Erik Jones wins Southern 500; Playoff spots still up for grabs

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 02: Erik Jones, driver of the #20 Sport Clips Throwback Toyota, celebrates after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 02, 2019 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service

DARLINGTON, S.C. – 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.

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.”

NASCAR Playoff dreams depend on a yard of 

bricks at Indianapolis

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – While it was a dramatic Bojangles’ Southern 500 on several levels Sunday night – from the challenging weather to the challenging competition on track – the Playoff picture with one race to set the final two positions of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup playoff field remains as intriguing as it could possibly be.

This year’s Southern 500 got a very late start because of poor weather, but by the time Erik Jones took the checkered flag early Monday morning, the race was every bit the traditional wild card it was expected to be for the four drivers challenging for the final two Playoff berths.

Those drivers – Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman – swapped positions in the standings following Darlington’s checkered flag, but the overall picture essentially remains the same. Only 18 points separate Johnson in 18th place from Suarez in 16th as the series heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend’s regular season finale. The top 16 ranked drivers following Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard (September 8 at 2 p.m ET on NBC, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be Playoff-eligible.

Despite a discouraging finishing statistic going into the race, Bowyer instead earned the best finish of his career and took stage points to boot. The driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford finished sixth at Darlington – only his second top-10 result there in 14 starts – and moved into 15th place in the Playoff standings.

Similarly, Suarez, also rallied to the best finish of his career – his first top-20 – and earned stage points in both Stage 1 and Stage 2. The driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford finished 11th and is now tied in points with Newman, the driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford, who finished 23rd at Darlington – but Suarez holds the tie-breaker and is in the 16th and final position set to transfer into the Playoffs.

Johnson, the seven-time Monster Energy Series champion and driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is 18th in the standings, 18 points behind Suarez and Newman and 26 points behind Bowyer. A three-time Darlington winner, Johnson was on pace for a top-five finish only to be collected in a late race wreck. He was second in the opening stage for a dose of bonus points and was running fourth when he was in the accident.

And Newman, who has a solid history at the Darlington track, instead finished outside the top 10 for the first time in three years and is in 17th in the Playoff standings – one spot outside the postseason. He and Suarez had contact mid-race and, judging by the post-race reaction, that may be significant as the two compete at Indy this week – a place where Newman won the 2013 race from the pole position.

Although frustrated after the race, Newman realizes he’s still absolutely within Playoff reach coming to a track where he’s hoisted a trophy before.

“We got spun and we came back and we did not have a top-10 finish, so it’s unfortunate,’’ Newman said of the incident with Suarez. “We lost some points today, but we’ve got a lot of fight in us and we’ll go into the last one here in the regular season and fight.

As for the situation with Suarez, Newman said, “I have to watch the replay. They said he hit me, but I don’t know. He had me jacked up sideways going into the corner, so do I owe him? Probably a little something.’’

Suarez, however, was confident Newman would see things differently once he watched a replay of the incident.

“That’s a racing thing,’’ Suarez said of the incident. “I didn’t touch him. As a driver it’s very very easy to know that the guy behind you is very very close and to feel that air, but he’s experienced to know. Once he sees the race, he’s going to realize that we didn’t touch. It was everything aero and just hard racing, that’s it.’’

Bowyer, meanwhile, was absolutely encouraged by the rally he and his team pulled off this week. He had been ranked as high as 14th seven weeks ago and a season high of eighth in May, so the last few months have been a true test of gumption for him and the team. While he reiterated that he hardly feels “comfortable” heading into the regular season finale, it’s a far better position than it could have been.

“We put ourselves back in [Playoff] position, but kid you not, I want to make the Playoffs, but I want to make the Playoffs to get past the first round and to hit that thing in stride and to race to our capabilities,’’ Bowyer said after the race.

“Tonight was our capability. Single-digit finishes we’re capable of rattling off and this was a good shot in the arm, a momentum boost for our race team going into that last race in Indy. And if we can do that again is what I’m looking for because you always have to be looking down the road.’’

Looking down the road may be exactly the boost Johnson could use. He is the winningest driver in the field at Indianapolis with four victories (2006, 2008, 2009, 2012). He also has a runner-up (2013) and a third place (2016) finish there.

He certainly did not, however, expect one of his best venues to ultimately be the arbiter of his 2019 Playoff reality. One of only three drivers in history to win seven Cup titles – NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are the others – Johnson has never in his illustrious career missed qualifying for the Playoffs.

“I had at least 15 years with a lot of luck of my side, seven years of championships and having two or three bad years is just part of it,’’ Johnson reflected after Darlington. “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 the accident took place in Turn three and I just had nowhere to go.’’

He remains absolutely optimistic however, and with his track record at Indy, how could he not.

“We are running out of days and if we miss it, it’s just going to be by a few (points) I believe,’’ Johnson said. “If I look back over the first half of the season, I see a lot of races where we gave away a few points. So it’s kind of unfair to put all the pressure on one race at Indy. But it is what it is, and we are going to go there to win a race.’’

Holly Cain – NASCAR Wire Service

Newman has no regrets about Bristol 

battle with DiBenedetto

With roughly 40 laps left in the Aug. 17 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Matt DiBenedetto held a 1.6-second lead over second-place Denny Hamlin when DiBenedetto caught Ryan Newman’s No. 6 Ford, the last car on the lead lap.

DiBenedetto struggled to overtake Newman, generally regarded as one of the toughest drivers in the series to pass. Contact between the two vehicles tightened the handling of DiBenedetto’s No. 95 Toyota, whose lead had shrunk to .8 seconds by the time he cleared Newman’s Mustang.

With 11 laps left, Hamlin caught and passed DiBenedetto for the win, spoiling a Cinderella story for the driver who had been told by Leavine Family Racing earlier in the week that his option wouldn’t be picked up for 2020.

As might be expected, Newman received his share of criticism on social media, even though he was locked in close battle for a Playoff spot and was fighting to stay on the lead lap.

“I think Kyle Busch would tell you the best, there’s always going to be haters,” Newman said on Friday at Darlington Raceway. “I did what I needed to do to be competitive. I haven’t seen any replays. I don’t know exactly how he hit me twice in two separate straightaways in the right rear going down the straightaway.

“If I pinched him, or if he didn’t give himself enough room or what, but in the end there was nothing intentional by me. Fans can choose whatever they want—I mean there are thousands of fans that have come to Bristol to see crashes for years, so I’m sorry I let them down.”

Asked whether he felt a need to talk to DiBenedetto about the incident, Newman demurred.

“No, there’s no reason to,” he said.

Cole Custer wins Darlington Xfinity race after 

Denny Hamlin disqualified

DARLINGTON, S.C. – It looked like more of the same at Darlington Raceway for driver Denny Hamlin—until post-race inspection happened.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – AUGUST 31: Cole Custer, driver of the #00 Production Alliance Group Ford, races Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 McCall’s Supply Ruud Toyota, during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 at Darlington Raceway on August 31, 2019 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

A five-time NASCAR Xfinity Series winner at the 1.366-mile track, Hamlin was first across the finish line in Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200, but the disqualification of Hamlin’s No. 18 Toyota for a ride-height violation made a winner of Cole Custer, who trailed Hamlin by .602 seconds at the finish line.

“It’s a really strange feeling, honestly—obviously,” Custer said after being notified he was the winner. “You don’t want that way, but it is what it is. We all play by the same rules. Was that the deciding factor? No.

“But it is what it is. We get the points. We get the money. We get the trophy, I guess. It’s a way to win.”

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – AUGUST 31: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #8 Hellmann’s Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 at Darlington Raceway on August 31, 2019 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The victory was the first for Custer at the Track Too Tough to Tame and his sixth of the season, tying him with fourth-place finisher Christopher Bell for most in the series this year. Custer now has eighth career Xfinity wins.

The disqualification ruined a strong effort from Hamlin, who started 37th in a backup car after slapping the outside wall early in Friday’s opening practice. Hamlin took the lead on Lap 121 of 147 and held it the rest of the way.

And though Hamlin efforts became moot with the disqualification, he overcame issues with the handling of the backup No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota through the first two 45-lap stages of the event and was able to withstand a determined closing run by Custer.

“We did not have the best car by any means, but luckily, the techniques I’ve learned over so many years kind of (helped) us there,” Hamlin said before learning of the disqualification. “They guys did a great job getting this car ready.”

Abandoning the NBC Sports broadcast booth for his only race of the year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran fifth as the highest finishing JR Motorsports entry.

Custer hounded Hamlin after a restart with 10 laps left ran the bottom through Turns 1 and 2 to gain ground. On several occasions over the final five laps, he pulled within a car-length of Hamlin’s bumper but couldn’t quite get to the winner.

“I thought I had him,” Custer said after climbing from his car. “I really wanted it—finishing second here really sucks. You really want to win at one of the marquee places… I couldn’t get a run off of (Turn) 4. I don’t know—it was so close.”

As it turned out, it was close enough.

Series leader Tyler Reddick ran second after leading a race-high 70 laps. Pole winner Ryan Blaney, the only other driver to hold the lead, was third after spending 50 laps at the point. Bell, Earnhardt, Chase Briscoe, Brandon Jones, Noah Gragson, Justin Allgaier and Austin Cindric completed the top 10.

Earnhardt was pleased with his performance in the one-off start.

“I love this place,” said Earnhardt, whose No. 8 Chevrolet was sporting a paint scheme commemorating his father’s first start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Charlotte in 1975. “We love Darlington… You never know how good you are till you come back and try it.

“All these guys are elite. All these guys do this every single week, and they’re very, very talented. To think you can take a year off and come back and be good… you just never know. But we did all right!”

With two races left before the cutoff for the Xfinity Playoffs at Las Vegas, Reddick holds a 51-point lead over Bell in the race for the regular-season title. Custer is 136 points back in third place.

The disqualification was the fifth this year under the enforcement policy NASCAR adopted this year, all in either the Xfinity or Gander Outdoors Truck Series. Hamlin was the second race winner to suffer a disqualification, the other being Ross Chastain in a Truck Series race at Iowa Speedway.