Erik Jones salvaged his season and, quite possibly, his career with Joe Gibbs Racing when he took home the checkered flag in the rain soaked Bojangles Southern 500. Racing in his 100th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, Jones had to wait an extra four hours for the opportunity to capture his second career victory, and his first win at Darlington Raceway.
“Well, it’s pretty special, my 100th start. I guess sometimes funny things happen, right, and 100th start we’re in victory lane… so it’s pretty special,” Jones said. “It’s been a big year of speculation and maybe moving around and I don’t think there’s much more to say than this right here, so it’s pretty good.”
Jones fought off teammate Kyle Busch over the final laps of the race, with Busch coming within one car length on the third to last lap before scraping the wall and blowing a tire in the process. Busch held on for a third-place finish which locked him in as the Monster Energy Series regular season champion, a prize that awards a fifteen-point bonus that carries through each round of the playoffs.
“"I mean, it's huge," Busch said. "You know? With however well you can run through the whole beginning part of the season, those points, they help you through every round because every round you get that reset. You get to carry those points all the way through."
With one race left in the regular season, the implications for the playoffs after the 500-mile, 367 lap affair were huge with four drivers in addition to Jones, who is guaranteed a spot with the win, secured a spot in the postseason field of 16 cars while three drivers find themselves battling for the final two spots.
Kyle Larson, who finished second, William Byron, Aric Almirola and Ryan Blaney all scored enough points on the day to join the current field of nine winners, while Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez hold onto the last two places.
Ryan Newman is currently tied with Suarez in points for the final slot, but Suarez holds the tiebreak so if nothing changes after Indianapolis next week he gets ahead of Newman.
Seven time Monster Energy Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who is the only driver to have made the playoffs in every year of his career, a streak that stands at sixteen, is sitting behind Newman in the standings and 18 points off the bubble and will most likely need a win to keep the streak alive.
“We are running out of days, and if we miss it, it’s just going to be by a few I believe,” Johnson said. “If I look back over the first half of the season, I see a lot of races where we gave away a few points. So, it’s kind of unfair to put all the pressure on one race in Indy. But it is what it is, and we are going to go there to win a race.”
The Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard in Indianapolis on Sunday, Sept. 7 is not only the last opportunity for Johnson, it may be his best chance as Hendricks Motorsports is the most successful overall team in the 400, with ten total poles and five wins since the race began in 1994.