driver of the #20 STANLEY Toyota, walks the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 09, 2020 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones in August was dropped by mega team Joe Gibbs Racing after six seasons, while Bubba Wallace and RPM are splitting at the end of the year. Wallace’s social activism this year became the defining characteristic of the storied Petty organization.

“They still have something to prove and I have something to prove,” Jones told The Associated Press. “We are both motivated to write a new chapter. It’s just a really clean slate, a chance to start from scratch and do something completely different.”

Wallace, NASCAR’s only full-time Black driver, this season has been outspoken on racial inequality and injustice. He ran a Black Lives Matter paint scheme on the No. 43 and RPM adopted Wallace’s “compassion, love, understanding” platform.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – JUNE 10: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, wears a “I Can’t Breathe – Black Lives Matter” t-shirt under his fire suit in solidarity with protesters around the world taking to the streets after the death of George Floyd on May 25, speaks to the media prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on June 10, 2020 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Wallace’s recent prominence helped the driver sign millions of dollars in new sponsorship, but the funding will follow him next season when he moves to a new team formed by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin.

The loss of Wallace could have crippled RPM, the cash-strapped team co-owned by NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty. Instead, a volatile free-agent market helped RPM land Jones, a 24-year-old considered among the top young talent in NASCAR.

RPM chairman Brian Moffitt said there was “no fear at all” the organization would not survive splitting with Wallace.

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – JUNE 22: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 Victory Junction Chevrolet, is embraced by team owner, and NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty prior to the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on June 22, 2020 in Talladega, Alabama. A noose was found in the garage stall of NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace at Talladega Superspeedway a week after the organization banned the Confederate flag at its facilities. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“We’ve been here since it started in 1948 and we plan to be involved for many, many years,” Moffitt told the AP. “It’s a passion of the family and we want to keep things headed in the right direction. I think Erik gives us an opportunity to get back to our winning ways.”

RPM will again field a Chevrolet next season in partnership with Richard Childress Racing. Jerry Baxter will return as crew chief of the No. 43.

Wallace applauded the hiring.

“Great choice to keep the needle moving! Awesome people to be around at track and away!” Wallace tweeted.

BROOKLYN, MICHIGAN – AUGUST 08: Erik Jones, driver of the #20 STANLEY Toyota, races Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, during the NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 08, 2020 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Jones begins a new journey outside of Toyota for the first time in his career. He was a longtime developmental driver for the manufacturer and his career was fast-tracked when as a 16-year-old he beat Kyle Busch in a late model race.

Toyota helped Jones land a full-time ride in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports, then moved him through NASCAR’s national ladder with Gibbs. Jones won rookie of the year in the Truck, Xfinity, and Cup Series, as well as the Truck Series championship.

Jones’ 18 national series victories include a pair of Cup Series wins at two of NASCAR’s most storied tracks. He won the July race at Daytona International Speedway in 2018 and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway the next year. Both victories locked Jones into the playoffs.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 09: Erik Jones, driver of the #20 Sport Clips Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Busch Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 09, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Jones has not had the same overall Cup success as his Gibbs teammates, and he failed to make the playoffs this year. The team in August decided to replace Jones with Christopher Bell, another longtime Toyota development driver, a swap Jones said “blindsided” him because he believed he was working on a contract extension with Gibbs.

It made Jones a late add to the free-agent market, and despite his potential and young age, Jones was passed over for many of the open seats. He brings no sponsorship with him, which made him a tough sell for team owners in need of funding.

RPM has long struggled to raise the cash needed to consistently contend for wins, but Moffitt said some of its sponsors are staying with the organization and won’t follow Wallace. Moffitt said some new partners are expected to be announced in the next few weeks, but he acknowledged the organization is in search of additional funding.

SPARTA, KENTUCKY – JULY 12: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 Victory Junction Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart at Kentucky Speedway on July 12, 2020 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The No. 43 is a hallmark in NASCAR tied to the Petty family since the 1950s. Richard Petty — “The King” — won 192 of his record 200 Cup victories driving the No. 43.

The late John Andretti drove the car to its final win under the Petty Enterprises banner in 1999. Richard Petty took on a series of different investors beginning in 2009 for re-branded Richard Petty Motorsports, which last put the No. 43 in victory lane in 2014 with driver Aric Almirola.

Wallace became the full-time driver in 2018, and although he’s winless through three seasons, he’s been adequate in a car that lacks the funding to consistently race for wins.

CHARLOTTE, NC – MAY 24: Team owner, Joe Gibbs, speaks with Erik Jones, driver of the #20 Circle K Toyota, during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 24, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

It will be a significant change for Jones, a fixture since he was a teenager in the Gibbs pipeline. The four-car JGR fleet is Toyota’s flagship and its well-funded cars consistently challenge for championships.

RPM is a single-car operation accustomed to stretching every dollar in its quest to catch the big teams. Jones wants to be the driver guiding an RPM resurgence.

“I’m going to have the opportunity to really know everybody. I knew a lot of people at JGR, but they’ve got almost 500 employees,” Jones said. “Looking at what RPM is and what they have, it’s a comfortable situation for me because it’s how I grew up, I worked on a lot of my own stuff.

“I’m going to be able to get in there and be around those guys, get in the shop, and really get to know the people who have a piece in putting the car together. It’s going to be a more inclusive experience for me.”

 

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