The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway will live on as a triumph moment tinged with a sense of what could have been for Erik Jones and Petty GMS Motorsports.
Jones, crew chief Dave Elenz and the No. 43 team won their first race on Sunday night. It was the second for Jones in the prestigious event but the first for Elenz as a Cup Series crew chief and for Maury Gallagher and his group that invested in Richard Petty’s team to go NASCAR Cup Series racing.
But even more, they stole some attention from the championship fight as it was the first time a non-playoff contending team had won the opening round of the postseason. It had never been done in the playoffs, dating back to when NASCAR went to a postseason format in 2004.
“It’s definitely cool that we’re the first ones to do it, but I think the first thing Erik said to me is, ‘Don’t you wish we won Daytona?’” said Elenz.
Had Jones won at Daytona, he would have been in the playoffs. And then the Darlington win would have advanced him to the Round of 12.
But Jones, who did contend at Daytona and led 22 laps, didn’t make it to the finish. Jones was one of many caught in the carnage, and the expired DVP clock forced him to exit the race in the closing laps with a 17th-place finish.
“Very special that we’ve done it [at Darlington], but definitely it’s so close to being our goal,” Elenz said. “It’s special, but there’s a little bit more there, too.”
Jones, sitting next to his crew chief as he tried to express the bittersweet feeling, nodded in approval.
“It’s awesome to win here, but at the same time, yeah, you do look at it like that a little bit,” Jones said. “It’s hard to get attention in the playoffs when you’re not a playoff guy. What better way to do it than that? It feels good. I feel like coming up, we’ve got more good tracks. I wouldn’t say this is the only race that we have a shot at.
“I feel like we can win more races, and sometimes all it takes is one. I think we’ve gained a lot in the last six months with this race car and learned a lot, and the whole group has done a really good job. It’s a big testament to the people when you can win a playoff race like that. There’s some deflating after Daytona when you don’t achieve your goal there, and we had a great car. Things just didn’t work out.
“I think it’s a testament to the group. Push just as hard and bring a good piece here.”
It’s been a few years since Jones has been in the playoffs. It was 2019 when he last qualified for the postseason and ironically, it was through a win in the Southern 500. At the time, Darlington was the second-to-last race in the regular season.
His most recent triumph at the tough, old track was only the third career win for Jones at the Cup Series level. All three have come in big races: the 2018 summer Daytona race (first win and earned playoff spot) and two Southern 500 wins.
“It’s the hardest race,” Joey Logano said Sunday night after seeing so many playoff drivers have problems. “Erik should be proud of himself because it’s a tough one, for sure.”
Logano then asked if it was the second time Jones had won it. When he was told it was, Logano said, “Sheesh.”
Darlington fits Jones, and it should not have been a surprise to see him take down the title contenders. Jones has a 10.7 average finish at Darlington between the spring races and the Southern 500. But when looking at the numbers just for the Southern 500, they are nothing short of impressive.
Fifth, eighth, win, fourth, 32nd, win.
“[I] just love this place, the racing here,” Jones said. “I love this race specifically. When we started coming here in the spring, I run OK in the spring race, feel like we’re always a top-10 car, but I feel like this is the race I always have circled, from the length of it to the transition from day to night, just every bit of it I love.”
Jones was in position and ready to pounce when given the opportunity, which came when his pit crew got him off pit road second on the final round of pit stops. Then when Kyle Busch gave up the lead because his engine expired under that same caution. Jones took the lead and never looked back.
Afterward, Jones called it the calmest he’s ever been running for a win. Maybe it was because it was Darlington, he wasn’t thinking about a championship, or he’d already done it there. Whatever it was, Jones put his name in the record books in more than one at Darlington.
“I wish I knew,” Jones said of why he was so calm. “I’d do it every time. To be honest, I hadn’t been in a position to win a race in a while, number one. But I went and ran some late model races this year, grabbed a win at [Indianapolis] against William Byron, and it kind of got me back in the mindset like, all right, got to get in the mindset of winning these races again.
“I went through a year where we were not in contention to win. I went to Auto Club earlier this year with a winning car and didn’t win the race, and a lot of it was just because I was rusty. I was sloppy on restarts and car placement and stuff that I know I can be better at, and I was like, man, I’ve just got to get back in that groove.
“But some of it’s just having been there. I look back toward the other Southern 500 I won here, and that was probably harder as a driver, to be honest, because I ran out what felt like the entire last segment. We went through pit stops, racing with those guys, racing with Kyle [Busch] at the end for what felt like 50 laps.
“This one, I’m like, all I’ve got to do is 20. If I can get clear, just run 20 perfect laps and it’s all mine. I guess that’s why I felt so good about it.”