As the clock ticked toward 2 a.m. on Monday, in a race delayed by rain for nearly four hours, Erik Jones claimed the most important victory of his career in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
With his contract status at Joe Gibbs Racing a source of speculation throughout much of the current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Jones made an emphatic statement, holding off teammate Kyle Busch and charging Kyle Larson after taking the lead from Larson on Lap 283.
“It was a lot of pressure,” said Jones, who claimed his first victory of the season and the second of his career. “Kyle (Busch) is a great race car driver. I’ve raced him a lot, and obviously you want to beat him to win, right? I was just locked in, man. I stayed focused. I really thought it was our night when we got out front.
“It’s amazing for me to be able to hold off Kyle. It’s really cool, just for the history we have with Kyle giving me my first opportunity in the Truck Series (at Kyle Busch Motorsports). To race him for the win in such a big race, that’s pretty cool and something I’m never going to forget.”
Busch, in fact, got within a car-length of Jones in the closing laps but a late brush with the outside wall ended his chances.
“I killed it,” Busch radioed to his team. Having cut a tire with the contact, Busch hugged the outside wall for the final lap and a half and still managed to finish third after Larson charged past into the runner-up spot.
“When he started to inch out a little bit,” Busch said after the race, “I was trying to save my right front, because I knew my right front wasn't going to make it the whole rest of the way without me knocking the wall down, and I was right.
“I hit the wall with about four to go and then I hit it again with three to go, and it killed it that time. Luckily, we were able to salvage a third, just dragging the fence for the last two laps.”
Larson had the lead for a restart on Lap 282, after a massive pileup in Turn 4 on lap 275 ruined strong runs by Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin. But Jones grabbed the lead one circuit after the restart and held the top spot after a cycle of green-flag pit stops with 40 laps left.
“Erik did a good job on that last restart to get by me, and I was better than him all throughout that run,” Larson said. “It's just I couldn't ever do anything with him, just because the dirty air was really bad. Wore out surface and the groove is already narrow, and it was just extra difficult. I felt like both 18 (Kyle Busch) and I were a little bit better than he was at the end, but couldn't do nothing with him.”
Kurt Busch was the dominant driver in Stage 1, leading at the competition caution after Lap 35 and posting a convincing win in the first 100-lap stage, but Jimmie Johnson was arguably just as big a winner--temporarily.
Desperate to make the Playoffs, the seven time series champion finished second to Busch in the stage and scored nine points, doubly significant because none of the three drivers Johnson was chasing for a berth in the postseason—Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez--finished in the top 10.
Excellent work in the pits, however, vastly improved Bowyer’s track position in Stage 2, and though he lost spots in traffic late in the run, he held sixth in the stage and edged Johnson by one spot. Suarez and Newman, on the other hand, tangled on Lap 140, with Suarez turning Newman off Turn 2 to cause the fourth caution of the night.
Neither Suarez nor Newman scored points in the stage, won by Kyle Busch, who was first off pit road after caution for Corey LaJoie’s spin on Lap 157. Brother Kurt was second in the stage after chasing Bowyer for 30 laps and finally grabbing the second position on lap 187.
But both Kurt Busch and Johnson were innocent victims of the multicar crash on Lap 275, and Johnson surrendered most of the margin he had gained over the other “bubble drivers” in the first two stages. Johnson ended the night 18 points out of the final Playoff-eligible position, with Newman (23rd in the Southern 500) and Suarez (11th) tied for the last berth.
Bowyer finished sixth and moved up to 15th in the standings, eight points to the good over Newman and Suarez. With one race left to decide the Playoff grid, Ryan Blaney, Larson, William Byron and Aric Almirola are now locked into the postseason, as is Jones with the victory.
“What a car—just bad luck,” Johnson radioed to his team on the cool-down lap. “Let’s go to Indy (next Sunday’s race) and kick some butt.”
Johnson likely will need a victory to advance to the postseason for the 16th straight season.
Jones, on the other hand, already has the win he needed.
“Is there anything more to say?” Jones asked rhetorically. “There's been a lot of doubt and speculation. I've put my heart and soul into this race team. This is my living and how I want to make a career and what I want to do.
"It doesn't get any better than this. On my list, this race is really high, and it's going to look damn good to see my face on that trophy."