DARLINGTON, S.C. — The plan was for GMS Racing to run select Cup races when the series moved to the Next Gen car.
That changed when team owner Maury Gallagher completed a deal with Richard Petty Motorsports nine months ago to form Petty GMS Motorsports and go full-time Cup racing with two teams.
Sunday night, Petty GMS Motorsports won its first Cup race.
Erik Jones’ victory in the Southern 500, though, isn’t the end of a journey, but a step for an organization already looking to next season.
“This month and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, president of Petty GMS Motorsports, told NBC Sports after leaving Victory Lane.
Beam, 67, and team owner Maury Gallagher, 72, seek to build a winner quickly.
The organization has come far in a short time. Gallagher, who owned a successful Truck Series team, had considered moving to Cup previously.
He had looked at the BK Racing charter when it was available in bankruptcy court in 2018 but passed on it before the charter (and team’s assets) were sold for $2.08 million to Front Row Motorsports. Gallagher looked at the charter for Furniture Row Racing before Spire Motorsports purchased it in Dec. 2018.
Each time, Gallagher didn’t see the financial benefits. With the Next Gen car, the model was better.
He purchased majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports last December for $19.1 million. The deal included RPM’s two charters.
Petty GMS Motorsports continues to redefine itself in this era of Cup racing. Joey Cohen, competition director, said the Cup program has 13 engineers among about 50 employees.
“We feel like we’re the model for what Next Gen racing is going be long term, how that looks personnel wise, how that looks in structure in the shop,” Cohen told NBC Sports in Victory Lane.
Cohen said the focus is on engineering. He notes that “we will employ more engineers than mechanics at some point on a race car. That is the truth. … We know that those are where the races are won or lost, with the tools the engineers have.”
Jones showed his commitment to the team by signing a multi-year extension in late July. Sunday’s win validates the faith he has in the organization and the effort Petty GMS Motorsports makes to grow.
“You’ve got to continue to grow, build on this moment,” Jones said after guiding the No. 43 car to the win at Darlington Raceway. “We’ve got it going right now obviously with the car and what we’re doing, but we’ve got to continue to get it better and continue to get our program better.
“We’ve hired a lot of great people, but there’s — hopefully with this win it’ll boost more people to want to come over and work with us and continue to get this program stronger.”
One change for next season is that Noah Gragson will drive the team’s No. 42 car next, replacing Ty Dillon.
The organization has been working to catch up with other teams. While top teams have their own version of the optical scanning station that NASCAR uses for inspection at the track each weekend, Petty GMS Motorsports got its version in June. It came during the season’s lone off weekend, leading Cohen to cancel vacation plans to monitor the devices installation.
Sunday’s win makes such efforts worthwhile and shows what can be accomplished.
“We needed something good to happen to get through the winter,” Beam said. “There’s people on the team that have never won before and that’s great to share that with them.”
The win was special for Jones. It marked the third in his Cup career, but his first since the 2019 Southern 500 with Joe Gibbs Racing.
“I guess probably a lot of people counted me out,” he said “I just never looked at it that way. My total view going in was to build, and I knew as soon as I met the group on the 43 team — which is almost all the same guys as it is today — that they had tons of potential. These are guys that have been at a few other teams but mostly the 43 group for a while. They had lots of potential.
“I guess the biggest thing for me that I’m proud of personally is just to see the growth. We went from a team last year that we were running 30th here last year and we blew a motor in the Southern 500, and to come this year and be a top-five car all day and then win the race, man, it’s just something to be pretty proud of.”
One of these drivers is second in the points. The other is 15th in the points after Sunday’s Southern 500. Can you guess which is which?
One top 10 in the last 18 races before the playoffs
Average finish of 19.9 in those races
Average start of 15.4 in those races
Led 130 laps in that stretch
Scored 83 stage points in those 18 races
One top 10 in the last 18 races before the playoffs
Average finish of 19.4 in those races
Average start of 14.8 in those races
Led 110 laps in that stretch
Scored 54 stage points
One of those drivers scored a top-10 finish at Darlington. The other finished outside the top 25.
Driver A is William Byron. Driver B is Chase Briscoe.
After placing eighth and winning a stage Sunday, Byron is six points behind series leader Joey Logano going into Sunday’s playoff race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network).
So how does a team that struggled to score a top-10 finish since April leave Darlington second in the points?
“We stayed confident,” Byron told NBC Sports. “We knew what not to do over the summer. We know what wasn’t working, so we came here knowing what not to do and applied the things that worked. … A tough summer, but we really kind of came together this week.”
He is confident what he did at Darlington can carry over to Kansas.
“I think Kansas can be really good for us,” said Byron, who was leading when he had a flat left rear tire and finished 16th there in May. “It’s just a matter of fine-tuning those little details.
As for Briscoe, he couldn’t avoid Chase Elliott’s spinning car and suffered damage. Briscoe wasn’t a factor, finishing 27th. He is 10 points behind Daniel Suarez, who holds the final transfer spot with two races left in the opening round.
“That kind of killed our day,” Briscoe said of the contact with Elliott, “but we were able to get lucky because a lot of those guys had issues, too. It’s not the way we wanted to start the round by any means, but we’re gonna have to improve and we’re probably gonna have to win.”
Daniel Suarez looked to be headed toward a top-five finish until a pit road speeding penalty derailed his comeback from starting at the rear. He finished 18th but left charged about contact with Christopher Bell.
Suarez had to start at the rear after his car failed inspection three times before qualifying. He also had to do a pass-through penalty after the start of the race. That put him a lap down but a caution moments later for rain, allowed him to get his lap back.
He ran toward the front until he was penalized on Lap 271 of the 367-lap race.
For all that, though, Suarez wasn’t pleased with Bell for contact as they raced for fourth with five laps to go in the second stage. They made contact and Suarez fell back, finishing eighth. Bell finished the stage sixth.
“Whenever I need, I’m going to get him back,” Suarez said. “I’m not saying it’s going to be Kansas or Bristol. He definitely owes me one and I’m going to save that for later.”
Joey Logano passes multiple cars as Christopher Bell, William Byron and Daniel Suarez battle for position! #NASCARPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/iZLkT9V93l
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 5, 2022
While this season has been one of inconsistencies for many teams, a couple of drivers added to their career-high total of top 10s in a season with strong runs in the Southern 500.
Michael McDowell’s sixth-place finish is his 11th top 10 of the season. His previous high for top 10s in a season was five last season.
“That was probably one of our better performances on what I would call a mile-and-a-half style racetrack, so we’re making good gains,” McDowell said.
Bubba Wallace’s ninth-place finish is his seventh top 10 of the year. His previous best was five in 2020.
“Just proud to come out of here with a finish,” Wallace said after the race. “Good car for us, just have to keep on trucking onto Kansas.”