Darlington Raceway

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Joe Gibbs Racing signs Erik Jones to a contract extension

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Joe Gibbs Racing announced Friday that it has signed Southern 500 winner Erik Jones to a contract extension to drive the No. 20 Toyota beyond this season.

“Erik has accomplished so much in our sport already and yet, he really is just at the start of a long career,” said Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, in a statement. “He’s been a part of Joe Gibbs Racing for almost his entire professional career and we’re excited to see what the future holds for him.”

The signing completes the 2020 roster for Joe Gibbs Racing. The roster will remain the same as this year: Denny Hamlin in the No. 11, Kyle Busch in the No. 18, Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 19 and Jones in the No. 20.

There had been questions earlier this year about Jones’ status with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota looking to move Christopher Bell to Cup. This announcement confirms what Jones had been hinting at for weeks – that he is remaining with JGR. Bell will drive for Leavine Family Racing next year although the team has yet to announce that.

The 23-year-old Jones has two Cup wins and will be making his second consecutive playoff appearance. He has one win, nine top fives and 13 top 10s this season.

“I’m so happy to finally have my plans for 2020 confirmed and to talk about it,” said Jones. in a statement “I’m excited to be staying with Joe Gibbs Racing and the 20 team and to continue the success that we have built over the last two years in the Cup Series. I put my heart and soul into this and this race team. This is my living and how I want to make a career and what I want to do. I’ve been racing with JGR since 2014 and it’s really cool to be able to continue with the foundation we’ve built over the years and hopefully win more races and contend for championships together.”

NASCAR Darlington penalty report

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NASCAR on Wednesday issued five penalties — four in Cup and one in the Xfinity Series — stemming from last weekend’s Cup and Xfinity races at Darlington Raceway.

In Cup, four crew chiefs were each fined $10,000 apiece for lug nut(s) not properly installed:

* Mike Wheeler, No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota (driver Matt DiBenedetto).

* Greg Ives, No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (driver Alex Bowman).

* Chad Knaus, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (driver William Byron).

* Chad Johnston, No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet (driver Kyle Larson).

In the Xfinity Series, one crew chief was fined $5,000 for lug nut(s) not properly installed:

* Jeff Meendering, No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (driver Brandon Jones).

There were no other penalties issued.

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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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Bump and Run: Should NASCAR’s throwback weekend move to another track?

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Would NASCAR’s throwback weekend be better suited for another track with Darlington Raceway hosting the opening race of the Cup playoffs next year?

Nate Ryan — Darlington Raceway should keep the weekend because of the equity it’s built and the track’s historic legacy, but it will pose some interesting situations in 2020.

There will be a Playoff Media Day ahead of the race weekend, and that naturally will drive some of the storylines justifiably away from the dominant throwback themes of the past five years. While celebrating the past will remain important, it’s natural to have more focus on the now because the Southern 500 will shape the championship field more than ever.

It’s also worth pondering if playoff teams will be as heavily invested in the throwback schemes; it’s understandable if they’d want to temper their approach to avoid distractions. Conversely, this could be the best opportunity at relevance that would have been unavailable in the previous 16 openers to teams outside the title hunt. It’ll be intriguing to monitor how NASCAR and the track handle the weekend.

Dustin Long — No. Next question.

Daniel McFadin — NASCAR and Darlington have the throwback weekend down to a science, and it resulted in a sellout on Sunday. There’s no reason to fix what isn’t broke. Though if I had any real sway, I’d probably make Darlington and the throwback weekend NASCAR’s season finale.

Jerry Bonkowski — No, no, an absolute emphatic no. There is no reason to mess with this. Darlington is the perfect venue for the throwback weekend. If the other tracks are jealous because of the success Darlington has received, oh well, them’s the breaks. Kudos to Darlington for having the initiative and foresight to come up with the idea and making it the success it has become – and will continue to become even more in the future.

 

Which drivers take the final two Cup playoff spots this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

Nate Ryan — Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman.

Dustin Long — Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez.

Daniel McFadin — I’m going with Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson.

Jerry Bonkowski — Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez. As much as I would love to see him make the playoffs, I think Jimmie Johnson will ultimately come up short – unless he can win at Indianapolis. But given how his season has gone, it would take a near miracle for Johnson to do so. And as for Ryan Newman, I predict he ends up maybe a couple of points shy of qualifying for the playoffs.

Matt DiBenedetto scored his fifth top-10 finish in the last eight races. With Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer candidates to move up to Cup next year, and Ross Chastain also a candidate for a stronger Cup ride with DiBenedetto, are there enough seats to accommodate all five of these drivers in Cup next year?

Nate Ryan — There are enough seats for all five to be in Cup, and I think it’s better than 50-50 that all five will be racing in NASCAR’s premier series. Bell, Custer and Reddick seem like locks. I think DiBenedetto and Chastain will have offers, it’ll just depend on the strength of the teams if they take them.

Dustin Long — There are seats but the question is how competitive they might be.

Daniel McFadin — Are there enough rides? Sure. Are there enough competitive rides? Given the current landscape of the Cup Series, I’m not sure. Bell, Reddick and Custer would make for an entertaining rookie class with a natural rivalry — if they’re in good equipment. Should Chastain claim the Truck championship, he’d vault himself up into the top two among these group of drivers in my eyes. DiBenedetto has done a lot over the last few weeks. But he lacks what the other four drivers have — multiple NASCAR wins.

Jerry Bonkowski — That’s the big question. However, let’s look at things from the opposite perspective. If DiBenedetto can’t get a Cup ride for 2020 because Bell, Reddick and Custer will be going up to NASCAR’s big leagues, in turn there should be several very good Xfinity rides available for next season. And also given that there will likely be several Cup drivers retiring in the next two to three years, not to mention others potentially switching teams during that same time period, the 28-year-old DiBenedetto may have to take one step back to eventually go two steps forward.

Darlington winners and losers

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WINNERS

Erik Jones Battled Kyle Larson and then Kyle Busch to score his first win of the season. Jones’ two career Cup victories are at Daytona and Darlington. Quite a combination.

Kyle LarsonHas finished eighth or better in the last five races. His runner-up result at Darlington was his third top-three finish at the track in the last four years.

Cole Custer He admits that it was a “strange” way to win a race — after Denny Hamlin’s apparent victory was taken away when his winning car failed inspection after the race — but it still counts. This is Custer’s sixth Xfinity victory of the season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Finished with a top five in his lone NASCAR start of the season. The roar of the fans when he was interviewed after the race was memorable.

Throwback weekend — Fans saw many paint schemes from the past and celebrated NASCAR’s history with several former drivers in attendance. Darlington Raceway announced before the Southern 500 that it sold all its reserved seats.

LOSERS

Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity program — Saturday marked the second time this year the team has had a car fail inspection after the race and be disqualified. This time it cost Denny Hamlin the win at Darlington.

Jimmie JohnsonRan well all weekend but is in this category for his bad luck. He got swept into a multi-car crash while running in the top five and that led to a 16th-place finish in the Southern 500.

Michael McDowell Involved in the multi-car accident with about 90 laps left and finished 38th, his second consecutive finish of 37th or worse because of an accident.