Erik Jones holds off Kyle Larson to win Southern 500

Erik Jones wins at Darlington
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

As the clock ticked toward 2 a.m. on Monday, in a race delayed by rain for nearly four hours, Erik Jones claimed the most important victory of his career in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

With his contract status at Joe Gibbs Racing a source of speculation throughout much of the current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Jones made an emphatic statement, holding off teammate Kyle Busch and charging Kyle Larson after taking the lead from Larson on Lap 283.

"It was a lot of pressure," said Jones, who claimed his first victory of the season and the second of his career. "Kyle (Busch) is a great race car driver. I’ve raced him a lot, and obviously you want to beat him to win, right? I was just locked in, man. I stayed focused. I really thought it was our night when we got out front.

"It’s amazing for me to be able to hold off Kyle. It’s really cool, just for the history we have with Kyle giving me my first opportunity in the Truck Series (at Kyle Busch Motorsports). To race him for the win in such a big race, that’s pretty cool and something I’m never going to forget."

Busch, in fact, got within a car-length of Jones in the closing laps but a late brush with the outside wall ended his chances.

"I killed it," Busch radioed to his team. Having cut a tire with the contact, Busch hugged the outside wall for the final lap and a half and still managed to finish third after Larson charged past into the runner-up spot.

"When he started to inch out a little bit," Busch said after the race, "I was trying to save my right front, because I knew my right front wasn't going to make it the whole rest of the way without me knocking the wall down, and I was right.

"I hit the wall with about four to go and then I hit it again with three to go, and it killed it that time. Luckily, we were able to salvage a third, just dragging the fence for the last two laps."

Larson had the lead for a restart on Lap 282, after a massive pileup in Turn 4 on lap 275 ruined strong runs by Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin. But Jones grabbed the lead one circuit after the restart and held the top spot after a cycle of green-flag pit stops with 40 laps left.

"Erik did a good job on that last restart to get by me, and I was better than him all throughout that run," Larson said. "It's just I couldn't ever do anything with him, just because the dirty air was really bad. Wore out surface and the groove is already narrow, and it was just extra difficult. I felt like both 18 (Kyle Busch) and I were a little bit better than he was at the end, but couldn't do nothing with him."

Kurt Busch was the dominant driver in Stage 1, leading at the competition caution after Lap 35 and posting a convincing win in the first 100-lap stage, but Jimmie Johnson was arguably just as big a winner–temporarily.

Desperate to make the Playoffs, the seven time series champion finished second to Busch in the stage and scored nine points, doubly significant because none of the three drivers Johnson was chasing for a berth in the postseason—Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez–finished in the top 10.

Excellent work in the pits, however, vastly improved Bowyer’s track position in Stage 2, and though he lost spots in traffic late in the run, he held sixth in the stage and edged Johnson by one spot. Suarez and Newman, on the other hand, tangled on Lap 140, with Suarez turning Newman off Turn 2 to cause the fourth caution of the night.

Neither Suarez nor Newman scored points in the stage, won by Kyle Busch, who was first off pit road after caution for Corey LaJoie’s spin on Lap 157. Brother Kurt was second in the stage after chasing Bowyer for 30 laps and finally grabbing the second position on lap 187.

But both Kurt Busch and Johnson were innocent victims of the multicar crash on Lap 275, and Johnson surrendered most of the margin he had gained over the other "bubble drivers" in the first two stages. Johnson ended the night 18 points out of the final Playoff-eligible position, with Newman (23rd in the Southern 500) and Suarez (11th) tied for the last berth.

Bowyer finished sixth and moved up to 15th in the standings, eight points to the good over Newman and Suarez. With one race left to decide the Playoff grid, Ryan Blaney, Larson, William Byron and Aric Almirola are now locked into the postseason, as is Jones with the victory.

"What a car—just bad luck," Johnson radioed to his team on the cool-down lap. "Let’s go to Indy (next Sunday’s race) and kick some butt."

Johnson likely will need a victory to advance to the postseason for the 16th straight season.

Erik Jones (20) races against Kyle Larson at Darlington
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Jones, on the other hand, already has the win he needed.

"Is there anything more to say?" Jones asked rhetorically. "There's been a lot of doubt and speculation. I've put my heart and soul into this race team. This is my living and how I want to make a career and what I want to do.

"It doesn't get any better than this. On my list, this race is really high, and it's going to look damn good to see my face on that trophy."


Finish Start # Driver Sponsor/Make Laps Led Points Status
1 15 20 Erik Jones Sport Clips Throwback Toyota 367 79 48 Running
2 3 42 Kyle Larson Clover Chevrolet 367 44 49 Running
3 33 18 Kyle Busch Snickers Throwback Toyota 367 118 51 Running
4 11 4 Kevin Harvick Busch Beer/Big Buck Hunter Ford 367 0 34 Running
5 2 2 Brad Keselowski Miller Ford 367 19 38 Running
6 13 14 Clint Bowyer Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Ford 367 1 36 Running
7 4 1 Kurt Busch Chevrolet Accessories Chevrolet 367 94 49 Running
8 19 95 Matt DiBenedetto No. 95 IMSA GTO Throwback Toyota 367 0 29 Running
9 17 21 Paul Menard Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford 367 0 28 Running
10 14 3 Austin Dillon American Ethanol Chevrolet 367 0 27 Running
11 5 41 Daniel Suarez Haas Automation Ford 367 0 26 Running
12 12 37 Chris Buescher Kroger Fast Lane to Flavor Chevrolet 367 0 25 Running
13 10 12 Ryan Blaney Menards/Pennzoil Ford 366 0 24 Running
14 7 22 Joey Logano Shell Pennzoil Ford 366 0 26 Running
15 22 19 Martin Truex Jr. Bass Pro Shops Toyota 366 0 24 Running
16 6 48 Jimmie Johnson Ally Throwback Chevrolet 366 3 34 Running
17 30 10 Aric Almirola Smithfield Ford 366 0 20 Running
18 16 88 Alex Bowman Axalta Throwback Chevrolet 365 0 19 Running
19 8 9 Chase Elliott NAPA Throwback Chevrolet 365 9 23 Running
20 29 13 Ty Dillon GEICO Chevrolet 365 0 17 Running
21 1 24 William Byron HendrickAtgrd/CtyChvrlt Thrwbck Chev 365 0 19 Running
22 20 47 Ryan Preece # Kroger Chevrolet 365 0 15 Running
23 24 6 Ryan Newman Oscar Mayer/Velveeta Ford 365 0 14 Running
24 28 43 Bubba Wallace Victory Junction 15th Anniversary Chevrolet 365 0 13 Running
25 25 0 Landon Cassill(i) StarCom Fiber Chevrolet 364 0 0 Running
26 26 38 David Ragan Shriners Hospital for Children Ford 363 0 11 Running
27 32 36 Matt Tifft # Hilliker Glass/Surface Ford 362 0 10 Running
28 31 15 Ross Chastain(i) Chevrolet 361 0 0 Running
29 9 11 Denny Hamlin FedEx Darlington Throwback Toyota 356 0 22 Running
30 34 77 Reed Sorenson Motor Racing Network Chevrolet 355 0 7 Running
31 37 27 * Joe Nemechek(i) Chevrolet 354 0 0 Running
32 35 52 JJ Yeley(i) JACOB Companies Chevrolet 352 0 0 Running
33 21 17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Dog's Most Wanted Ford 351 0 4 Running
34 39 66 * Joey Gase(i) MBM Motorsports Toyota 349 0 0 Running
35 38 54 * Garrett Smithley(i) AQRE App Chevrolet 344 0 0 Running
36 27 32 Corey LaJoie Ford 330 0 1 Running
37 18 8 Daniel Hemric # Caterpillar Chevrolet 274 0 1 Accident
38 23 34 Michael McDowell Dockside Logistics Ford 274 0 1 Accident
39 36 51 BJ McLeod(i) JACOB Companies Chevrolet 194 0 0 Accident

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