Erik Jones Wins the Southern 500 at Darlington in the Iconic 43

0
1151
Darlington Raceway, Darlington, SC — September 4, 2022

The Cook Out Southern 500 kicks off the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs at Darlington Raceway. What a way to begin, on the track “Too Tough To Tame.” For 16 drivers, today’s race culminates a season-long battle to just make the postseason. Now they must survive three elimination events in the next nine races and win at Phoenix to capture the ultimate prize in motorsports.

No non-Playoff driver has ever won the opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

Since the inception of the elimination-style format of the Playoffs in 2014 (last eight seasons), entering the Playoffs as the No. 1 seed has been the most successful seeding, producing four championships among three drivers – Kyle Busch (2015, 2019), Martin Truex Jr. (2017) and Kyle Larson (2021). Hendrick Motorsport’s driver Chase Elliott enters this season’s Playoffs as the No. 1 seed with 40 Playoff points at his side.

The deepest seed that an eventual champion has started the Playoffs was seventh, by Kevin Harvick in 2014 and Joey Logano in 2018.

Who Runs Strong at Darlington

Based on past history, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick would be considered the favorites to open the playoffs with a win. However, 500 miles at Darlington is an extreme test of driver and race car stamina. A youngster may well add their name to the list of active race winners at Darlington.

Active Darlington Race Winners Wins Seasons
Denny Hamlin 4 2021-2, 2020-2, 2017, 2010
Kevin Harvick* 3 2020-3, 2020-1, 2014
Martin Truex Jr 2 2021, 2016
Joey Logano* 1 2021
Erik Jones 1 2019
Brad Keselowski* 1 2018
Kyle Busch 1 2008

*Ford Mustang Drivers

Today’s Race

The Cook Out Southern 500 is sold out for its 6:00 pm start. Racing under the lights helps with the South Carolina heat and the cars look spectacular. The 367 laps that make up the 501.3 miles to be run are divided into Stages of 115/115/137 laps.

A sellout crowd at Darlington Raceway watches the start of the Cook Out Southern 500 / NASCAR Photo

Tire wear is a big factor and drivers will likely pit for new Goodyear rubber before needing fuel. Joey Logano won the 400-mile race here in May, and Denny Hamlin is the defending race winner from 2021.

Logano sits on the pole for the drop of the green flag, and Christopher Bell sits beside him in the front row. Newly crowned regular season Champion Chase Elliott starts 23rd. Michigan native and former Darlington winner Erik Jones will start 15th.

Playoff contender Daniel Suarez failed pre-race inspection three times and will start from the rear of the field. Suarez will also have to serve a drive-through penalty after taking the green flag. The trip down pit road at a reduced speed will put Suarez at a big disadvantage right from lap one.

Stage One

Joey Logano(22) and Christopher Bell(20) raced side-by-side for the first two laps until Bell finally yielded and dropped in behind the Ford Mustang of the pole sitter. Six laps in, the yellow flag displayed for light rain on the race track.

The race restarted on Lap 17 and this time Logano jumped ahead of Bell out of the second turn. NASCAR scheduled a competition caution for after lap 25 due to a brief shower earlier in the day. That yellow flag was pushed back to after lap 35 when the 2nd rain of the day slowed the action.

Most of the field pitted under the competition caution for fresh tires. Logano won the race off pit road. Followed by William Byron(24), Bell, Tyler Reddick(8), and Bubba Wallace(45).

Joey Logano’s crew services his Ford Mustang during a pit stop early in the Cook Out Southern 500 / NASCAR Photo

Wallace is not in his usual #23 car, the #45 car qualified for the playoffs in the owner’s championship via Kurt Busch’s win earlier in the year. So, car owners Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin opted to move the more experienced driver into that number. Ty Gibbs, subbing for the injured Kurt Busch, moved to the #23.

On lap 66, Byron tracked down Logano and made the pass for the lead. A number of drivers were complaining of ill-handling race cars as the tires were starting to wear down on the rough racing surface.

Green flag pit stops began at lap 73 for drivers mid-pack. The leaders joined in over the next three laps. Logano’s crew had trouble with the jack changing tires on the left side of the car. The slow stop dropped Logano out of the top 10.

Kyle Larson returned to pit road, after his service stop for tires, complaining of a lack of power. He lost three laps while the crew checked under the hood. After returning to the track the symptoms cleared and he was able to resume normal race speed. Suggesting the issue may be electrical instead of a mechanical failure like the team experienced at Daytona.

With two laps to go in Stage One, something broke on Chase Elliott’s(9) car and it darted right brushing the wall. The incident collected another playoff driver, Chase Briscoe(14).

Neither car suffered significant body damage. However, Elliott came to pit road for his crew to address the mechanical failure. A broken right rear upper control arm was the issue.

Chase Elliott’s crew tries to repair damage to the rear suspension of his race car after an incident just before the end of Stage One at Darlington Raceway / NASCAR Photo

Just prior to the start of the playoffs, NASCAR changed the time limit for the damaged vehicle clock. The amount of time was extended from six to 10 minutes to repair accident damage. Even with the extension, Elliott’s crew failed to complete the repairs in time. The number nine car became the first to retire from the event.

Elliott entered the race with a 40-point edge in playoff points due to his four race wins (20 points), five Stage wins (5 points), and the (15 points) bonus for being the regular season champion. That advantage will keep him above the first-round cut line. But, the team can ill-afford another incident in the next two races.

Byron held on for the Stage win taking the 10 points added to his totals in this round and the one bonus point that will carry on for the remainder of the playoffs.

Stage One Results

POS CAR DRIVER POINTS
1 24 William Byron (P) 10
2 11 Denny Hamlin (P) 9
3 18 Kyle Busch (P) 8
4 20 Christopher Bell (P) 7
5 19 Martin Truex Jr. 6
6 1 Ross Chastain (P) 5
7 8 Tyler Reddick (P) 4
8 43 Erik Jones 3
9 12 Ryan Blaney (P)* 2
10 45 Bubba Wallace (P) 1

*Ford Mustang Driver (P) Playoff Driver

Martin Truex Jr.(19) and Erik Jones(43) were the only drivers in the top 10 at the end of the Stage that were not playoff drivers.

Stage Two

Stage-ending pit stops shuffled the running order as Kyle Busch(18) was the new leader when racing resumed. He was followed by Denny Hamlin(11), Byron, Ross Chastain(1), and Jones.

Drivers seemed content to just ride, at the beginning of the Stage, in an effort to conserve tires. The leader pitted just 39 pals into the Stage and when stops cycled through the top five remained the same with the exception of Truex taking over the fifth spot from Jones.

Chastain returned to pit road complaining of a vibration, the team thought they might have had a loose wheel. However, when he returned to the track the condition continued. After returning to pit road a second time it was determined the drive pins on the left rear axle were damaged causing the wheel to not fully seat against the axle. It cost Chastain four laps to the leader to get the situation corrected.

On lap 178, Todd Gilliland spun in much the same manner Elliott did earlier. The caution came out and everyone headed to pit road. Gilliland had apparently brushed the wall earlier and broke the right rear toe link, causing the car to lose rear traction.

When the race restarted there were 44 laps remaining in Stage Two. Drivers will have to take care of their tires to avoid a late pit stop that could cost them a chance at a Stage win or Stage points.

When the lead pack formed up after the restart, Kyle Busch retained the lead. Hamlin, Byron, Truex, and Bell followed. Just three laps later, Larson spun off turn four, bringing out the caution again.

Everyone on the lead lap pitted again for fresh tires to make sure they could make it to the end of the Stage without issues.

With 15 laps to go in the Stage, Truex had taken over the top spot from his teammate Kyle Busch who ran second. Cody Ware(51) spun out with 11 laps to go causing a dilemma among crew chiefs as to whether to pit or not.

All the lead lap cars pitted for fresh rubber to make the sprint to the end of the Stage. When the green flag waved with seven laps to go it was Busch, Truex, Ryan Blaney(12), Daniel Suarez(99), and Bell out front. The top three drove away from the rest of the field while the battle for Stage points shuffled the top 10.

Stage Two Results

POS CAR DRIVER POINTS
1 18 Kyle Busch (P) 10
2 19 Martin Truex Jr. 9
3 12 Ryan Blaney (P)* 8
4 22 Joey Logano (P)* 7
5 24 William Byron (P) 6
6 20 Christopher Bell (P) 5
7 48 Alex Bowman (P) 4
8 99 Daniel Suarez (P) 3
9 43 Erik Jones 2
10 34 Michael McDowell* 1

*Ford Mustang Driver (P) Playoff Driver

The Final Stage

Kyle Busch maintained the lead to start the final Stage. Logano worked his way back up to second as Truex held down the third position. The unknown in the final Stage revolved around which teams would stop three times and which would make only two stops.

Green flag pit stops began with 100 laps to go. Logano gave up the second position to pit in what looks like a decision to go with the three-stop strategy. In the middle of the pit stop sequence, Kevin Harvick(4) developed an issue with his race car and it caught on fire. Harvick pulled the car to the bottom of the track and quickly exited through the driver’s window while track crews came to extinguish the blaze.

The extended caution allowed drivers that had not pitted to come in for service and fresh tires. Suarez and Chris Buescher(17) were flagged for being too fast on pit road and penalized for the infraction.

The race restarted with 83 laps to go with Busch, Truex, Hamlin, and Jones out front. Drivers that pitted before the caution restarted in 10th to 20th position after taking the wave around to get back on the lead lap. New names like Michael McDowell(34), Ty Gibbs(23), and Brad Keselowski(6) appeared in the top 10.

Dividing the remaining laps in half, drivers will have to go just over 40 laps to finish with just one more pit stop.

Truex moved to the lead for the second time as the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Truex, Busch, and Hamlin pulled away from Jones in fourth.

Green flag pit stops began with 50 laps to go as drivers could not stretch another 10 laps out of their tires. Only Hamlin remained on the track and the decision was costly as he lost considerable track position as he returned to the track in the 10th position. He was 15 seconds behind Truex, the leader.

After pit stops cycled through, Truex was back out front, Busch still ran second, and Tyler Reddick(8) took over the third spot. Jones remained in fourth.

Disaster struck Truex he lost power steering, likely because a fan belt came off. The car began to overheat indicating multiple belts failed and Truex was forced to come to pit road and out of the race.

On lap 339, Cody Ware slammed the wall and came to rest in the middle of the track. The resulting caution allowed drivers to pit for the final time for fresh rubber. Busch exited pit road in the lead. Erik Jones moved to the second spot with a quick stop for four tires. Reddick, Hamlin, Bell, and Logano followed.

While circling the track under caution Kyle Busch lost the engine in his car as smoke billowed out the exhaust.

The failure dropped him out of the race after leading six times for 155 laps. Erik Jones takes the green flag with 20 laps to go.

The Finish

Jones quickly moved out to a five-car lead as Hamlin and Reddick battled for second. Hamlin prevailed, but Jones was able to stabilize the advantage over Hamlin while running in clean air.

With 10 laps to go Jones held a 5.3-second lead over Hamlin. When Jones won in 2019 he was driving the #20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing. The last time the #43 car won at Darlington was 55 years ago to the day when Richard Petty piloted the iconic number to victory lane.

The white flag waved with Hamlin closing to three car lengths. But, Jones drove a solid final lap and took the checkered flag for his third career Cup Series win and the 200th for the #43 car.

Playoff Standings

Rank Driver Points Status Playoff Points
1 Joey Logano* 2065 +38 25
2 William Byron 2059 +32 15
3 Denny Hamlin 2057 +30 13
4 Christopher Bell 2055 +28 11
5 Tyler Reddick 2050 +23 12
6 Ryan Blaney* 2047 +20 13
7 Kyle Larson 2044 +17 19
8 Ross Chastain 2042 +15 20
9 Chase Elliott 2041 +14 40
10 Alex Bowman 2037 +10 6
11 Kyle Busch 2035 +8 11
12 Daniel Suarez 2029 +2 7
Round of 16 Cut Line
13 Austin Cindric* 2027 -2 6
14 Austin Dillon 2025 -4 5
15 Chase Briscoe* 2019 -10 9
16 Kevin Harvick* 2016 -13 12

*Ford Mustang Drivers

With the Erik Jones win, no playoff driver is locked into the next round. Chase Elliott used up the huge advantage he had to start the Round of 16 and now sits just 14 points above the cut line. Kyle Busch’s blow engine cost him a good points finish and he sits just eight points above the cutoff. Kevin Harvick’s fire leaves him in 16th position, 13 points behind the final advancement spot.

Results of the Cook Out Southern 500 from Darlington Raceway

POS CAR DRIVER BEHIND LAPS
1 43 Erik Jones 367
2 11 Denny Hamlin (P) 0.252 367
3 8 Tyler Reddick (P) 0.924 367
4 22 Joey Logano (P) 2.361 367
5 20 Christopher Bell (P) 2.751 367
6 34 Michael McDowell 3.965 367
7 6 Brad Keselowski 6.075 367
8 24 William Byron (P) 6.878 367
9 45 Bubba Wallace (P) 7.741 367
10 48 Alex Bowman (P) 8.360 367
11 10 Aric Almirola 9.682 367
12 5 Kyle Larson (P) 9.998 367
13 12 Ryan Blaney (P) 12.355 367
14 41 Cole Custer 12.908 367
15 23 Ty Gibbs 13.312 367
16 2 Austin Cindric (P) 22.792 367
17 3 Austin Dillon (P) 28.150 367
18 99 Daniel Suarez (P) 28.688 367
19 31 Justin Haley -1 366
20 1 Ross Chastain (P) -1 366
21 21 Harrison Burton -1 366
22 42 Ty Dillon -1 366
23 16 Daniel Hemric -2 365
24 7 Corey LaJoie -2 365
25 77 Landon Cassill -2 365
26 17 Chris Buescher -2 365
27 14 Chase Briscoe (P) -4 363
28 38 Todd Gilliland -4 363
29 78 BJ McLeod -6 361
30 18 Kyle Busch (P) -22 345
31 19 Martin Truex Jr. -31 336
32 51 Cody Ware -36 331
33 4 Kevin Harvick (P) -93 274
34 15 JJ Yeley -131 236
35 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -203 164
36 9 Chase Elliott (P) -254 113

(P) Playoff Drivers