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.

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