Erik Jones wins Southern 500 in 100th Cup start

by Justin Nguyen

The Monster Energy Cup Series‘ annual Labor Day trip to Darlington Speedway for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 is a tradition unlike any other in NASCAR. In an nontraditional twist, however, fans and drivers had to wait before kicking things off as rain plagued the track. As the previously Sunday night race loomed into the early Monday morning, Erik Jones and Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Kyle Busch battled it out. By the end, Jones was victorious.

To commemorate the Labor Day weekend, many teams in both the Cup and Xfinity Series ran special liveries. For instance, Jones, who was running his 100th career Cup race, threw back to his late model when he began his racing career. Pole-sitter William Byron sported a paint scheme akin to 1990 film character Cole Trickle‘s car from Days of Thunder, while fellow front-row qualifier Brad Keselowski paid tribute to Rusty Wallace‘s 1996 Southern 500 vehicle.

Five drivers went to the rear for various reasons: Aric Almirola, driving a throwback to Stewart-Haas Racing owner Tony Stewart‘s 2002 car, switched to a backup after hitting the wall in final practice; Busch, in a Bobby Hillin Jr. 1990 throwback, changed his engine and various other components; Reed Sorenson, driving a SiriusXM anniversary car, had a transmission change; Joe Nemechek, running his first Cup race since 2015, and B.J. McLeod, in a Stroker Ace tribute, had unapproved adjustments.

Stage #1

After a four-hour delay due to rain, the race began at 10 PM Eastern. Keselowski quickly took the lead from Byron and would hold the position for the first 18 laps. At the back, Busch began his charge and was threatening the top twenty after just ten laps.

Kurt Busch became the leader on lap 19, leaving Byron to battle with Keselowski for second. Shortly before the lap 35 competition yellow, the pole-sitter took the position away.

Byron won the race off pit road to lead the field back to green on lap 42, but a strong restart by Busch enabled him to pull ahead.

On lap 68, Garrett Smithley spun on the backstretch for the first incident-related caution of the day. After pit stops, Chase Elliott became the leader when the race resumed on lap 73.

Elliott kept Busch at bay for five laps before losing the top spot and beginning a downslide that dropped him out of the top five. Jimmie Johnson would move up to second as Busch took the stage win on lap 100.

Kyle Larson finished third, followed by Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Elliott, Keselowski, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., and Erik Jones. With his runner-up finish, Johnson scored nine stage points to boost his playoff hopes.

Stage #2

The Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Larson and Kurt Busch comprised the front row for the start of Stage #2.

As Larson led, Johnson and Kyle Busch fought for third as Elliott and Logano made contact dueling for seventh. As Elliott sank out of the top ten, Logano expressed his anger over the radio:

On lap 141, Ryan Newman and Daniel Suárez, both racing for playoff spots, collided in turn two, spending the former into a spin. For the restart five laps later, the Busch brothers held the top two spots.

Another caution occurred on lap 158 when Newman slid into Corey LaJoie, who spun. The Busches remained the leaders for the restart, though Clint Bowyer took second from Kurt shortly after the restart. On lap 175, Logano pitted when his right-rear tyre went down, causing him to fall behind two laps. Truex also pitted seven laps later for a loose wheel.

As Kyle Busch continued to lead, Kurt and Bowyer battled for second, with the former winning out. Bowyer and Johnson surrendered their positions to Hamlin on the outside on lap 195, followed by bumping each other, which Jones capitalised on to take fourth.

With two laps before the green-checkered flag, McLeod hit the turn two wall, ending the stage under caution. Receiving stage points were the Busch brothers Kyle and Kurt, Hamlin, Jones, Larson, Bowyer, Johnson, Byron, Keselowski, and Kevin Harvick.

Stage #3

Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Kyle Busch led the grid to the start of the final stage on lap 206 with JGR team-mates Jones and Hamlin in tow.

On lap 251, Keselowski opened green-flag pit stops after missing pit road two laps prior. As the field pitted, Busch waited until lap 259 to do so, followed by Hamlin. By the completion of the pit cycle on lap 262, Busch led Jones and Keselowski.

On lap 275, Daniel Hemric cut a tyre while racing Newman, sending him into Hamlin and Johnson. Michael McDowell was clipped by the wrecking Hamlin and shot into the outside wall, destroying his #34’s rear end, while Byron and Kurt Busch also sustained damage. Hamlin was forced to pit thrice to repair damage.

“Well that stinks,” McDowell posted on Twitter. “Wrong place Wrong time, 2 races in a row. Hate it for my @Team_FRM [Front Row Motorsports] guys we were having a decent night. Still a lot of racing left and we have some good tracks coming up.”

After pit stops, Larson and Jones paced the field to the green flag on lap 282. During a frenetic restart, Jones cleared Larson for the lead.

As the race entered the 300-lap mark, David Ragan spun as he tried to pit, though no caution was called.

On lap 321, the next green-flag pit cycle opened, with Jones and the other front-runners doing so a lap later. This shuffled Kurt Busch and Johnson into the top spot as Jones and Kyle Busch battled for what would become the lead once the #1 and #48 pit. Johnson hit pit road on lap 328 to end the wave of stops.

Although Jones took back the lead, his advantage over Busch diminished after having to avoid Darrell Wallace Jr. who was returning to the track after pitting. On lap 348, Alex Bowman hit the wall and was forced to pit for repairs.

As the laps counted down, Jones expanded his margin over his team-mate. Once the lap counter reached single digits, Busch narrowed the gap but scraped the wall with three laps to go, followed by hitting it again a lap later. Jones took advantage to pull away for his first win of 2019 and his second career Cup win in his 100th race.

Larson finished second, followed by Busch, Harvick, and Keselowski. Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Paul Menard, and Austin Dillon rounded out the top ten.

“I’m wore out mentally and physically,” Jones said in a post-race interview with NBCSN. “Kyle was really running hard and he’s one of the best guys out there. […] Just glad to hold him off and finally get to Victory Lane.”

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