DARLINGTON, S.C.—After midnight, Erik Jones let it all hang out at Darlington Raceway.
Jones held off his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch—and then Kyle Larson—to win his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup win in the wee hours of Monday morning.
The 24-year-old joined an elite group of just three fellow drivers—Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon and Busch—as the only racers under 25 to win at the Track Too Tough to Tame.
“It's going to feel pretty special,” Jones said of adding his name to the Southern 500 trophy. “There's a lot of great names on there, and this is one—this race for me has always held a special place. When you think of NASCAR, for myself, I think of Darlington and this tough place.
“I'm drained, I'm mentally drained, I'm physically drained. I just ‑ man, I'm so happy right now to be here and can't wait to celebrate with these guys, get back home and celebrate with my friends. It's going to be a lot of fun.”
Larson, Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Paul Menard and Austin Dillon rounded out the top 10.
Following a four-hour delay for rain, William Byron led the field to green but Keselowski shot to the point. Kurt Busch took the lead 19 laps later and held serve as NASCAR called a competition caution on Lap 35.
Chase Elliott grabbed the lead out of the pits following the second caution on Lap 68 when Garrett Smithley spun after contact with David Ragan on the backstretch. Kurt Busch returned to the lead on Lap 79 and ran to the Stage 1 win.
Kyle Larson took the lead out of the pits on Lap 104. He led 39 laps before Daniel Suarez sent Ryan Newman into the spin cycle in Turn 2. Newman dropped from 19th to 30th. Kurt Busch once again gained the lead on Lap 143. He led 17 laps prior to Corey LaJoie igniting Caution 5 with a spin out of Turn 2.
Kyle Busch, who started from the rear of the field after changing engines, took the lead out of the pits with his brother alongside. However, Bowyer executed a solid restart and gained two positions. As Kurt Busch battled to regain second, the No. 18 Toyota sailed off to a four-second lead. The No. 1 Chevy passed Bowyer with 13 circuits remaining in the second segment—but didn’t have enough time to challenge for the stage win.
With two laps remaining in the stage, BJ McLeod and Matt Tifft made contact in Turn 1 to trigger the sixth caution on Lap 198. Kyle Busch held on to win Stage 2—his 10th stage win of the season. Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Jones, Larson, Bowyer, Johnson, Byron, Keselowski and Kevin Harvick completed the top 10.
Kyle Busch retained the lead out of the pits but the No.1 Chevy dropped to seventh after pitting. The No. 18 Toyota quickly shot out to the lead and held his position despite pitting during green flag stops on Lap 257. Jones, Larson, Hamlin, Byron, Johnson, Kurt Busch, Bowman and Keselowski cycled out to the top 10.
As the leaders came through Turns 3 and 4 on Lap 275, Daniel Hemric cut a tire and spun sideways into David Ragan and collected Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Byron and Johnson.
Although Johnson picked up points after the first two stages, he left Darlington 18 points out of 16th—the final transfer spot.
“I had at least 15 years with a lot of luck on my side, 7 years of championships and having 2 or 3 bad ones is just part of it,” Johnson said. “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 that accident took place in turn three and I just had nowhere to go.”
Larson took the lead out of the pits but was passed by Jones on Lap 283.
“Eric did a good job on that last restart to get by me and I was better than him throughout that run, but I could never do anything with him just because the dirty air was really bad,” said Larson, who clinched a Playoff berth on Monday. “It’s a worn-out surface and the groove was already narrow and it was extra difficult. I feel like both the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) and I were a little bit better than he was at the end, but I couldn’t do nothing with him.
“So, that part of it was frustrating. But still, it was good to have a good run. It was a good day for our Clover Chip Ganassi Racing team. So, we led some laps and was able to challenge a little bit there at the end. I wish we could have got it done, but to come away with a Top 3 at the Southern 500 is not too bad.”
Larson trailed Jones by a half-second with 60 laps to decide the contest followed by Kyle Busch, Bowyer and Harvick. Jones pitted after Lap 320, but cycled back to the lead five laps later. But the No. 18 Toyota loomed large in Jones rearview mirror.
Kyle Busch, closed to within six-car lengths behind his teammate with 10 laps remaining, but his car hit the wall multiple times in the closing circuits.
“When he started to inch out a little bit, 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,” Busch said. “I hit the wall with about four to go and then I hit it again with three to go, and that was ‑‑ it killed it that time.
“Luckily we were able to salvage a third, just dragging the fence for the last two laps.”
Busch, who led a race-high 118 laps, also clinched the regular season title. He left Darlington with a 64-point lead over Joey Logano.
Jones became the fourth JGR to celebrate in Victory Lane this season. The win secured him a spot in the Playoffs.
“Well, it was just a lot of pressure,” said Jones, who crossed the start-finish line just before 2 a.m. “Kyle (Busch) is a great race car driver. I’ve raced him a lot and you obviously want to beat him to win, right? I know our first win at Daytona was great, but man, this one feels good. Just getting back to victory lane, showing we can do this continuously. Man, it was a lot of work.”
“I’m mentally drained, I’m physically drained. I knew (Busch) was running the wall and I knew I was going to have to go up there and try to hold him off. It took everything I had to do it. I was pedaling hard. Fortunately, he got into the wall a couple of times. He gave me a little breathing room for the last two laps. That felt good, but awesome to come home with this win.”