DARLINGTON, S.C. — Sunday’s opening night of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs produced drama, damage and distress — all on the big stage of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway.
At the end of a long and zany evening, Petty GMS driver Erik Jones — not among the 16 playoff drivers — emerged from the fire and frustration to win the 500, a major upset to open NASCAR’s playoff run.
After numerous playoff drivers had issues, Jones had the lead on a green-flag restart with 21 laps remaining. He jumped to a one-second lead on the first lap of green and held off second-place Denny Hamlin by .252 of a second at the finish. Tyler Reddick was third.
A significant chunk of the sport’s playoff drivers endured trouble — large and small. And fiery.
The results of the 500 jumbled the playoff standings. Leader Chase Elliott fell to ninth place. Kevin Harvick dropped seven spots to 16th. Joey Logano moved up a spot to take the lead. William Bryon moved into second and Denny Hamlin into third.
The night’s biggest issue landed squarely on the Chevrolet of Elliott, who entered the playoffs with a 15-point edge over second place. Elliott finished last after he lost control of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on lap 113. Elliott’s car sailed into the outside wall in Turn 2 and then was hit by Chase Briscoe.
MORE: Darlington Cup results
MORE: Darlington Cup driver points
Elliott’s team tried to complete repairs under the right rear of the car but ran out of time as the Damaged Vehicle Policy forced the No. 9 to park for the night.
By night’s end, Elliott was far from alone in the ugliness. Seven of the other 15 playoff drivers had problems, including former champion Harvick, who left the race after his car erupted in flames, leading him to angrily criticize NASCAR. Also parked was two-time champion Kyle Busch, who led 155 laps and appeared headed to his first Southern 500 victory before his Toyota’s engine expired, apparently because of a valve train failure, with 23 laps remaining. Martin Truex Jr., Busch’s teammate, also had a shot at the win but also parked with an engine issue.
The first major problem impacting a playoff driver occurred on lap 78 when defending champion Kyle Larson, fourth-seeded entering the playoffs, dropped onto pit road and lost three laps while his crew worked under the hood of the No. 5 Chevrolet. After service, Larson seemed to run competitive laps, but he returned to the track in 35th position. Later, on lap 193, Larson lost control of his car and backed into the wall exiting Turn 4. He rebounded from three laps down to race on the lead lap.
Near the end of Stage 1, trouble hit again within the playoff group as Elliott’s Chevrolet and Briscoe’s Ford were damaged.
Harvick saw his night end in a haze of fire and smoke on lap 277 of 367. Fire erupted under both sides of the No. 4 car, forcing Harvick, fighting smoke within the car, to park on the track apron and climb hurriedly through the driver-side window.
Harvick, who previously had criticized NASCAR for what he called safety issues with the Next Gen car, had pointed comments again in the garage area after he parked. He said the fire started despite the fact that he had not hit the wall or another car, blaming it on parts. Fire has been an issue several other times this year.
The win was the third of Jones’ career. The victory returned the famous No. 43, which carried Richard Petty to dozens of victories across the country, to Darlington’s victory lane for the first time since Petty won here in 1967. Petty was at the track during Sunday’s race but left before the finish.
William Byron won the first stage, his first stage win since April. Joey Logano led 64 laps during the stage to 48 for Byron.
Kyle Busch won the second stage in front of his teammate, Martin Truex Jr. Through two stages, Busch had led 82 laps to 64 for Logano.
Stage 1 winner: William Byron
Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch
Who had a good race: Erik Jones was in position to take advantage of others’ misfortunes, and he did exactly that, holding off second-place Denny Hamlin over the closing miles to score his first win of the year. … Tyler Reddick showed strength in the playoffs’ opening race, finishing a solid third. … Michael McDowell came home sixth.
Who had a bad race: Chase Elliott started the race atop the playoff standings and finished the race at the very bottom of the results sheet – 36th and last. … Kevin Harvick rode a flaming car to a stop, finishing 33rd. … Kyle Busch seemed to have the win in hand late in the evening but dropped out with a blown engine, finishing 30th.