Erik Jones clinches spot in playoffs with win at Darlington

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NOTE: There will be an encore presentation of Sunday’s race on Monday afternoon from 3-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Even though he and the other 38 competitors endured a nearly four-hour rain delay that postponed the start, Erik Jones went on to clinch a spot in the upcoming NASCAR Cup playoffs, winning the Bojangles’ Southern 500, which ended early Monday morning.

The victory also came in a milestone fashion as Jones took the win in his 100th career Cup start.

Jones held off Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch in a classic battle in the final 10 laps of the 367-lap event around the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval to earn his first win of 2019 and the second triumph of his NASCAR Cup career.

“I’m wore out mentally and physically, more mentally than anything,” Jones told NBCSN. “Kyle was really running hard and is one of the best guys out there.

“I was pedaling as hard as I could and I’m just glad I could hold him off and finally get to victory lane. I feel like this has been coming to us for a long time, so it feels real good. There’s been a lot of doubt and speculation (about his future after this season) and I put my heart and soul into this and my race team, This is my living and how I want to make a career and what I want to do.

“It don’t get any better. I rate this race real high and it’ll look damn good to see my face on that trophy.”

Jones then turned to the sell-out crowd that endured the rain delay and a race that didn’t finish until 1:53 a.m. and said, “Thank you guys for coming. You’re welcome to stay up all night with me because I guarantee I ain’t going to bed.”

Jones led 79 laps, while the younger Busch brother finished third, even though he led a race-high 118 laps. Jones’ other win was in July 2018 in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Busch likely would have finished second but he hit the wall hard with two laps to go and that pretty much sealed his fate and assured Jones the checkered flag. Kyle Larson wound up finishing second.

“I felt like both (Busch) and I were a little bit better than (Jones) at the end, but couldn’t do nothing with him, that was frustrating,” Larson told NBCSN. “I led some laps and was able to challenge at the end. I wish we could have got it done, but to come away with another top-3 at the Southern 500 is not too bad.”

Added Busch to NBCSN, “Overall, good day, and it was the best we’ve run here in a long, long time, so that was fun. It was nice to lead some laps and be up front, but I hate that we got behind on pit road and couldn’t make it up on the track. That kind of sucks.”

Kevin Harvick was fourth, while last year’s Darlington winner, Brad Keselowski, finished fifth.

Sixth through 10th were Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Paul Menard and Austin Dillon.

Even though he was disappointed in his third-place finish, Busch still received some good news. He clinched the regular season championship. Others that have already clinched their spots in the playoffs are Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman and Jones. Also clinching playoff spots on points at Darlington were Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Aric Almirola.

One race remains in the regular season for drivers to lock themselves into the 16-driver playoff field (see more in playoff update below).

There was a major wreck in Lap 274 that impacted several drivers, including Jimmie Johnson, Daniel Hemric (who started things when he lost control after having a tire go down), Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Ty Dillon, William Byron, Michael McDowell, whose car suffered the most damage in the incident.

 

The crash had significant impact on the playoff hopes for seven-time Cup champion Johnson, who is now in virtually a must-win situation next Sunday in the regular season finale, the Brickyard 400, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, if he hopes to make the playoffs.

If Johnson fails to make the playoffs, it would mark the first time in his Cup career that he did not qualify for the postseason.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kurt Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch (under caution)

Playoff update: There is now just one race remaining for drivers to qualify for the 16-car NASCAR Cup playoffs, next Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Here’s how the playoff picture looks after Darlington: Clint Bowyer moved back above the cutline, eight points ahead of Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman, who are currently tied for 16th. Newman and Suarez were involved in an incident in the race that impacted Newman’s place in the standings. And as for Jimmie Johnson, he’s 18 points behind the cutoff line. Paul Menard is 69 points back and Chris Buescher is 86 points back.

Here’s what some of those drivers on either side of the playoff cutoff line had to say to NBCSN after the race:

Clint Bowyer: “We definitely took care of business and did what we needed to do. We lost some ground on my part last week at Bristol. … It was fun.”

Ryan Newman: “(Contact with Suarez) He had me jacked up going into the corner. That pretty much was uncalled for. He was struggling to catch me and finally got to me and turned me around. I guess what comes around goes around.”

Daniel Suarez: “We all were racing very hard. I know Newman is very well known for racing extremely hard and is hard to pass and I have a lot of respect for him. He was just blocking me. I got him loose but I didn’t touch him. My car is 100 percent clean. He raced me hard, I raced him hard back. … (On being tied with Newman for final playoff spot) It should be good, I love Indianapolis, it’s one of my favorite race tracks. We’re going to go there, have some fun and hopefully be all-in (the playoffs) after Indianapolis. I can’t wait to finish Indianapolis hopefully on the good side of things and go fight hard.”

Jimmie Johnson: “I’ve had at least 15 years of a lot of luck on my side and seven great years of championships. To have two or three bad ones is just part of it. … (Must-win scenario at Indy) We’re running out of days and if we miss it, it’ll be just by a few (points), I believe. I can look back over the first half of the season and see a lot of races where we gave away a few points. It isn’t fair to put all the pressure on one race at Indy, but it is what it is and we’re going there to win the race.”

Who else had a good day: Larson came close and challenged Jones with about 25 laps to go, and then fell back to third before regaining second following Kyle Busch’s contact with the wall with two laps to go. … Matt DiBenedetto continues to show why he deserves a ride for 2020 with his eighth-place finish. … Paul Menard tried his best to give the Wood Brothers their 100th career Cup win as an organization. Even though he fell short and finished ninth, it was one of Menard’s strongest efforts this season.

Who had a bad day: Denny Hamlin had a good shot at winning before being involved in the big wreck on Lap 274. His team tried to fix his car on pit road, but there was too much damage, leaving Hamlin to finish a disappointing 29th … Ricky Stenhouse Jr. struggled all day and finished 33rd, 16 laps off the lead lap.

Notable: Sunday marked the 70th year of racing at Darlington. Only 51 drivers have won at the Track Too Tough To Tame, and Jones adds his name to that list. … Due to the nearly 4-hour rain delay, there was a competition caution on Lap 35.

What’s next: Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard (aka Brickyard 400), Sunday, Sept. 8, 2 p.m. ET on NBC. Everything is on the line for the six drivers still battling for the two remaining playoff spots.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson to pursue $100K bounty in Truck Series

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The $100,000 bounty on Kyle Busch has its first contenders.

Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson each confirmed Thursday evening on Twitter that they’ll take a shot at the bounty placed by Kevin Harvick and Marcus Lemonis last week.

Elliott will compete in the March 14 Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the May 30 race at Kansas Speedway with GMS Racing. Larson will compete with GMS Racing in the March 20 event at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Elliott will be sponsored by Hooters for the Atlanta race.

The declarations by the two drivers came the same day that Busch said he didn’t believe any full-time Cup Series drivers would go after the bounty.

Elliott has 12 career Truck Series starts. His last two, at Atlanta and Martinsville in 2017, came with GMS Racing. Elliott won the Martinsville race. Busch was not in that race.

“Once the word got out about the challenge, we were able to put this together with Mike Beam at GMS in just a couple of days,” Elliott said in a press release. “Atlanta is one of my favorite tracks, so I’m really looking forward to getting back into a GMS truck there with Hooters on the truck and make a run for a win.”

Larson has 13 career starts and his last three, including a win at Eldora and top five at Homestead in 2016, came with GMS Racing.

“When I heard about the $100,000 bounty I wanted in!” Larson said in a press release. “I’m thankful for GMS and Chevy giving me this opportunity, Homestead is one of my favorite tracks so looking for to the challenge!”

There’s a potential third bounty hunter waiting in the wings.

Not long after Larson’s announcement, Denny Hamlin, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, tweeted that he’s acquired the funding to field a ride. There’s just one hangup, and it’s Kyle Busch Motorsports:

The $100,000 bounty against Busch was proposed by Harvick and Lemonis, CEO of Gander RV & Outdoors, last week. It will go to any full-time Cup Series driver who beats Busch in any of his remaining four Truck Series starts this year. Busch has won the last seven Truck Series races he’s entered.

If Elliott or no other Cup driver beats Busch in those four races, the bounty will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

“We are blessed with this opportunity. To have an owner that is up for the challenge and a manufacturer that will support the extra effort necessary is really special,” said Mike Beam, President of GMS Racing, in a press release. “It’s great to have these two talented young men back behind the wheel for us and to have the extra attention on the Truck series is great.”

Kyle Busch: $100K Truck Series bounty is a losing proposition

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Kyle Busch doesn’t believe any full-time Cup Series driver will attempt to claim the $100,000 bounty placed on him last week by Kevin Harvick and Marcus Lemonis.

Harvick and Lemonis, the CEO of Truck Series sponsor Gander RV & Outdoors, said they’d award that bounty to any full-time Cup Series driver who is able to beat Busch in any of his four remaining Truck Series starts this year.

Busch, who has won the last seven Truck races he’s entered, sees the challenge as a losing investment, especially if someone attempted it in one of Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Toyotas.

Thursday on the Barstool Sports’ “Rubbin’ is Racing” podcast, Busch said it costs $140,000 to rent one of his Trucks for a race.

“Right off the bat (it’s a losing proposition),” Busch said. “It’s not going to happen. Nobody is going to pay the 140 grand to rent a truck, whether it’s from me or from somebody else. (Show co-host Clint) Bowyer didn’t tell you the fact he can’t even rent a truck from me because I’m a Toyota team and he drives for a Ford team. So he has to go find a Ford truck in order to drive. So there’s those complications that fit into all of this, too.”

Denny Hamlin, Busch’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, expressed his interest in the bounty, as well Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, who said he was “working on” a deal.

After his win last Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Busch’s four remaining Truck Series starts are:

March 14 at Atlanta Motor Speedway

March 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway

March 27 at Texas Motor Speedway

May 30 at Kansas Speedway.

If no one beats Busch, the bounty will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America’s MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Marty Snider hosts and is joined by Kyle Petty, Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan.

James Hinchliffe will call into the show to discuss his new role as an analyst for NBC’s coverage of IndyCar, Indy Lights, IMSA and NASCAR.

You can call into the show via 844-NASCAR-NBC or submit your questions/comments via Twitter using #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Auto Club Speedway’s old surface provides ‘moving target’ for drivers

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Auto Club Speedway has a lot of character.

It’s a character that comes from the 2-mile track’s racing surface being among the oldest on the NASCAR circuit.

The surface hasn’t been repaved since the track first opened in 1997. That’s the same year that the surface for Atlanta Motor Speedway was last resurfaced (a planned repave was put on hold indefinitely in 2017 after outcry from drivers).

In the 23 years since, races at the track in Fontana, California, have turned into producers of multi-groove spectacles (especially on restarts) that come at the cost of high levels of tire wear.

The aged surface provides a “moving target” to drivers throughout the race weekend, according to Tyler Reddick.

“During the start of the weekend, you have to watch for the seams since it’s so slick out there,” the rookie Cup driver said in a media release. “Normally, the Xfinity cars are the first ones on the track, so I’m normally very careful. Now that I’m in the Cup Series, it may be a little different. I think this weekend will be fairly similar to Las Vegas where we started out running wide open, and I’ll have to run like that until the handling starts to go away in our No. 8 I Am Second Chevrolet (and) you have to start lifting. Then it’ll be important to assess why the handling is changing and how to adjust our car correctly to battle that.”

Cup and Xfinity teams only visit Auto Club Speedway once a year and this will be the second year they’ll do so with the high downforce aero package.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones believes Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox) will be a “different race” from the one seen last year.

“Going into Fontana last year, no one really knew what we needed car-wise, balance-wise and this year we have a whole notebook to look back on to try to get better,” Jones, who finished 19th in last year’s race, said in a media release.

“I think there will be a lot more lifting, the cars will be faster. Everybody has just gotten their cars better and more efficient and faster on the straightaways and that makes for more lifting in the corners. It will probably be a little different race, but Fontana is always a good show.”

But that show depends on where a driver chooses to run around the track.

Racing along the top of the track compared to running in the bottom lane proves for “two completely different types of racing” according to defending race winner Kyle Busch.

“You can run from the top to the bottom but, when you run the bottom, you really feel like you’re puttering around the racetrack,” Busch said in a media release. “You feel like you aren’t making up any time on the bottom. But when you are running the top groove, you feel like you’re getting the job done. The guys who run the bottom have a little bit more patience and handle it better than the guys who are on the gas on top.”

When it comes to how rough the track is, Matt DiBenedetto cites how bumpy Turns 3 and 4 are, but said in a media release that traversing the “back straightaway is like going over jumps.”

But just like with the old surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway, there are those who never want to see Auto Club’s surface actually improve.

“I did an appearance at Auto Club Speedway not too long ago and I told the track officials, ‘Whatever you do, don’t repave it!'” Austin Dillon said in a media release. “Or, wait to repave it until you can figure out how to make an asphalt that is very similar to what is on the track now.”

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