EditorsNote: adds quotes
Many of the stories written about Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones this year included the phrase “faces an uncertain future.”
On Sunday night, Jones may have eliminated some of that uncertainty as he won one of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ monster events — the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. The race ended in the wee hours Monday morning after a long rain delay.
“There’s been a lot of doubt, a lot of speculation (about his job status on the Gibbs team),” Jones said. “I put my heart and soul into this and this race team, and this is my living and this is what I want to do.”
The victory was Jones’ first of the season and the second of his four-year, 100-race career.
“Going to be damn good to see my face on that trophy,” Jones said.
Jones joined Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. as winners for JGR this season.
In getting the victory, he held off and then pulled away late from teammate and former champion Kyle Busch and Darlington ace Kyle Larson of Chip Ganassi Racing over the final 20 laps.
Jones’ margin of victory over Larson was 4.058 seconds.
“I was better (than Jones) that run, but I just couldn’t do anything with him because the dirty air was really bad,” Larson said. “The groove is already narrow. It was just extra difficult.
“Good day to have a good run. Led some laps and was able to challenge at the end.”
Kyle Busch, who started from the rear of the field after going to a backup car after a poor qualifying session on Saturday, scraped the wall with a couple laps to go as he chased Jones. He finished third after leading for a race-high 118 laps.
He echoed Larson’s views on catching and passing Jones.
“Just can’t get there with this package,” Busch said. “Such a one-lane race track that there’s not enough options, not enough grooves that you can get enough air on your car to close that gap and make that pass.”
Rounding out the top five were Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing and Brad Keselowski of Team Penske.
The start of the race was delayed four hours because of heavy evening rains in the area. NASCAR officials told the media they could not postpone the event because at noon on Monday, all lanes of Interstate 26 will be dedicated to Westbound traffic only as the coastal area of South Carolina will be under an evacuation order due to Hurricane Dorian.
Teams left Darlington with just one more race — next weekend’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — remaining before the start of the 10-race, 16-driver playoffs in Las Vegas.
Four drivers — Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez, Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson — started the Southern fighting for the 16th and final playoff berth. None had wonderful nights.
Newman, who began the race in 15th place, 12 points above 15th, spun early and sustained a tire rub with about 100 laps to go. He wound up 23rd on the night.
Suarez started 16th in points and two ahead of 17th, was the driver who spun Newman early. He finished 11th, however.
Bowyer, 17th and two points behind Suarez at the start, stayed clean and finished sixth.
Johnson, 18th and 25 points out of 16th at the start, ran in the top five for much of the race but was involved in a big wreck with just over 90 laps left. He sustained front-end damage and finished 16th.
—Field Level Media