By Rick Minter / Andrews McMeel Syndication
For much of the 2019 Monster Energy Cup Series season, Erik Jones has been the underperforming member of the Joe Gibbs Racing quartet, as his teammates — Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin — combined to win 12 of the first 24 races.
But in the wee hours of Sunday morning at Darlington Raceway, Jones stepped up in a big way, outrunning two fast Kyles, Busch and Larson, over the final 80 laps of the Southern 500 to get his first Cup win of the season and the second of his career.
Larson finished second, while Busch, who bounced off the wall and blew a tire in a desperate attempt to overtake Jones, still nursed his No. 18 Toyota to a third-place finish and claimed the regular season title and the 15 playoff points that come with it.
Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski completed the top five.
For Jones, who nearly won at Bristol Motor Speedway two weeks ago only to make a mistake and hit the wall just after taking the lead late in the race, the win seemed to ease the pressure he’d been feeling for much of the season.
“Is there anything more to say?” Jones said just after climbing from his car. “It’s been a lot of doubt and a lot of speculation [about the future], and I put my heart and soul into this and this race team, and this is my living and how I want to make a career and what I want to do.
“It doesn’t get any better. On my list, this race is really high, and it’s going to look … good to see my face on that trophy.”
Larson said Jones did a good job of wrestling the lead from him on the race’s final restart and made all the right moves to stay ahead of him and Busch.
“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. Worn-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 anything with him.”
Busch, who had to start the race from the rear due to an engine change but still led a race-high 118 laps and won Stage Two, said he was unable to recover from a slow pit stop on his next-to-last trip down pit road in which he entered in first place and exited in third.
“We kind of lost control of the race there on pit road when we came down the leader and then came out third, and I thought if we could just keep in touch with [Jones and Larson] and keep close to them, then we might be able to out-pit road them at the end of the race, and we did one of them but not the other one.”
Jones’ crew chief, Chris Gayle, said his 23-year-old, third-year-Cup driver raced like a veteran in the 500, which started four hours late due to a rain delay and ran before a sellout crowd of 47,000 fans.
“He was somewhat calm,” Gayle said, explaining that Jones often pushed too hard early in his career, but has learned better, as evidenced by his winning drive at Darlington. “I saw him not push too hard and get himself in trouble, work the lapped traffic and get through the lapped traffic really clean, those type of things that maybe he would have gotten himself in trouble for sure two years ago, but maybe a year ago depending on the situation.”
Jones said it was a relief to finally join his Gibbs teammates in the win column.
“It’s just a tough series,” he said. “We’re in the most challenging motorsports there are in the USA, and racing these guys every week is not an easy feat, and Kyle and my teammates are some of the best guys in the sport; not only Kyle, but Denny, Martin. They’re tough to beat, and they have the same stuff I have, and vice versa, I have the same stuff they have, but they have a wealth of experience on me.
“So I’m trying to do everything I can and apply everything I’ve learned in three years, and it took every ounce tonight; I was pedaling hard at the end, doing what I could, trying to get a gap and keep them behind me.”
But he said he was confident as the race wound down.
“I felt like I was really in control and really knew what I was doing,” he said. “There were a couple points down the backstretch it was like, ‘Well, why can’t we win it? There’s no reason we can’t, so just close it out and do it.’”
PHOTO CAPTION:Erik Jones celebrates his biggest career victory in the Southern 500, before a sellout crowd of 47,000 at Darlington Raceway.Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR