Southern 500

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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.”

William Byron looking to sweep poles for ‘Crown Jewel’ races

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On Sunday morning, William Byron will have the opportunity to make a little bit of NASCAR history.

Byron will attempt to put his No. 24 Chevrolet on the pole for the Brickyard 400 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC).

While it would be his fifth pole of the year, Byron would be able to say he’s the only driver to sit on the pole of all four “Crown Jewel” races in the same year.

Byron has been really fast this season.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver has started on the front row of a Cup Series race nine times, including his four poles.

Three of those poles have been when the spotlight was the brightest.

When Byron claimed the pole for last weekend’s Southern 500 at Darlington, he became just the third driver in Cup history to sit on the pole for the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 in the same year.

He joined Fireball Roberts (1962) and Bill Elliott (1985) in the accomplishment.

Unlike Roberts and Elliott, Byron didn’t go on to win the Daytona 500, or even the Southern 500, which Bill Elliott did.

Byron is still looking for his first career Cup Series win entering Sunday’s race, which will be his 62nd start.

Byron is one of four drivers – including Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto – who have finished second this season but have yet to win.

With 180 laps led through 25 races, Byron has the third most laps led among winless drivers.

Luckily, Byron has some winning experience already at Indianapolis.

In 2017, the then 19-year-old won the Xfinity Series race at IMS to become the youngest driver to ever win a NASCAR race at the track.

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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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.

Jimmie Johnson has one last chance to make Cup playoffs

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DARLINGTON, S.C. —  Jimmie Johnson felt good about what ultimately was a bad night in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

The results showed that Johnson finished 16th — the seventh consecutive race he has failed to finish better than 15th. As a result, he remains outside a playoff spot heading into the Sept. 8 regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Johnson is 18 points behind Daniel Suarez for the final playoff spot. Suarez is tied with Ryan Newman but owns the tiebreaker over Newman with the best finish in a race this season.

Johnson, a seven-time series champion, has never missed the postseason since its debut in 2004.

MORE: Click here for points report

Johnson had a fast car all weekend — “They knew we were here,” he told his team on the radio — but it was undone when he was collected in a crash with about 90 laps left in the rain-delayed race that started after 10 p.m. ET Sunday and ended just before 2 a.m. Monday.

“I had at least 15 years with a lot of luck on my side, seven years of championships and having two or three bad ones is just part of it,” Johnson said. “I keep saying that we’re getting there, and tonight we showed it, from the way we qualified to how we ran on those stages. I was running fourth when that accident took place in Turn 3, and I just had nowhere to go.”

Johnson was collected when Daniel Hemric had a tire go down and hit the wall. Michael McDowell and Denny Hamlin also were involved, and Johnson could not avoid them, suffering left front damage.

Johnson continued and later found himself in a situation that moved him into the lead briefly.

When others began pitting early in what was the final pit cycle with about 45 laps left, crew chief Cliff Daniels kept Johnson out, hoping a caution would put them back into contention. Johnson led laps 324-326 in the 367-lap race before he was the last driver to pit under green.

“Had we done it all over again, we would have done the exact same thing again,” Daniels told NBC Sports of the pit call. “It is Darlington, and so many times you see guys spin out getting to pit road, guys blowing a tire late in a run, things like that. Caution comes out at that point, you’re almost a hero.

“There may have been only one or two cars that would have stayed out, otherwise, it is Darlington so everyone would have come to take four, and now you have track position again with a beat-up car. It’s not like we ran an extra 10 laps based on what those guys did and just tanked. We ran five extra laps. It just didn’t work out. That’s the strategy we had talked about leading up to that point, so it was kind of a calculated move. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not work, and we may have lost one or two points because of it but on the flip side that it worked out, you stand to gain a lot.”