Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series: Erik Jones Performs Under Pressure
Erik Jones spent 2016 as Toyota’s hottest NASCAR prospect in the sport’s lower levels. He moved up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017, winning Rookie of the Year while knocking 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth out of a ride. 2018 was looked at as a building year in the No. 20, winning his first career Cup race at Daytona International Speedway and making a playoff appearance.
2019? He’s spent the better part of the year fighting for his professional life.
That’s how quickly fortunes can change in stock car racing these days, fresh young talent and limited opportunities upping the pressure to perform. Suddenly, Christopher Bell is Toyota’s fresh NASCAR prospect, beating up lower-level competition and looking for a place to run in Cup. Jones, who for months insisted he’s at Joe Gibbs Racing for the long haul, still sat without a contract extension mid-summer when he dropped out of the top 16 in points. 18th in the standings after Daytona, a postseason bid was in question when his JGR teammates were lighting up victory lane each week. Unemployment or a demotion looked like a real possibility for a driver who’s just 23 years old.
But that’s when Jones stepped up to the plate. Four top-five finishes locked up a second straight trip to the playoffs; news broke a contract extension was imminent. Then, the finishing touches on an improbable comeback came in Sunday’s (Sept. 1) NASCAR crown jewel, Darlington Raceway’s Southern 500. His second career win all but assured he’ll run a Toyota at JGR in 2020.
It was a bravado performance for Jones at what’s considered the toughest track on the circuit to drive on. Jones survived a grueling night that included a rain delay of over three hours, a race that didn’t end until almost 2:00 a.m. ET. He spent the last stage fighting off a hungry Kyle Larson and mentor Kyle Busch. Lap after lap after the final green-flag pit stops, Busch stalked Jones with a faster car. It seemed eerily reminiscent of Matt DiBenedetto’s Bristol drive that wound up falling just short two weeks earlier.
But Jones, in his late-race push, found a way to keep the Cinderella slipper from slipping off. Holding his ground and changing lines, he stopped Busch’s forward momentum and used lapped traffic effectively. That left Busch slamming the outside wall with two laps to go, running out of steam while Jones earned the biggest trophy of his racing career.
“I’m wore out, mentally, physically, more mentally than anything,” Jones said in victory lane. “I was able to hold him off.”
And, as a result, Jones flipped the narrative. He’s not only a postseason lock but, dare we say, a dark horse title contender? JGR certainly has the speed; their other three drivers have won a dozen races. It won’t take much for that speed to translate to a guy people thought would be right up there with them entering the 2019 season.
“Is there anything more to say?” said Jones about the drama surrounding his future. “There’s been a lot of doubt, a lot fo speculation. I put my heart and soul into this race team. This is my living, my career and what I want to do. It’s going to look damned good to see my face on that trophy.”
It’ll be damned good to see his signature on that contract extension, too, I’m sure. And make no mistake; Jones earned the right to sign it. –Tom Bowles
Xfinity Series: Cole Custer is the Xfinity Series Championship Favorite
For the past two years, fans and media alike have crowned Christopher Bell as the next big thing. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very good. But he’s not the best in the Xfinity Series at tracks where the tires wear a tremendous amount throughout a fuel run.
On Saturday (Aug. 31) at Darlington Raceway, Cole Custer picked up his third win of the season on tracks that wear tires quicker than a nail going through wood. Oh yeah, there’s only been four of those races, granted, and Bell did win the first one of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Custer bested Kyle Busch at Auto Club Speedway in mid-March en route to his first victory of 2019. A few months back at Chicagoland Speedway, he beat out Joey Logano in dominating fashion, so much so that the defending Cup champion admitted Custer’s the real deal (as he also did with Bell and Tyler Reddick).
Then, there was Darlington, where Custer had a top-five car throughout the day and battled with Denny Hamlin over the final run. Ultimately, the No. 00 Ford took the checkered flag in second, but when the No. 18 failed post-race inspection for being too low in the left-front and too high in the right-rear, Custer was awarded the victory.
The victory is Custer’s sixth of the season, tying Bell for the series lead. Reddick is next in line at four.
With the number of playoff points each driver has, it will be hard for any of them to miss the cutline for Homestead in two months. Paging a friend, who’s dominated the past two races in South Florida, though coming up short in the championship chase to Reddick last year? Custer. – Dustin Albino
ARCA Menards Series Christian Eckes Continues Stride Toward Championship
In a weekend filled with everything under the sun, including Ken Schrader becoming the oldest pole-sitter in ARCA Menards Series history, Christian Eckes pushed his way closer to the top of the points standings. It was Eckes’ first victory since Pocono in July and tied his season-high third win.
“I don’t know if you can call me a dirt track expert just yet,” Eckes said. “I tried to drive Springfield and DuQuoin like dirt tracks last year and burned everything off the car I could. We tried some new things here tonight and I drove the track more like a pavement track and it really paid off.”
Eckes had to hold off defending DuQuoin winner Logan Seavey for the victory. Seavey has been a dirt king in racing including having a solid run at Eldora last year with Kyle Busch Motorsports.
“It stinks coming back here and finishing second,” Seavey explained. “We worked our way to the front and caught a good break in traffic to get past Michael but we didn’t quite have enough to close in on Christian.”
Eckes now has a 70-point gap to knock off as the series heads to Salem, Indiana. The series heads to Salem Speedway next for the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers Fall Classic 200 on Sept. 14. The race will be broadcast live on MavTV at 7:15 p.m. ET.
Formula 1: Charles Leclerc Finally Gets His First F1 Win on a Tragic Weekend
We went to Spa expecting a strong performance from Ferrari as it had a much-publicized straight-line speed advantage with a slow speed corner disadvantage. Things were looking strong for Ferrari after scoring a front-row lockout in qualifying on Saturday.
However, the weekend of optimism turned into tragedy as the young French Formula 2 driver, Antoine Hubert, driving for BWT Arden and a development driver for Renault lost his life in a scary accident exiting Radillion. Just when we thought the creation of the halo made these race crafts perfectly safe we see a terrible crash that took the life of a driver with such a bright future.
But we raced, pushing the limit to go faster and compete on track as all drivers who we have lost on the circuit would want us to in Spa. A touching tribute and moment of silence featuring the family of Antoine Hubert kicked off the racing festivities in Belgium. In the end, the heavens were shining down on Charles Leclerc, a great friend of Hubert as the young Ferrari driver from Monaco scored his first career Formula 1 win and first win for Ferrari in 2019.
Leclerc held down the charge of Lewis Hamilton in the closing laps with a cool approach, not allowing the gremlins of his previous lost wins to get him to score a win in muted celebration for the late Hubert.
It says a lot about the demeanor of Leclerc, rising up in midst of tragedy and loss. We all know the story of his godfather Jules Bianchi passing away in 2014 in a race in Suzuka, only for Leclerc to then earn his way up the ranks in the Ferrari organization to eventually get his first win in red today. But also in 2017, racing for F2 Prema Motorsport in Baku, Leclerc lost his father earlier in the week but rose to the occasion to get the victory in the feature race.
This young man has been through so much in his life and has only risen to the occasion. While it was a great performance by Leclerc to get his first win, this weekend in F1 is dedicated to Antoine Hubert. Like Bianchi, we will never know what his potential could have led to, but the way he touched so many people’s lives both in and out of the racing community will always be remembered. Hubert is a warrior of those with the racing gene, itching to find each tenth of a second to be faster and faster to beat the competition. He passed doing what he loved and he will be missed. R.I.P Antoine Hubert. – Drew Mongiello
NTT IndyCar Series: Will Power Wins Race, Josef Newgarden Extends Point Lead
The Grand Prix of Portland looked to be all set for Chip Ganassi Racing veteran Scott Dixon to run away with the checkered flag until a battery issue knocked out the multi-time champion from title contention.
That moved Team Penske veteran Will Power into the lead, and he cruised the rest of the way to earn his fifth podium of the 2019 season and his second win in the past three races.
Power’s teammate Josef Newgarden managed to extend his points lead over fellow Penske driver Simon Pagenaud and Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. Newgarden narrowly evaded a colossal six-car wreck in the first turn on the opening lap, and then methodically moved up the running order as cars fell out, quietly allowing other drivers to pass when in doubt and keeping his car in one piece, despite encountering some interference from Marco Andretti and Rossi’s alliance teammate Colton Herta.
Newgarden now leads Rossi by 41 points heading into the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sunday, September 22, which pays double points. – Wesley Coburn
Sports Cars: IDEC Sport Takes First ELMS Victory At Silverstone
Saturday saw the European Le Mans Series return to action in their own four-hour race on the undercard of the WEC season opener. It looked like G-Drive Racing was going to take another victory. However, Jean-Eric Vergne was forced to pit for a splash of fuel with four laps down. That allowed the IDEC Sport ORECA 07-Gibson shared by Memo Rojas, Paul Lafargue and Paul-Loup Chatin to take their first-ever victory.
The crash that claimed the life of Anthoine Hubert at Spa occurred during the race. The ELMS race had a couple of bad incidents as well. Mike Guasch crashed out after contact from Panis Barthez Competition’s Konstantin Tereschenko sent him unprotected concrete wall in the Maggotts-Becketts complex.
In the crash, Guasch suffered a broken rib. He went to the hospital for a checkup, but has since been released. Shortly after a restart, COOL Racing’s Alexandre Coigny spun after hitting an LMP3 car. He was then hit by Duqueine Engineering’s Nicolas Jamin.
LMP3 was won by Eurointernational’s Mikkel Jensen and Jens Petersen under unusual circumstances. They won on the track, then were given a 30-second penalty for ignoring a black flag with the orange disc (the “meatball”). That gave the win to Inter Europol Competition. Then, they were given a 103-second penalty for a drive-time violation, which gave the win back to Eurointernational. The GTE class was won by Proton Competition’s Thomas Preining, Gianluca Girauldi and Ricardo Sanchez. – Phil Allaway