Thursday, August 17, 2017

8/25/01: The story of Buckshot Jones, his return to Cup with Petty Enterprises, and a rough night in Bristol

On August 25, 2001, Roy “Buckshot” Jones picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Sharpie 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway when his #44 Georgia-Pacific Dodge was eliminated in a crash after 67 of 400 laps.

The finish, which came in Jones’ 36th start, was his first of the season and his first in Cup since his series debut at Atlanta, 35 races prior.

The story of Buckshot Jones begins with the nickname itself.  When Jones was running around as a child, he accidentally banged his head into a table, then jumped back up, causing his grandfather to remark “you’re tough as buckshot.”  That same resilience would come to define his career.

The Florida-born driver who then moved to Monticello, Georgia wanted to run motocross, but was steered toward late models when he was in college, then the NASCAR Winston All Pro Series in 1992.  His All Pro debut came June 20 of that year at the Lanier National Speedway, where handling issues left him 28th.  From the start, he ran car #00, and drove for his father Billy.  The Joneses tried to make the jump into the NASCAR Busch Series (now XFINITY) as far back as 1993, but didn’t break in until July 2, 1995 at the Milwaukee Mile.  Through he finished just 34th that day, he returned two rounds later at South Boston to finish a strong 9th, beating some of the sport’s top drivers including Tommy Houston, Johnny Benson, Jr., and Jeff Green.

In 1996, Jones returned for a full-season effort in Busch with sponsorship from Aquafresh toothpaste.  After a difficult start to the season where he failed to qualify for five of the first 14 races, he returned to the Milwaukee Mile that July and scored a dramatic first victory, edging Mike McLaughlin in a photo finish.  Other than a pole that fall at Rockingham, this proved to be the lone highlight of the year, as he made just 18 of 26 races, leaving him 25th in points.  Driver and team then improved the following year, making all 30 rounds with 14 Top 10s, earning 7th in points.  He also made his Cup debut in the Atlanta finale, besting seven teams in qualifying, but an early crash left him last.

1998 was Jones’ biggest year yet.  He scored a second Busch Series win, this time at Loudon, and with added sponsorship from Alka-Seltzer and Bayer Aspirin, finished 9th in the standings.  He also drove for the venerable Stavola Brothers team in Winston Cup.  At Dover on May 31, his first start driving the Stavolas’ #8 Circuit City Chevrolet, Jones stunned with an 8th-place finish at a track where he’d only once finished better than 17th in Busch.  The finish, combined with struggles faced by the Stavola Brothers, led to the decision to combine Jones’ independent effort with the Stavolas.  Once again running #00, the duo made four more starts that year, but none better than the run at Dover.

In 1999, Jones made a bid for Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.  The original plan was again to go independent, campaigning the #00 Pontiac with sponsorship from Crown Fiber and Cheez-It.  But, matched against open-wheel phenom Tony Stewart in Joe Gibbs Racing’s new second team and fellow Busch Series standout Elliott Sadler in the Wood Brothers’ Citgo Ford, Jones made only ten races and failed to qualify for another nine.  His best run of the season this time came at Talladega, where the Crown Fiber machine ran 21st.  He also attempted one-offs for both Bahari’ Racing in the second Talladega event and Mark Simo’s effort at Charlotte.

Jones had continued to split time between Busch and Cup in the 1999 season, and despite his aggressive driving style, had turned in a number of respectable performances.  He earned two Top 10s that year – 10th-place finishes at Dover and Phoenix – and failed to finish just four of his 19 starts.  Cheez-It stayed with the team when Jones returned to full-time Busch racing in 2000.  Again, the results were respectable – a runner-up finish to Joe Nemechek at Talladega and just three DNFs.  Though his average finish had dropped, leaving him just 21st in the point standings, Jones had shown just enough consistency to earn a second chance at Winston Cup.  This time, he wouldn’t have to go independent to do it.  Instead, he would drive for one of the sport’s biggest names.

For all intents and purposes, Kyle Petty was going to remain in Petty Enterprises’ #44 for the 2001 season.  In 2000, while Kyle continued to drive the Hot Wheels Pontiac, his son Adam would attempt five Cup races.  Adam would drive car #45, a number they picked up from Tyler Jet Motorsports, allowing Adam to run the same red-and-black Sprint-sponsored scheme he would campaign in Busch.  Adam made his Cup debut on April 2, 2000, where he ran in the middle of the pack before an engine failure left him 40th.

On May 10, the Pettys brought two cars to Charlotte for Adam to test – one a Chevrolet, the other a Pontiac.  But two days later, while practicing for the Busch race at New Hampshire, Adam lost his life in a crash in Turn 3.  Adam’s passing came just over a month after the family’s patriarch, Lee, died at age 86.

Overshadowed by these tragedies were the Petty family’s brave efforts to keep their team going.  Kyle vowed to be his son’s relief driver for the rest of his career.  He returned to the track for the first time since the accident in the Busch Series race at Dover on June 3, where he drove Adam’s #45 to a 26th-place finish.

Though Kyle would also rejoin the #44 Cup team at Michigan on June 11, he began to make plans toward the 2001 season.  On July 18, Kyle announced he would step out of the #44 after the night race at Bristol, after which point he would only run Adam’s #45.  In addition to finishing out the 2000 Busch Series season, he would also make at least two Cup attempts in Adam’s car at Martinsville and Homestead.  Driving the #44 for the rest of 2000 was Steve Grissom, who also drove in place of Kyle in the immediate aftermath of Adam’s death.  Short on provisionals, Grissom failed to qualify 8 times, including 7 of the last 9.

On September 22, 2000, six days after Grissom failed to qualify at Loudon, Petty Enterprises announced that Buckshot Jones would drive the #44 in 2001 with sponsorship from Georgia-Pacific.  Explaining the choice of Jones, Kyle Petty said “Obviously, we started with one plan, but we had to have another plan after Adam's death. . .We were looking for a young driver to fill the gap at Petty Enterprises, since I'm 40 years old all of a sudden. We had the opportunity to talk with Buckshot and his father and Georgia-Pacific, and we were able to do that.”

Kyle Petty also saw potential in Buckshot, just as Roush did in Mark Martin years earlier.  “That's the same thing Mark Martin did. . .His first Winston Cup deal didn't work out, and then we went back, he ran some Busch and then hooked up with Jack Roush. I think his career since then pretty much speaks for itself. . .That's what we're trying to do with Buckshot. He's got a lot of potential that hasn't been tapped yet, so for what we're trying to do, he's a perfect fit.”

Jones was elated at having a second chance at racing in Cup.  “Our biggest problem, looking back now, is we never knew what Winston Cup was like. . .That's what I like so much about how the Pettys run their operation. They've been in Winston Cup racing for a lot [of] years.”

Jones’ #44 would be one of three Dodges on the Petty team in 2001, joining John Andretti in the Cheerios #43 and Kyle in Adam’s Sprint-backed #45.  It was NASCAR’s biggest team commitment to Dodge – the only three-car program to join Dodge’s return at Daytona.  The team also rewarded Steve Grissom for his help in 2000 by securing him a Petty ride at Daytona as well, driving the #45 Petty Driving Experience Chevrolet in the Busch Series opener.

Jones raced his way into the 2001 Daytona 500 with a 14th-place finish in Race 1 of the Gatorade Twin 125s, but was one of the cars destroyed in the Lap 175 wreck that left Tony Stewart with a concussion, leaving Jones 29th.  As tragedy once again overshadowed the season following Dale Earnhardt’s last-lap accident, Jones tried to shake off the rust.  Though he qualified for the first nine races, he finished no better than 16th at Talladega and scored four DNFs.  After back-to-back DNQs at Fontana and Richmond, Jones suffered a particularly hard crash in the final moments of the Winston Open.  Tom Hubert helped get the #44 into the show at Sonoma, where Jones finished just 35th.  From there until the night race at Bristol, he failed to qualify two more times and finished 38th, 24th, 39th, and 36th.

Jones arrived in Thunder Valley a distant 39th in driver points.  His #44 was one of 49 drivers on the entry list, meaning he’d once again have a challenge in qualifying to beat six other drivers.  One advantage Jones had in his back pocket was a NASCAR rule change enacted at Indianapolis, allowing the Dodge teams to extend the front air dam forward two inches.  In a qualifying session that was aired commercial-free on CNNSi, Jones made the show, securing 36th in the 43-car field.  The pole went to Jeff Green, driving Richard Childress Racing’s #30 AOL Chevrolet.  It was Green’s first of two poles in Cup competition.

Among the six teams to miss the race was Kyle Petty, his frustrating 9th of 12 DNQs in the 2001 season.  Joining him on the early ride home were Daytona 500 outside-polesitter Stacy Compton in Melling Racing’s #92 Kodiak Dodge; current FS1 analyst Hermie Sadler in his self-prepared #13 Virginia Lottery Chevrolet, owner-driver Dave Marcis in the #71 Team Realtree Chevrolet; Hut Stricklin, who was aiming for his 300th Cup start in Junie Donlavey’s #90 Hills Brothers Coffee Ford; and current MBM team owner Carl Long in Thee Dixon’s #85 Mansion Decorators Ford.

Starting 43rd that Saturday night was Jason Leffler, who at the time was running for Rookie of the Year in Chip Ganassi Racing’s #01 Cingular Wireless Dodge.  At the start of the race, Ricky Craven’s #32 Tide Ford slipped from 39th on the grid to the tail end of the field.  By Lap 9, Craven had picked up speed again, moving Leffler back to last, 8.763 seconds behind.  On Lap 12, Jones had slipped back to 42nd in the field, but Leffler still held last.  With the leaders closing in on them on Lap 13, Leffler nudged Jones in the left-rear entering Turn 2, sending Jones into a spin.  Jones managed to avoid the outside wall, and most importantly, the leaders as they quickly raced past, putting him a lap down.

The race restarted on Lap 20, and Kurt Busch made an unscheduled second stop in his #97 Sharpie Ford because his transmission was stuck in second gear.  The pit road repair wasn’t successful, and as Busch limped around the apron, Brett Bodine spun off Sterling Marlin’s nose in Turn 4, his #11 Hooters Ford drawing the second caution of the night.  With Bodine and Busch both a lap down, Rick Mast’s #27 Duke’s Mayonnaise / Sauer’s Pontiac also trailed smoke after rear-ending the car in front of him.  This put the lapped Jones, Bodine, and Busch on the inside of the leaders for the Lap 30 restart.  By this point, last belonged to the damaged Mast, who was behind the wall along with Leffler in 42nd.  Jones sat behind Bodine in 40th, 1 lap down, with Kurt Busch, his transmission issue fixed, 2 down in 41st.

Mast returned to the race by Lap 52, 31 laps down, and by that time had dropped Leffler, still behind the wall, back to last once more.  Then on Lap 69, Jones lost control down the fronstretch and slammed the inside wall with the left-front.  Jones drove it back to pit road, then to the garage area, and was done for the night.  Leffler returned to the track a few moments later, dropping Jones to last.  Leffler made it out of the Bottom five and salvaged a 30th-place finish.  Mast’s damaged car only managed 41st before an accident with Geoffrey Bodine on Lap 150 ended his night.  In between in 42nd came polesitter Jeff Green, who led 71 of the first 85 laps before he rear-ended Joe Nemechek while running 3rd.  Rounding out the Bottom Five were rookie Andy Houston, his #96 McDonald’s Ford out after a wreck on Lap 129, and 39th-place Michael Waltrip, whose #15 NAPA Chevrolet wrecked on Lap 234.

Despite a difficult return to Cup with 10 DNFs, five DNQs, and no finishes better than 16th, Jones had once again enjoyed a successful partial Busch Series schedule.  The same Georgia-Pacific sponsorship supported his father’s #00 team for six races, starting at Dover on June 2.  In all six races, Jones finished under power and no worse than 19th, including a pair of Top 10s on the circuit’s newest tracks of Chicagoland and Kansas.  Perhaps it was for this reason that Jones remained with the Pettys in 2002.  Unfortunately, he missed the field for the Daytona 500, and despite a new team-best finish of 12th at his home track at Atlanta, he was out of the car after just eight races.  Curiously, the first of a series of drivers to replace him was Steve Grissom.

Jones made just two more Cup starts, both of them in 2003 – one each for Phoenix Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing.  The run for MWR, which came that fall at Talladega, was perhaps the best of his career.  The same day that Larry Foyt finished last, Jones led the field for 19 laps before a blown right-front tire ended his run.  His final starts in NASCAR’s top three series came in the Busch Series in 2004, when Phoenix Racing hired him for two more races at Nashville and Kentucky.  Though reports indicate Jones has largely retired from racing, he has also dabbled on the short tracks of his youth, driving four Hooters Pro Cup races in 2007, and the Whelen Modified Tour in 2015.

*This marked the first last-place finish for car #44 in Cup since March 14, 1999, when Kyle Petty’s Hot Wheels Pontiac lost an engine after 45 laps of the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta.  It remains the number’s only last-place finish in a Cup race at Bristol.

43) #44-Buckshot Jones / 67 laps / crash
42) #30-Jeff Green / 85 laps / crash / led 71 laps
41) #27-Rick Mast / 113 laps / crash
40) #96-Andy Houston / 127 laps / crash
39) #15-Michael Waltrip / 233 laps / crash

*Jayski’s Silly Season Site
* “’Buckshot’ Takes Aim At Brickyard 400.”, July 1, 1998.
*Parsons, Keith. “Buckshot Jones to join Petty Enterprises,” Las Vegas Sun, September 22, 2000.

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