DARLINGTON, S.C. – Erik Jones had the best car when it mattered most leading the final 42 laps to claim his first win this year in the 70th annual Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver also clinched his spot in the upcoming Playoffs with only one race remaining in the regular season. It was his second career Cup Series victory and his ninth top-five finish of the season.
He not only grabbed the trophy but held off his teammate Kyle Busch, the current points leader.
“It was a lot of pressure,” Jones said. “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.”
Jones is also hoping the win will put an end to any questions about his place in the JGR organization.
“There’s been a lot of doubt and speculation, he continued. “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.”
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson finished second after leading 44 laps to score his sixth top-five this year and secured his spot in the Playoffs on points.
“Erik (Jones) 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 the 18 (Kyle Busch) and I were a little bit better than he was at the end, but couldn’t do nothing with him.”
Kyle Busch led a race-high 118 laps to finish third and clinched the regular-season championship. Kevin Harvick finished fourth as Brad Keselowski rounded out the top five. All three drivers have secured a place in the Playoffs with wins this season.
Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Aric Almirola accumulated enough points to make it into the Playoffs which leaves two open spots.
Clint Bowyer placed sixth and earned six stage points which should help secure his playoff hopes. He is currently in 15th place and has +8 points over Daniel Suarez (16th) and Ryan Newman (17th) while Johnson is -18 points.
Suarez and Newman are tied in points but Suarez wins the tiebreaker leaving Newman on the outside looking in. Newman recorded a 23rd place finish after an eventful night that included tight handling conditions, mechanical issues and contact from other cars, including an incident with Suarez. With Newman and Suarez tied in points, things could get interesting next weekend at Indianapolis.
Johnson’s No. 48 was strong, finishing second in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2, earning valuable points. But Johnson was caught up in a multi-car accident on Lap 275 and lost much of the advantage he had gained earlier in the race. He will probably need to win next week to advance to the Playoffs.
Tune in to the Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday, Sept. 8 as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular-season concludes with two open spots undecided.
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