ERIK JONES ENDS A LATE NIGHT AT DARLINGTON IN VICTORY
This season has been a trying one for Erik Jones in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series, while being consistent and keeping himself in playoff contention, his future has been murky at Joe Gibbs Racing due to being the only driver not having a win on the team while Christopher Bell has been very strong in the Xfinity series and has been making a case for a Cup ride. Essentially, Erik Jones needed a win to make his own case as to why he deserves his ride and at the Bojangles’ Southern 500 he got that win; beating his teammate, the strong Kyle Busch, for it.
The long night was supposed to start at six P.M. with William Byron on the pole (in a fitting Cole Trickle throwback) with Brad Keselowski starting beside him; that wouldn’t quite come to be as rain would hang over the track and stick around for some time. After the rain was gone and the track was dried; the green would finally wave at 10:10. Keselowski would immediately get a push from Kurt Busch to get to the front and lead for the first nineteen laps. Kurt would catch up to Keselowski and go high to get the lead. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson, who was in desperate need for a win or a great finish with stage points, was very quick and looked to be a contender for later on. The competition caution to check for the tire wear after racing on a green track came out on lap thirty-five. Byron won off pit road but once again he would not keep the lead as he had a very slow restart that let Kurt get ahead. Byron tried to fight back for the lead but was stopped after Garret Smithley spun and avoided any damage to bring out the second caution. Byron had a horrible pit stop and fell seven spots while his teammate, Chase Elliott, moved up three to get the lead. Elliott got out to the lead, but a hard-charging Kurt Busch kept hounding him for it until Chase gave it up and begin to drop and fight off Kyle Larson for third while Kurt went on to win the stage.
Larson wins off pit road and easily gets to a good lead to start off stage two. Joey Logano and Chase Elliott started the stage with heavy racing; no love lost between the two made for quite a good show for the fans. Kurt went on to show patience as he caught Larson to race for the lead until another caution came out for Daniel Suarez spinning out Ryan Newman. Kurt got the lead again as Larson fell all the way back to thirteenth with a terrible stop. Kurt had to race his brother Kyle to keep the lead on the restart, but it didn’t last too long as Corey LaJoie brought out the caution after losing a tire due to some contact with Newman. Kyle Busch got the lead and went on to do so comfortably as a few top names would have issues. Jones and Logano were racing each other pretty hard and Logano got a flat from it while Martin Truex Jr had to pit for a loose wheel; the issues effectively ended their chances of a good finish. A caution for Matt Tifft coming up the track in front of BJ McLeod and putting him in the wall gave with three to go gave Kyle Busch the stage win.
Busch went on to dominate the start of stage 3 while Jones and Hamlin would battle for second. Eventually, green flag stops would begin as Keselowski tried to pit but missed the entrance and had to keep going and pit a lap later. After the stops cycled out, Kyle Busch kept the lead as Newman hit the wall and got a very bad tire rub. Newman had his luck turn around as Daniel Hemric lost a tire and spun; the wreck would collect Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Byron, and McDowell. Jimmie Johnson also got damaged in the wreck; the damage was enough to end his strong run and essentially put him in a must-win situation for Indianapolis. Larson got out first with Jones behind him; setting up a good battle as they would keep switching for the lead over the next few laps with Jones eventually holding on to it. Green flag stops started as David Ragan spun onto pit road; no caution as he righted himself. Jones kept the lead afterwards as Larson had a slow stop and lost second to Kyle Busch who was catching Jones. Jones was holding off Busch even with some issues at points with lapped cars slowing him down as Larson was catching back up to Busch. Alex Bowman nearly brought out a caution as he had heavy contact with the wall, but he was able to bring it to the pits. With ten to go, Busch began to make up ground on Jones until with three to go he got into the wall multiple times. At nearly two o’clock, Erik Jones crossed the finish line to pick up his first victory of the season and momentum going into the playoffs.