Buckshot Reloads For 2002
December 10, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
They certainly can’t get much worse than they were in Jones’ first year with the Pettys this past season.
The No. 44 Georgia-Pacific team limped, ney, crawled to a 41st-place finish in the NASCAR Winston Cup points standings. Jones never finished higher than 13th all season (Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May), and, like the rest of the Petty organization, he toiled in anonymity throughout the year by consistently finishing at the back of the pack.
Certainly not what Jones and Petty Enterprises officials had hoped for when the two agreed on a deal back in November of 2000. Call it growing pains, call it what you want, but the on-track results of the No. 44 team were just downright dismal.
“It was a tough year all around for everyone at Petty Enterprises,” the 31-year-old Jones said. “We’ve certainly had a few problems. Some of the accidents we’ve been in this season couldn’t have been avoided and some of them could have. We’ve had a few problems with qualifying, and that certainly seems to be my biggest problem right now.
“The 44 number has been around for a long time, but the 44 team is all brand new this year. Our team was something brand new, and the way we were doing things wasn’t exactly right, but you didn’t want to make a lot of big changes.
“About midseason, we decided we were going to redo it again. It’s hard on the guys, but you explain to them why you’re doing it and they want to go forward. One of our problems was a lack of communication, but that’s gotten a lot better. “
Jones’ 2001 statistics speak for themselves. He had a whopping 10 DNFs (only Todd Bodine had more with 12), he failed to qualify for six races, he started four races from the 43rd and final position, he was forced to use 11 provisionals, and he finished on the lead lap in only two of the 30 races in which he participated.
Rookie Jason Leffler finished his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing with slightly better statistics than that and he was dismissed from his job after only one year as the driver of the No. 01 Dodge.
And Jones hasn’t had the most sparkling record as a Winston Cup driver anyway. In 47 career starts, he has only one top-10 finish (in 1998 with the Stavola Bros. Racing team at Dover).
Several factors were involved in the No. 44 team’s struggles this season, including Jones’ Winston Cup experience and the organization’s switch from Pontiac to Dodge before the beginning of the year.
“Buckshot is still learning,” team owner Kyle Petty said. “By the end of the second race at Martinsville this year, he had gotten a lot better. Every time he goes out, he’s learning. He gets a lap down and then he learns and he runs strong. That’s part of the game.
“He gets a lap down because of poor qualifying. Look at the times he’s had to use provisionals, Once he’s able to start up front and run with those guys, he’s got a good top-10 or top-15 car.”
Three of Jones’ six top-20 finishes came in the final seven races of the season. At Phoenix, he finished on the lead lap in 19th place.
Former Winston Cup crew chief Larry McReynolds, now a broadcaster with the FOX television network, spent the second half of the season working with Jones as an adviser and noticed a marked improvement in not just Jones’ performance over the final two months, but the with the entire Petty Enterprises fleet.
Like Jones, however, the other two Petty cars, driven by Andretti and Petty, had their problems throughout 2001. Andretti wound up finishing 31st in the points, and Petty was 43rd.
“Each week the Pettys just got better and better,” McReynolds said. “The biggest thing that’s thrown Buckshot a curve this year is the hard tire. It’s not driver and car separated. I’ve tried to work with Buckshot more mentally than anything. He made big strides over the past couple of months, and so did John and Kyle. They’re all getting better.”
McReynolds will go back to his position at FOX the first half of next season. He said he isn’t sure whether or not he’ll be back midway through the 2001 campaign to work with Jones again.
Despite the No. 44 Georgia-Pacific team’s struggles this year, Kyle Petty didn’t even think twice when it came to retaining Jones for next season. In fact, the Pettys were hoping he would stay, along with John Andretti in the No. 43 Dodge and Petty himself in the No. 45 Dodge.
“The three teams and drivers are set for next season, and partial crews are set,” Petty said. “I’m not going to say we won’t continue to change some of the people on some of the crews. I’m not going to say we won’t continue to change some of the people at the shop. We’re going to continue to organize and looking at continued restructuring.
“Our drivers are set and happy. John has committed to stay, and so has Buckshot. Our sponsors are all back for next year. Everything’s the same there for the next couple of years. Long term, we’re looking pretty good. We’ve just got to get something done short term.”
Judging by the team’s performance a year ago, that’s certainly a given.