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In the Hot Seat: Erik Jones

Erik Jones and his No. 43 LEGACY Motor Club team have turned up the wick in the latter half of 2023. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

FORT WORTH, Texas — Erik Jones has found a competitive, promising stock car home in LEGACY Motor Club.

While the No. 43 team has taken on different iterations since joining the organization in 2021, the 27-year-old Byron, Michigan native has been focused, steadfast and optimistic through all the changes. Since 2021, Jones has continually elevated the performance of the famed No. 43 car to a thriving, consistent frontrunner in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Although the start of the season may have been challenging for the No. 43 U.S. AIR FORCE Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 efforts, Jones kept his head up. Once spring became the summer, Jones and crew chief Dave Elenz have turned up the wick with stock car’s legendary ride.

As LEGACY Motor Club prepares for big changes for next season, Jones and the LEGACY Motor Club organization intend to finish this year on a competitive, strong note. Recently, Jones tallied his best result to date in 2023 with a third at Kansas Speedway.

Away from the track, Jones enjoys time with Oscar, his faithful German Shepherd companion, and reading books. Considering the bustling action over 38 times in a calendar year, serenity offers much needed bliss for the mild mannered racer.

Jones has grown up from the young, 17-year-old stock car sensation who won a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Phoenix Raceway in 2013. Despite being the ripe old age of 27, he is still as motivated, gritty, and talented behind the wheel as he was when he made the move from Byron, Michigan.

Today, the driver known as “That Jones Boy” is also the Byron Bandit. Certainly, Jones represents the Wolverine State with pride on and off the track.

Throughout Jones’ eight-year Cup career, he has taken to stock car’s toughest tracks. In fact, his three career Cup wins have come at Daytona and Darlington, all impressive feats.

Now, Jones is a respected veteran racer who continues to be a catalyst for his teammates. He understands that longterm success takes time to establish and build as LEGACY Motor Club continually elevates their potential.

Prior to last Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Jones considered his No. 43 team’s recent successes, the learning curve with the Next Gen stock car and his love of literature. Now, let us get started with “In the Hot Seat: Erik Jones” here on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson: Welcome back to another edition of “In the Hot Seat” here on The Podium Finish. Rob Tiongson here and I’m alongside the driver of the No. 43 U.S. AIR FORCE Chevrolet Camaro fielded by LEGACY Motor Club, Byron, Michigan’s Erik Jones.

Erik, how you been doing?

Last Saturday night, Erik Jones took on the acton packed Bristol Motor Speedway. (Photo: Kyle Ritchie | The Podium Finish)

Erik Jones: I’m good, man. Yeah, happy to be back on and freshen up. It’s been a little while, so thanks for having me back.

Tiongson: Absolutely, we’re thrilled to have you around. Aside from the Playoffs drivers, you are somebody who is on a hot streak. You and your No. 43 team have been so competitive in the second half of this season. What does it mean for you to build this kind of momentum in these closing races this year ahead of next year?

Jones: Well, I think it’s important to obviously run well. Things are going to change a lot here eight weeks when we finish up. But overall, it’s just good for team morale. It’s going to be a similar very similar No. 43 group as to what we’ve had now this year and last year.

So, just getting those guys up front and running well… kind of rewarding the hard work that we’ve put in. I don’t think we did anything groundbreaking different over the last month or two, but I think it’s just kind of the culmination of effort paying off in these few races and some good tracks for us as well. So yeah, happy to have that and slide into next year and do what we got to do there to.

Tiongson: I’m sure you love having that little boost of momentum and just knowing that you guys have kept your head down and it’s been working out just perfectly in these last several weeks.

Since last year, you and crew chief Dave Elenz have been building this kind of momentum, this kind of progress, to get the No. 43 car to be a consistent front runner. What has it been like to work with him and build upon your chemistry? And also, what are some of the finer points you feel has made you elevate your racecraft?

Jones: I think Dave’s done a good job since he’s come on board last year and had a good opportunity. To come into the Cup series with the Next Gen car kind of gave a clean slate for everybody. Everybody had to learn at the same pace and at the same time. So, I think that played kind of into his hands as well. But overall, he’s just done a good job of taking our program and building it, piece by piece, through the last year. So, I really enjoyed working with him over this last two years now. For me, it’s kind of the same thing.

Going to the Next Gen car, I had to relearn a lot and figure out what the car liked, what it wanted, how to drive it and how to get the most out of it. And I’m still learning, right? The cars are still changing a lot and they’re getting better. Guys are figuring out more stuff in the shop to make them drive better. So, you’re having to adjust as a driver for that, too.

Overall, going through all that as a driver, it’s been a big learning process over the last couple of years now with this Next Gen car. It’s been fun, though. I’ve never had an opportunity to learn something totally different other than the times I’ve switched series, but those cars have been around for a long time. You had a pretty good notebook from other guys, so it was just a fun experience to go and learn something completely new.

Tiongson: Yeah, I would say this clean slate from the Next Gen car has really thrown a curveball to everybody, but it seems like you guys have been adapting to it really nicely and more consistently too.

Let me ask you this. How drastically different is it to drive the Next Gen car versus the Gen 6 that we had a couple years ago?

The familiar red and white colors of Erik Jones’ No. 43 U.S. AIR FORCE Chevrolet proved to be a hit with fans. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

Jones: Yeah, not even close. It’s just a whole set of different skill, I guess. You have to approach it and drive it. The Gen 6 car was really far down the line in development. Frankly, compared to this car, it drove pretty well. We hopped into this thing and guys just didn’t know and we didn’t have any real setup notes.

The cars didn’t drive good last year, really. We’ve been getting them a lot better, but they’re still really challenging to drive. So just everything’s different. The material… that is the only thing we really brought over from the Gen 6.

It’s been a learning experience for everybody, but it’s hard to even put any kind of comparison on how the two cars drove. Anything you really learned with the Gen 6 didn’t transfer over much to this car at all. So, it was a pretty new experience.

Tiongson: It’s almost like you graduated from high school and you guys went off to college and thinking, How important is it to continually elevate the competitive form that we’ve seen not only this year, but even last year, going into the long haul of this team?

Jones: Well, I look back to last year and when Maury Gallagher came on board, I think that was kind of a big swing and what are our true goals were with the No. 43 car because we had a lot more funding now and had a different mentality. So, there was a huge boost in performance with that.

Naturally, there was some boost with the Next Gen car, just having an opportunity to be on the same playing field with guys, especially at the start of the Next Gen car. Nobody really had any background notes on it.

This year, with Jimmie Johnson coming on board and rebranding to KEGACY and the manufacturers switch next year, it’s made a lot of big moves in three years that I’ve been a part of the No. 43 car. I’ll be going into my fourth year driving this car next year.

We’ve made huge gains. We were able to win a race. We’ve come close to winning a handful other races along the way. And so just running up front, that was my ultimate goal.

Coming back to the No. 43 car and joining up, I wanted to get them to Victory Lane, which we’ve done, but now we need to take that next step next year. And that’s winning races before the season’s into the Playoffs, getting into the Playoffs and then having an opportunity to go and contend.

Those goals are raised up every year a little bit. But I think next year is probably the opportunity for us to take the biggest step that we have yet.

Tiongson: That would be pretty exciting because I know a lot of longtime fans of this sport when they see that No. 43 car on the front of the field, it makes them feel like, “Hey, the more things change, the more they stay the same for the better.” You talked about winning Darlington last year.

What makes a track like Darlington suit your driving style and the intermediates? Is there a certain feel that you have no matter what kind of car you have? Or is it just other intangibles that may not get discussed about?

Jones: I think Darlington is one track that’s changed with the Next Gen car, but it’s probably stayed the same more than any other place, just with it being such a unique place and such low grip level. The cars don’t drive hugely different than what they did before.

I was able to take a lot over from what I could do with the Gen 6 car there and bring it into the Gen 7 car. I grew up racing on low grip short tracks and places that wore tires out a lot. I was able to take a lot of things that I learned in those places from late model short track days and bring it to the Cup series.

These are way different cars and the way you have to drive them. At the same, like you said, the intangibles about driving and what you do to manage some of that stuff was very similar. So, I brought a lot of that over and it helped initially. And it’s just a place I felt comfortable at kind of right off the bat my rookie season in Cup and I have been able to really carry that through now.

So yeah, I look forward to that race every year. It’s one of my one of my favorite tracks, favorite races with the Southern 500 there every year and we just have a have a fun time with it and have some really good runs in the in the history to kind of back it up to.

Tiongson: It’s just so cool to see when, like, a driver just hits that jackpot field at the car and a track. It’s kind of like what DW (Darrell Waltrip) said many years ago that when you’re racing a car that’s running really well, it’s like putting on a sport coat. And when you put it on, you feel and look good.

Let’s talk about Bristol a little bit because you raced the US Air Force car. How special is it to drive this particular paint scheme to  pay homage to the women and men who serve our country?

Earlier this year, Erik Jones raced a wise, clean race at Talladega to place sixth. (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

Jones: It’s been fun the last few years working with the Air Force now. Learning more about them, getting more involved and doing some events with them… this year, we got the Thunderbird scheme on the car, which is a great looking car, one of my favorites probably we’ve had the last two years. It’s been really fun to just get them out there.

We’ve come close to winning a couple of them at Talladega, so I’d love to get them to Victory Lane. That would be a pretty special one for sure.

My grandfather was in the Air Force as well, so there were some neat connections there for me joining up with them and having an opportunity to go out and represent the men and women of the Air Force to on the track and the events we do at track with them, bringing members of the military out and hanging out with us, doing pace car rides and getting to do the stuff pre-race and during the race.

That’s probably the most fun for me. I love the chance when we get to get them on the car, we do it a handful of times a year. And the Bristol Night Race is one of the coolest ones all season. So, I was definitely excited to get them on there for that.

Tiongson: It’s always “must see TV” and given the fact that you got one of the coolest looking cars, it looks like a jet fighter out there.

Like me, you’re a dog parent as you’re raising your dog, Oscar. What’s it been like to raise him and discover the joys that come with being a dog parent?

Jones: Yeah, it’s been good. Oscar is six now, and so he’s been around for a minute with me. But it’s just been fun. He’s come to so many races. He hasn’t missed many races. He’s definitely been to more than he’s missed over the last six years. It’s just cool having him there and having him around.

Oscar’s always in a pretty good mood. When you get to see him during the track having a good or a bad day, he’s happy that you’re coming back to see him. But yeah, he’s just been a great dog. We had dogs growing up, but obviously Oscar was the first dog that I had on my own.

I say all the time I’m spoiled because he’s been so good to me and been so well behaved always. I always worry, when I get another dog down the road, he won’t be quite as good as Oscar ever was. So, it’s just been fun to have him around and he travels all the time and loves it.

Any time he gets to go where we’re going, he’s a pretty happy dog. So yeah, like it’s just been fun to have him at the track, have him with some Victory Lane photos as well. It’s been pretty neat over the few years and so it’s just been a blast. It’s fun to raise him. And the last handful of years now, he’s just been a great dog, which has been awesome.

Tiongson: I can relate to that because I have a dog myself, a Southern Black Cur. They don’t care if you’ve had a bad day or a good day. They just love to be your friend.

Now, I know you love reading books. You love literature. How did this all start about?

Reading is knowledge as Erik Jones can attest. (Photo: Kevin Ritchie | The Podium Finish)

Jones: Well, really from my parents, they started reading to me at a young age and I started picking it up as soon as I could on my own. Anytime we wanted to learn about something at a young age, we just dove into a book and started going after it. And that was the way. I always picked things up.

As I got older, I got interested in subjects of my own that I was wanting to learn about. Books were always the best way for me to pick up on them. I always carried forward and then I wanted to find a way to connect with fans with it. I never really knew how to do it. And then obviously with the kids’ books, that’s been the most fun for me with doing the readings online.

But even more so, the readings that we’ve gotten to do in person… we did one a handful of weeks ago at Darlington. Anytime we get a chance to go and do those live readings with the kids is always a blast and give some books away and just see the kids reactions up close and personal.

It started from my parents at a young age, getting me involved in it, reading to me. After that, I just took it on my own. And still to this day, I try to keep at least one or probably two books going at a time usually. So, it’s just something that I’ve always loved.

Tiongson: Wow. Two books at a time. I mean, between racecar driving, getting the setup right, and then having time to read books, you’re really multi-talented, I’d say. What books are you reading right now out of curiosity?

Jones: I’ve been busy. The last few weeks, I’ve still been finishing up the same book, but I’ve been working on the Rough Riders, learn a little bit about that with Teddy Roosevelt and what they did. I’m finishing that book up now, and actually I just got a book donated to me about a ship, one of the icebreaker ships that were up north.

It’s a little bit of different stuff always out there that I keep up on. This part of the season’s been busy, so I’m excited to kind of dive back in and start to finish these books up and have some time to really go through them.

Tiongson: It sounds like a great getaway going between the 20th century with what was going on in America as it was growing and then going out to sea and these really cold areas. I’d say you have quite the imagination and broad perspective of things which are I hope our readers will appreciate and so are the fans who are listening in, because I love reading books.

If SiriusXM said, “Hey, Erik, we want to invite you on for a whole day to be a with us,” what songs would you play and what station would you want to be deejaying for?

Jones: Man, that’s a good question. I listen to a lot of different music, but I like country and classic rock best. I don’t know if there’s a station that really mixes those two. If I could be on one, though, I listen to that Y2K country quite a bit, which is a lot of country I just grew up with as a kid.

That’s probably the station I’d like to get on, like a lot of Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw from back then in the early 2000 and some Toby Keith in there. So, all those guys are the ones that I always listen to the most.

If I get on there, I think that’d probably be the easiest one. I guess I’d have a time to DJ and pick out songs for and really knowing all the music on there.

Tiongson: Well, we’ll talk to about this sometime down the road. JP’s got to hook you up on that. So that way there you get to make that wish come true.

How important is it to get to do things like golfing and boating to balance the demands of racing to say, “OK, I need some air time. I need to not worry about what the fans think, what the press thinks?”

Nowadays, Erik Jones has plentiful reasons to smile at the track. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

Jones: You always need those days off. Our schedule is a little bit backwards from society, I guess. We’re busy on Thursdays through most of the time, Sundays. And so Monday through Wednesday are the days we try to squeeze in some time off. It’s super important though.

The Cup schedule is really busy. It’s really long. We’re pushing 38 races a year and one off week from February till November. You’re running hard for a long time, and you just need time to decompress and relax and not have to deal with the day to day stresses, the racetrack, your team and everything else.

It’s super important and just trying to find a hobby that you really enjoy outside of racing. We all enjoy racing and it’s our job, but it’s also probably all of our favorite hobbies too, right?

So, you got to find something to separate from that a little bit and find something that you enjoy with a group of friends you can go and have just a good day with. It takes time to balance that out, especially coming to the Cup series. But it is a really important part.

Tiongson: A little bit of R&R to enjoy the third R of life, which is racing, relaxing and recreation. It’s good to get a little escape, stay refreshed and relaxed for what we love to do.

Do you have anything you want to say to the fans who are listening in or going to read this article on?

Jones: Thanks for the support with the No. 43 car over the last couple to three years. It  has been great. I just enjoy driving it every week and enjoy trying to go out and run well for them.

But I appreciate the support as always. No. 43 fans have always been strong, and I think it’s going to continue to get better for them going forward. So, I’m excited with what we can do in the next year or two for them.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Erik Jones for taking time to talk about his racing season and journey in NASCAR. Also, special thanks to JP Payne of LEGACY Motor Club for making this interview possible!

Along with coverage on The Podium Finish, keep up-to-date with Erik on social media channels on Facebook, Instagram and X!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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