Erik Jones and the No. 77 5-hour ENERGY Toyota may not have tamed Darlington Raceway completely but a fifth-place finish in just his first Southern 500 was proof that he will be a force to deal with in the future.
A green-flag pit stop with less than 30 laps to go dropped Jones to 20th place but crew chief Chris Gayle’s strategy paid off as the laps wound down. Jones moved into 14th place with 20 laps to go on the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval and picked up another spot three laps later. He was 10th with 10 laps remaining and picked up five positions over the next four laps, crossing the finish line in fifth when the checkered flag waved at the completion of lap 367.
The strong run was Jones and the Furniture Row Racing team’s third consecutive top-five and fifth consecutive top-10 finish. The team has a 5.6 average finish in those five races.
“It turned out to be a really good night for us – top-five night,” said Jones. “Chris did a really nice job with running a really nice strategy there at the end and getting us back in contention. I was hoping we just were going to run in the top-10 and to get a top-five out of it is really good.”
Jones moved up one spot, to 14th, in the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series point standings. To make the playoffs, however, he will need to earn the victory in next week’s regular-season finale at Richmond (Va.) Raceway.
Jones took the green flag from the outside of Row 5 and ran in the top 10 throughout the first 100-lap stage, finishing sixth and earning five championship points.
The sun set as the second stage played out and the 5-hour ENERGY Toyota’s handling became extremely tight as the track and air temperatures dropped. Adjustments made during two pit stops under caution didn’t help the issue and Jones finished the stage in 15th.
Adjustments between the second and final stage seemed to help initially but 40 laps in the car was the most loose it had been all day. Further adjustments during a green-flag stop on lap 266 paid dividends. Jones was 11th by Lap 270, ninth after another green-flag stop on Lap 300 and sixth on Lap 327.
“The 5-hour ENERGY Toyota was good in the day, but when the sun went down we just kind of lost the handle,” Jones continued. “We couldn’t really ever get back and everybody was fighting grip obviously. Good night for the 5-hour ENERGY Camry. A top-five here? We’ll take it. That’s three top-fives in a row for us.”
Denny Hamlin won the Southern 500. The balance of the top 10 finishers were: Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon, Jones, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray.
The race had 20 lead changes among eight drivers. There were eight cautions for 38 laps.
The next race is Saturday night, Sept. 9, at Richmond (Va.) Raceway.