BY AARON BURNS, @AaronClayBurns
Imagine seeing Richard Petty’s famous No. 43 car back in the winner’s circle.
Erik Jones imagines it every day.
I’ll be honest, I think about it on occasion. Do you?
It’s been nearly 30 years since a Petty-blue No. 43 car actually had a Petty behind the wheel.
The man known as “The King” scored 192 of his 200 wins in the No. 43 -- he won eight races in the No. 41 or No. 42 -- but the No. 43 has only rolled into a NASCAR Cup Series victory lane four times since Petty retired in November of 1992.
Four of the top 10 finishers in last Sunday’s race at Phoenix weren’t even born then, including Chase Elliott, the series’ defending champion.
There’s been a bit of a dry spell, but it doesn’t matter.
Petty is a legend in the sport, many consider him to be NASCAR’s greatest driver and his legacy is carried on every time the No. 43 rolls out on track with Jones in the cockpit.
Jones wants to add to the legacy.
He’s embraced the role of underdog after spending three years at Joe Gibbs Racing, a team so big it could eat Richard Petty Motorsports and still have enough room for Kaulig Racing.
Here’s hoping at some point this season, Jones does what Bubba Wallace came close to doing on multiple occasions: put the No. 43 atop the scoring pylon at the finish of a Cup Series race.
“We’ve done a good job each week of just getting better,” Jones said Tuesday. “I was really pleased with the improvement from Homestead to Las Vegas. We just need to keep that trend going, honestly.”
Jones, who was born three and a half years after Petty retired, had a rough Speedweeks -- I’m sorry, Speedweek -- in February at Daytona. He was taken out in the way-too-early “big one” and finished 39th, but things have gotten far better since then.
A 10th-place finish at Las Vegas and encouraging runs at Daytona’s road course and at Phoenix have given new life to an organization fighting to gain sponsors, relevance and momentum at the same time.
They’re doing it with a 24-year-old driver on his third Cup team, who desperately wants to remind others of his past success -- like his 2019 Southern 500 win.
“I felt pretty confident going in, honestly, of the equipment and the resources we have at RPM,” Jones said. “We have an opportunity to hit it right and run really well, week in and week out.”
Jones defines “really well” as a top-20 finish.
Seeing underdogs like Michael McDowell and Front Row Motorsports win races reinforces Jones’ belief that it only takes one stroke of good fortune to qualify for NASCAR’s Playoffs.
“I’ve been trying to put in the effort from my end to make the cars as fast as they can be,” Jones said. “Some of the gains we’ve already made have been encouraging.”
Can the No. 43 earn a Playoff bid for the first time since 2014?
Hey, why not?