On Sunday afternoon, Erik Jones came up just half an hour short of getting NASCAR legend Richard Petty back to the victory track in the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
After leading the field from Turn 4, Jones tried to fend off a hard-charging Kyle Larson on his outside, but was passed by a group of drivers in the inner lane. Within just a few hundred yards, Jones went from watching the illustrious No. 43 car win the 200th Cup Series to settling for a bittersweet 6th place finish.
“I mean, just the last round, right?” Jones said afterwards. “It’s typical here. Been close to this so many times, in this race and the fall race.”
Jones had one of the best cars all day, leading 25 laps and consistently in or around the top 5 for most of the race. However, after taking the lead with three laps to go, Jones found himself in the top five. precarious position of leading a superspeedway race with a swarm of drivers behind him making plans to make a pass on the last lap.
In the middle of Turn 4 Jones put quite a distance between himself and Kyle Larson in second, leaving Jones extremely vulnerable to a big run from the cars behind him. When they immediately ran across Talladega’s infamous long front, Jones was a sitting duck to Larson and the rest of the field.
In a desperate act, Jones swerved into orbit to try to neutralize the big run that Larson had built up. But to everyone’s surprise, Larson’s move caused Kurt Busch to hit the track and set off a chain reaction that killed Busch’s 23XI teammate Bubba Wallace.
Meanwhile, eventual winner Ross Chastain snuck past Jones and Larson unscathed as he rode to victory in the bottom lane as chaos ensued behind him.
“I should have pretended I was going high and then low again,” Jones said. “We had a chance. I just couldn’t quite figure it out.”
Giving up the bottom lane certainly played a part in Jones falling short on Sunday afternoon. There’s no telling if he could have done anything on the front stretch to avoid being passed.
Drivers are notorious for their perfect hindsight fall short in a thrilling superspeedway finish and it’s always hard to say what the winning decision really would have been.
In reality, Jones lost the race as soon as he let himself get that far in front of the field in the closing corners. With no one to push him, Jones had to play defensively as he raced to the checkers, outnumbering the slew of cars that had built up a run on him.
“We’ve been close to this so many times,” Jones said. “That last lap we were single file and I felt pretty good about it. Looking back, I wish I had stayed at the bottom and let the 1 (from Ross Chastain) push me.
“I was just trying to win the race. I’m happy to run up front and lead laps, but would really love to have 43 in the win lane. I thought maybe today would be the day.”
For Jones and the No. 43 Petty GMS team, “the day” to which Jones refers is long overdue, especially for such a legendary organization and owner. The number 43 car’s last win came in the summer of 2014, when Aric Almirola took a shortened win at Daytona.
And Jones’ second and most recent win in the Cup career came at Darlington in 2019, while he was still with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Since losing his place in the No. 20 car at JGR, Jones has faced quite a few challenges since moving to the Petty GMS No. 43 entry. While Jones has shown flashes of brilliance during his time at Petty GMS, there have been few strong performances quite like Sunday’s as he works through his sophomore year with the team.
The team struggles to find consistency despite showing respectable speed throughout the year. Sunday’s finish is the third top 10 this season, but with superspeedways being one of Jones’ strengths, the coming weeks will determine whether today’s race was a momentum-builder or just a one-off occasion.
Jones is now 17th in the standings, just outside the playoff cutline. If Jones and the team can pull together some more runs like Sunday’s, we might see NASCAR’s most iconic track make the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
While Jones may not have made it to the victory lane in Talladega this time, he certainly made a statement.
The series now heads to Dover, where Jones and the rest of the field will attempt to conquer the high shores of the Monster Mile.