Erik Jones turns 100th race into Southern 500 win
After seeing his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates -- Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. -- each win four races in the first 24 events of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Erik Jones claimed his first win of the season, the second of his Cup Series career, in the wee hours of Monday morning at Darlington Raceway. The Bojangles' Southern 500 was scheduled for a Sunday evening green flag, but the start was delayed approximately four hours because of rain, beginning Sunday night and concluding early Monday.
“At seven years old, when I started, it seemed so far away. It’s incredible. I mean it’s incredible,” Jones said. “I’ve got my family here, some great friends, and it’s just so cool to have them there and celebrating this with me. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Man, I never would have dreamed to be honest with you. It was too far out to fathom really for me to even be in a situation like this and just thankful for JGR, Circle K, Sport Clips and DeWalt and everybody who’s been a part of this and really stuck by me this year and helped us get back here.”
Jones’ latest win, which came in his 100th-career Cup Series race, was the reward for holding off Busch late in the event. Busch closed on Jones with fewer than 10 laps remaining, but Busch hit the wall multiple times in the final five laps, allowing Jones to pull away.
“It felt great. I don’t know that there’s much more to be said,” Jones said. “I was just locked in, man. Tonight, I was really locked in and really focused and really felt like it was our night once we got out front. I wasn’t in any shape to relent that lead, so it’s amazing for me to be able to hold off Kyle. It’s really cool just with the history we have with Kyle giving me my first opportunity in the Truck Seirs and getting to race him for a win in such a big race. That’s pretty cool and something I’m never going to forget.”
Kyle Larson got by the struggling Busch to finish second. Kyle Busch managed a third-place finish after leading a race-high 118 laps in the 367-lap race. Jones led 79.
Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-five.
Larson and Jones got out out of the pits ahead of previous leader Busch during a lap 275 caution.
“You just can't get there with this package. It’s just such a one‑lane race track,” Busch said. ”There's not enough options; there's not enough grooves that you can get enough air on your car to close that gap and make that pass. We kind of lost control of the race, there, on pit road when we came down the leader and then came out third, and I thought if we could just keep in touch with those guys and keep close to them, then we might be able to out pit road them at the end of the race, and we did one of them but not the other one. Overall, a good day and the Snickers Camry was fast and was the best we've run here in a long, long time, so that was fun. It was nice to lead some laps, be up front like that, but I hate it that we got behind on pit road and then we couldn't make it up on the track. That kind of sucks.”
for a multi-car crash that involved Daniel Hemric, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, William Byron, Michael McDowell, Jimmie Johnson and Ty Dillon. Prior to the incident, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Byron and Johnson were regulars in and near the top-five of the running order.
“I saw the 8 [Hemric] start to get loose like he blew a tire and chased it up the track,” McDowell said. ”I was already on the bottom, and I saw the 11 [Hamlin] and a few other cars on the top, and they were just trying to get down, and we all kind of jumped on the brakes. You’re so fast at that point; when you jump on the brakes, the cars get pretty loose and out of control. I think I got clipped by the 11 in the right-rear and just kind of turned me hard right into the wall and in front of the field, but it’s really unfortunate. We had a decent Dockside Logistics throwback car. We were logging laps trying to get to the end and were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Jones got out in front of Larson on the lap-282 restart and led most of the remaining laps. After staying in front of Larson, the task changed to staying ahead of Kyle Busch after the final cycle of green-flag pit stops completed with 40 laps remaining.
“Eric did a good job on that last restart to get by me, and I was better than him throughout that run, but I could never do anything with him just because the dirty air was really bad,” Larson said. “It’s a worn-out surface and the groove was already narrow and it was extra difficult. I feel like both the No. 18 [Kyle Busch] and I were a little bit better than he was at the end, but I couldn’t do nothing with him. So that part of it was frustrating. But still, it was good to have a good run. It was a good day for our Clover Chip Ganassi Racing team. So we led some laps and was able to challenge a little bit there at the end. I wish we could have got it done, but to come away with a top-three at the Southern 500 is not too bad.”
Before Jones took his first lead, Kyle Busch and brother Kurt Busch combined to dominated the first 275 laps, including winning the two 100-lap stages in the first 200 laps. Kurt Busch won stage one and Kyle Busch the second.
Older brother Kurt Busch started the race fourth and took the lead from Keselowski on lap 20. Chase Elliott beat Kurt Busch off pit road during a lap-68 caution for a Garrett Smithley spin, but on lap 79, Kurt Busch retook the top spot.
Kurt Busch, again, lost the lead on pit road, this time to Larson, after the first stage. He retook his lead by getting off pit road first during a lap-141 caution for Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez. Kurt Busch led 92 laps by the time his brother beat him out of the pits during a lap-158 caution for Corey LaJoie.
Kyle Busch qualified 33rd Saturday and gave up the remaining positions on the starting grid because of an engine change after qualifying. He moved toward the front through a combination of passes on the race track and positions gained on pit road. He raced up to 15th in the running order on lap 28, and he was up to sixth after pit stops during the Smithley caution.
Kyle Busch cracked the top-five by passing Chase Elliott on lap 91. He, then, got up to second to restart next to his brother after the Newman and Suarez yellow flag.
After lap 200, Joe Gibbs Racing drivers held the top-three in the running order with Kyle Busch, Jones and Hamlin in the top-three. The remaining JGR driver, Martin Truex Jr., was out of the picture at that point, having made an unscheduled pit stop for a loose wheel on lap 182. The JGR trio up front remained together until the first of two green-flag cycle of pit stops around lap 250.
Clint Bowyer finished sixth. Kurt Busch was seventh, despite his involvement in the lap-275 crash. Matt DiBenedetto was eighth, Paul Menard ninth, and Austin Dillon finished 10th.