Erik Jones Optimistic Following Toyota Reunion

Erik Jones Toyota

Erik Jones is back with Toyota this year in the NASCAR Cup Series. (Jacob Seelman photo)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When Erik Jones left the Toyota Racing Development pipeline three years ago, he admitted that he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be back with the manufacturer that launched his racing career into the national spotlight.

However, Jones has that opportunity this season, reuniting with Toyota as Legacy Motor Club has shifted from Chevrolet over to the Japanese-based manufacturer in the NASCAR Cup Series in one of the biggest changes from last year.

From his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series debut in 2013 with Kyle Busch Motorsports through the end of the 2020 Cup Series season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Jones carried the familiar “bug” emblem on the front of his racecars and won multiple prestigious races and a Truck Series championship for the brand.

After three years as part of the Bowtie Brigade, Jones noted Wednesday during Daytona 500 Media Day that there was a “level of comfort” in returning to the Toyota family this season as he embarks on his second year under the Legacy Motor Club banner.

“I think I’ve felt a lot of familiarity and seen a lot of the same people in the same places,” Jones told Motorsports Hotspot in regard to his Toyota comeback. “The processes are [still] very similar. When I was with them last time, I was with a different group [in Joe Gibbs Racing] and a much bigger team. We’ve been expanding like crazy [at Legacy], and we’ve added a lot of people – which we needed to do –but we have been in a race against the clock. As soon as the season ended, we had to change the cars over and build out different departments that, maybe, we hadn’t had to think about before.”

Expanding on that thought, Jones tipped that Legacy Motor Club is building its own foundation to stand on now compared to last year, when it was more deeply aligned with the larger Chevrolet teams.

“As an organization, we’ve had to somewhat build out an aero department, a tire department, a simulation department –all things that when you take away an alliance with a bigger group, you have to take that in house … and those things don’t always fall on the manufacturer,” he explained. “They give us a ton of support and have given us a ton of support and are doing everything they can to help us hit the ground running, but some of it does fall back on us … and that’s the big build right now.”

Erik Jones Toyota

Erik Jones won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing in 2019. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR photo)

But in bringing his career full circle with Toyota, Jones noted with a faint smile that “the more things change, the more some things stay the same.”

“It hasn’t been a lot,” Jones remarked when asked about the changes he’s experienced compared to his first stint as a Toyota driver. “I guess the only [real] difference right now is working with a different team and, right now, a smaller team than where I was then. We came in with some different asks than what I had at JGR. We need different resources and different things from [Toyota], especially to get started.

“Coming off having a bit of a blank slate and no real data with TRD from the last few years, there are a lot of things that we’ve got to learn and figure out. Building out simulation programs, tire programs – a lot of that stuff has taken a lot of man hours and heavy lifting right off the bat,” Jones explained. “Toyota has done a good job of helping us facilitate that. That’s the kind of stuff we didn’t have last time I worked with them. We didn’t have to work through that.

“It’s been kind of fun to see them put in the time for us and help us and it’s energized us as a team.”

With stability around him – Jones will have crew chief Dave Elenz guiding him for a third straight year – the Byron, Mich., native hopes to rebound from a tough 2023 campaign that featured just seven top-10 finishes and a career-worst 27th-place finish in the Cup Series point standings.

“It’s been interesting [working through the offseason]. It’s just been a long road for me in Cup … not just in the [No.] 43 car,” Jones admitted. “Coming in, in both the [JGR No.] 20 and to the [LMC No.] 43, I’ve gone through so many changes with personnel, ownership, manufacturer, internally, with teams – so every year has been a grind. This year started no different. It’s a grind right now for us just because we’re working hard to try to hit the ground in the right direction. Every year has been that grind.

“The big difference with now is that this year doesn’t feel like a lost cause,” he added. “Sometimes it feels like you’re just working and working and working and everything is pushing back against you. But I feel like we’re working hard, and things are pushing for us right now. We’ve got a lot of people in our corner that are pushing and saying, ‘Okay, you guys are working hard. You’re putting the work in. We want to see you running well.’ Toyota wants us to run well. Our group internally obviously wants us to run well. I think the manufacturer support is the biggest thing.

“Having a manufacturer that wants you to go out and succeed can make a big difference.”

As for starting the season with Sunday’s 66th Daytona 500, Jones believes he’s in as strong a position to succeed as he’s been at the Cup Series level in quite some time.

“We have a much clearer path and direction of where we’re going to end up and what we need to do to build [as a team] and where we need to build,” said Jones of Legacy’s competitve potential. “There’s a lot more resounding optimism from everybody [here] starting the year off than there’s been in years past.”

Coverage of The Great American Race begins Feb. 18 at 2:30 p.m. ET, live on FOX, the Motor Racing Network, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.

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About Jacob Seelman

Jacob Seelman is Motorsports Hotspot’s News Editor and Race Face Digital’s Director of Content, as well as a veteran of more than a decade in the racing industry as a professional, though he’s spent his entire life in the garage and pit area.