Long: NASCAR’s future steals spotlight from the past at Darlington

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — On a weekend when the past was prevalent, did NASCAR fans glimpse the sport’s future?

Erik Jones and Kyle Larson dueled for the lead in the final stage of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, showing that a track that rewards experience can be tamed by younger drivers.

What made the moment special was how rare it was. And not just because it was after 1 a.m. ET when their battle was taking in the rain-delayed event.

Although the race was Larson’s 209th Cup start and Jones’ 100th, they hadn’t had any memorable encounters for the lead in NASCAR’s premier series.

But with Larson 27 years old and Jones 23, this could be just the beginning.

Jones went on to win the Southern 500 and Larson finished second, marking the first time the two placed first and second in a Cup race.

“It’s cool when you get to get out and race hard,” Jones said of racing Larson. “That’s what we love to do is get to get out there and battle with the best of the best, and there’s no better feeling than when you’re battling with a guy for the lead who is considered one of the better guys in the series, and especially at a place like Darlington (where) I feel like is really one of Kyle’s better tracks.”

The key moment came when Larson led the field to a restart on Lap 283 of the 367-lap race. Jones powered underneath Larson in Turn 2 to take the lead.

Erik Jones’ two career Cup wins have come at Daytona and Darlington. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Even though patience is preached at Darlington, Jones knew he needed to be aggressive.

“You’ve got to pick and choose your battles, and the one with Larson there was one I felt like was necessary to pick,” Jones said. “I felt like if I got behind him, I don’t think we win the race.

“This package is really tough to pass with here. I felt like tonight was a really big struggle as far as the package itself and making our way forward.  We made some passes on the very long runs in the race that we had and some on pit road and were able to position ourselves up front, but I knew if we got behind him, he was just fast enough he would have been able to defend. He’s a good enough driver he’s going to defend the same way I did him and Kyle (Busch).”

Larson countered in Turn 3 and moved ahead. Jones reclaimed the lead on the next lap. He went under Larson’s car in Turn 1 and barely cleared Larson when he moved up in front of the No. 42 Chevrolet.

“He cut me a little bit of a break letting me clear him up in 1 and 2, and I knew at that point we had to get the lead,” Jones said. “I knew if we could get it, we could set our pace. But I enjoyed racing with him. We raced hard.”

Larson, who would not get back by Jones, lamented his restart.

“We just didn’t have the greatest restarts there to allow Erik to get by me,” he said.

Jones’ victory marked the seventh time in 25 Cup races (28%) this season that a Cup driver under the age of 30 had won. Go back to early in last year’s playoffs and drivers under 30 have won 12 of the last 33 Cup races (36%).

That number could rise with the number of 20-somethings making an impact in the sport. Twenty of the 39 Southern 500 drivers this past weekend were under the age of 30, including eight of the top 14 finishers.

Darlington marked the fourth time this year that drivers under the age of 30 finished first and second in a Cup race. It also happened at Talladega (Chase Elliott won, Alex Bowman second), Chicagoland (Bowman won, Larson second), Daytona in July (Justin Haley won, William Byron second) and the Southern 500.

Last year, only once did drivers under the age of 30 finish first and second in a race. That came in the Daytona 500 when Austin Dillon won and Bubba Wallace finished second.

Already, Jones’ two Cup wins have come at Daytona (July 2018) and Darlington. Quite a way to start a career.

“It’s pretty crazy, right?” Jones said.

“The Southern 500 is a race that is the top three in my list for sure, and to get a win here this early in my career, it really means a lot to me.”

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The Southern 500 was to have started at 6:15 p.m. ET Sunday but rain delayed the event nearly four hours.

The green flag didn’t wave until 10:07 p.m. for a race that often takes around four hours to run. This past weekend’s race ended at 1:53 a.m. ET.

So why did NASCAR start the race so late?

Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, explained Tuesday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that Hurricane Dorian played a key role in the decision. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued an evacuation order for residents living along the South Carolina coast that began at noon ET Monday.

“It was just a situation where we really felt like that … the sooner we could get the race in the books, the better for the officials of the state to be able to kind of move on and do what they needed to do to protect the people of South Carolina and then certainly worried about the fans and everybody (at the track) being able to get out of there,” Miller told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“A bit of an unpredictable situation with the weather, so the best thing for us was to do what we did and try to get everybody safe and sound.”

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Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman head into this weekend’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway tied in points for the final playoff spot and not seeing eye-to-eye on an incident in the Southern 500.

Suarez holds the final playoff spot over Newman on a tiebreaker, which is based on best finish this season. Suarez’s best finish this year is third at Texas. Newman’s best finish this season is fifth at Daytona in July.

MORE: Click here for points report

But the issue between them at Darlington took place early in the race. The caution came out on Lap 142 for Newman’s spin. It came after a duel with Suarez for 19th place.

“My car is clean,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “We all race very hard. Newman, he’s very well known for racing extremely hard. He’s one of the hardest guys to pass out there and I have a lot of respect for him. It was, I think, the second time or third time I was trying to pass him getting into (Turn) 1. He was just blocking me. At that time, I got him aero loose. I didn’t touch him. My car is 100% clean. That’s hard racing. He raced me hard and I raced him hard back.”

Newman told NBC Sports after the race: “He had me jacked up going into the corner and they said he hit me, pretty much uncalled for. He was struggling to catch me for a while and finally got to me and then just turned me around. Whether he hit me or not, he turned me around. So I guess what comes around, goes around.”

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Erik Jones’ victory gives Joe Gibbs Racing wins in each of the sport’s crown jewel races run this year, heading into the final crown jewel race of the year.

Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500. Martin Truex Jr. won the Coca-Cola 600. Jones added his name to the list with his Southern 500 win. This weekend the series races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for what is considered one of the sport’s crown jewels.

No organization has swept all four races in the same season since Cup began racing at Indy in 1994.

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Ryan Blaney thankful for support after Daytona 500 incident

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Ryan Blaney said he didn’t want to talk to many people the night of the Daytona 500 after contact with Ryan Newman triggered Newman’s horrific last-lap crash.

But when Blaney got home, his parents were there.

“That was nice of them to be there,” Blaney said Friday at Auto Club Speedway, the first time he’s talked to the media about the Daytona 500 since that night.  

Blaney was ashen when he spoke briefly to the media after the season-opening Daytona 500. As he spoke, an ambulance drove by on the frontstretch, taking Newman to the hospital.

Blaney was intent on pushing Newman, a fellow Ford driver, to the victory when it became clear to Blaney he could not win the race. But as he pushed Newman coming to the finish, the contact unsettled Newman’s car and it turned right into the outside wall. Newman’s car went airborne and was slammed in the driver side area while upside down by Corey LaJoie.

Newman walked out of a Daytona Beach hospital two days later. Newman said last weekend in a statement that he suffered a head injury but did not disclose any details. He has since been to Roush Fenway Racing to see team members and also did a video for one of the team’s sponsors that day. Newman will not race this weekend, missing his second consecutive race but said in his statement he looks forward to racing again.

MORE: Ryan Blaney talks to Ryan Newman, looks forward to seeing him at track

Blaney said several people helped him in the aftermath of Newman’s accident. All that was known the night of the race was that Newman was in serious condition with a non-life-threatening injury.

Blaney said close friend Bubba Wallace spent time with him the day after the Daytona 500.

“We talked about some stuff,” Blaney said Friday of what he and Wallace did. “I stayed off social media and all that stuff. You have people that aren’t even involved and have never even watched the sport that have their own opinion on bad things.

“The outreach I got from the calls from former drivers and current drivers that week was pretty remarkable. Their support was good. Even though it is unintentional and it is racing, it still takes a toll on you when it is off of your nose. You never want to see anyone get hurt in this sport. We are all competitors, but we are also a big family.

“Ryan and I have gotten along really well and that was just a bad circumstance and it is great that it worked out for the best. It was nice to have the friends and family and drivers and teams (offer their) support. That really helped me out.”

Blaney cited a couple of former drivers whose calls were impactful.

Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte called me, people that I looked up to a lot as a kid,” Blaney said. “It was neat that they called me and gave me their peace of mind. That was good.”

Friday also marked the first time for Blaney to speak publicly since last weekend’s race at Las Vegas. Blaney led but a late caution changed the race. He and Alex Bowman, running second, were among drivers who pitted. Joey Logano, running third, did not pit, inherited the lead and went on to win. Blaney finished 11th.

Blaney said Friday it took him 10 minutes to get over how that race ended.

“Yeah, it was over,” Blaney said. “Moving on. I went and stayed in a teepee and forgot about it.”

About his experience staying in a teepee, Blaney said:

“I already had that planned no matter what happened. I like camping. I was out on a ranch in the middle of the desert for a couple days and just hanging out and all that stuff. It was fun.”

As for what he did, Blaney said: “Go hiking a little bit. Cook by the fire. Clear your head. It is just relaxing. I have always kind of been that way. It was nice to get out there. I was out there. I had to be out there for Tuesday night anyway and figured I would stay somewhere other than the (Las Vegas) Strip. I can’t do the strip for very long. I wanted to stay somewhere opposite to the Strip.”

Alex Bowman fastest in final Cup practice at Auto Club Speedway

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Alex Bowman completed a sweep of Friday’s Cup Series practice sessions at Auto Club Speedway by posting the top speed in final practice. He was also fastest in first practice.

Bowman’s top speed was 176.626 mph. He recorded 32 laps in the session.

The top five was completed by Ryan Blaney (176.186 mph), Bubba Wallace (176.177), Kurt Busch (175.816) and Christopher Bell (175.695).

Bowman also had the best 10-lap average at 175.317 mph.

Kurt Busch recorded the most laps with 47.

The only incident in the session was defending race winner Kyle Busch brushing the wall in Turn 3 after his car got away from him on the bumps in the corner. Repairs were made to the car and Busch returned to the track with 17 minutes left in the session.

Click here for the speed chart.

 

Alex Bowman tops field in opening Cup practice at Auto Club

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Alex Bowman posted the fastest lap in opening Cup practice Friday at Auto Club Speedway. Bowman ran a top lap of 179.439 mph.

Bowman was followed by Kyle Larson (177.703 mph), Tyler Reddick (177.607), Kurt Busch (177.375) and Matt DiBenedetto (176.609).

Click here for full practice report

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Cup practice is scheduled from 5:35-6:25 p.m. ET today. Qualifying will be Saturday.

Xfinity practice report at Auto Club Speedway

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Harrison Burton was fastest in the final Xfinity Series practice session Friday at Auto Club Speedway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver recorded 22 laps and posted a top speed of 174.474 mph in the 25-minute session.

The top five was completed by Noah Gragson (173.779 mph), Austin Cindric (173.775), Chase Briscoe (173.578) and Brandon Jones (173.578).

Burton also had the best 10-lap average at 170.422 mph.

Gragson recorded the most laps in the session with 25.

There were no incidents in the session.

Click here for the practice report.

First practice

Noah Gragson led the way for the Xfinity Series in the opening practice session that saw more than half the 50-minute period under caution at Auto Club Speedway

Gragson ran a top lap of 177.139 mph. He was followed by Austin Cindric (176.022), Daniel Hemric (175.400), Brandon Jones (175.366) and Harrison Burton (175.187).

Click here for full practice report

Alex Labbe brought out the caution when an oil line came loose and he put oil down on the track. The cleanup took about 20 minutes.

Tommy Joe Martins brought out the caution late in the session with smoke coming from the car and then a small fire in the right front of the car.