In a race that had more twists and turns than a Victorian melodrama, Erik Jones put the vaunted No. 43 Chevrolet back in victory lane for the first time since 2014.
In a remarkable run to the finish in the season’s first NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race, Jones held off Denny Hamlin in a 20-lap run to the finish to win the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway for the second time.
The Sunday night race took its toll on more than a handful of playoff drivers, as Jones became the first non-Playoff driver to win the first postseason event since NASCAR introduced the elimination format in 2014.
The victory was Jones’ first of the season, the third of his career, and the first for Petty GMS Racing since that organization was formed by a merger before the 2022 campaign. The win was No. 200 for the 43 car number, which NASCAR Hall of Famer and car owner Richard Petty drove to seven series championships.
“Richard hasn’t been to victory lane at Darlington probably since he last won here,” said Jones, referencing Petty’s 1967 victory in the Southern 500. “It’s just awesome. Just so proud of these guys, Petty GMS and (sponsor) Focus Packer Crew.
“We’ve been so close all year, and I didn’t think today was going to be the day. It was going to be a tough one to win, I knew, but no better fitting place. I love this track. I love this race. On that trophy twice, man. I was pumped to be on it once, but to have it on there twice — pretty cool.”
The victory was the first in the Cup Series for crew chief Dave Elenz. Jones won his first Southern 500 in 2019, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing but was released after the 2020 season in favor of Christopher Bell. On Sunday night, Jones held off a former teammate in Hamlin, who ran out of time in his pursuit of Jones and finished in the runner-up spot, 0.252s behind the race winner.
“Well, I mean, I never lost any belief in myself through any of it,” Jones said. “I knew I could still do it, and I just knew we needed to grow the program to do it, and we have. We’ve brought on a lot of great people in the last year. Dave Elenz called a great race today. His first Cup win — that’s pretty cool for him.
“I’m excited, man. We’ve been talking about this day a long time, and it is redemption in a lot of ways. Very fitting that it’s here at this race again. I felt like this was the race that saved my job the first time around, and coming back here with this win, I guess it puts you back on the map.”
Tyler Reddick ran third, followed by pole winner Joey Logano, who vaulted to the top of the Playoff standings, six points clear of second-place William Byron, who finished eighth on Sunday.
Jones got his chance at the front of the field when Kyle Busch, who had led a race-high 155 laps, suffered a blown engine as he prepared for the final restart. Busch had inherited the top spot when his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr., suffered a similar failure on lap 333 of 367.
But those retirements barely scratched the surface of the drama that unfolded throughout the race. Disaster befell Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick. Kyle Larson and his team accomplished an amazing salvage job.
And the Playoff picture remained just as uncertain as it had been entering the grueling 500-mile contest at the Lady in Black.
After a catastrophic Playoff opener, Elliott, the regular-season champion, is the series leader no more.
Elliott spun sideways in Turn 2 on lap 113 — two laps short of the end of Stage 1 — cracked the back of his No. 9 Chevrolet and slid down the track into the path of Chase Briscoe, who couldn’t avoid the collision.
Elliott nursed his car to pit road where his team tried in vain to repair the damage, but with the right rear toe link and upper and lower control arms broken, the task was hopeless. The 10-minute time allotment under NASCAR’s damaged vehicle policy ran out, and Elliott retired from the race in last place (36th).
The 15-point advantage Elliott carried into the Playoffs was gone. Elliott scored the minimum one point for his efforts at Darlington and fell to ninth in the Playoff standings, 14 points ahead of 16th-place finisher Austin Cindric in 13th.
“I just hit the wall in [Turns] 1 and 2 and broke something in the right-rear,” Elliott said succinctly. And how would he approach the next Playoff race at Kansas Speedway? “A lot better than we did today.”
A solid run by 2014 series champion Harvick went up in flames on lap 275. As he lost speed while running ninth, Harvick radioed to his crew, “My rocker panel’s on fire.”
Kevin Harvick's car bursts into flames! #NASCARPlayoffs
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 5, 2022
Flames erupted on both sides of the car. Harvick parked the No. 4 Ford on the apron and scrambled from his smoke-filled cockpit. Harvick exited the race in 33rd place and dropped to the bottom rung of the Playoff standings, 13 points below the current cut line.
Larson, the reigning series champion, brought his car to pit road on lap 79, sensing his engine was about to expire. He lost three laps as his team worked under the hood of the No. 5 but returned to the track and the “gremlins” disappeared after a few laps.
Using wave-arounds and his status as beneficiary under caution to advantage, Larson regained the lead lap and finished 12th, averting a major hit in the standings.