The Headline(s): “When I met you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master.” Erik Jones may not have the stature of Darth Vader in Cup racing, but on this Sunday night, he bested mentor Kyle Busch in a crown jewel race, forcing the No. 18 into a late-race mistake that allowed Jones to win the Southern 500, his first Cup win of 2019 and his second career victory.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 2, 2019
Jones’ victory means that all four Joe Gibbs Racing teams have won in 2019, giving the organization 13 victories in 25 Cup races run this season. While Jones was all but locked into the playoffs on points, the battle for the bubble will go to Indianapolis. Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez both capitalized on an eventful night for Ryan Newman, with the Stewart-Haas Racing teammates both leaving in the top 16 heading into the final race of the regular season.
How It Happened
Defending Southern 500 winner Keselowski bested William Byron on the first lap and proceeded to lead until lap 20 when Kurt Busch cleared the No. 2. Busch led until a competition yellow flew on lap 35 to allow teams to check tire wear. Holding the lead through pit stops, Busch continued to pace the field until the first incident caution flew on lap 68 when Garrett Smithley spun on the backstretch.
Though Chase Elliott won the race off pit road and led the field to green on a lap 73 restart, Kurt Busch retook the top spot on lap 79 and led the rest of the first stage, scoring his third stage win of the season. Of note, Jimmie Johnson finished second and scored nine stage points in stage one.
The ensuing pit stops handed the lead to Larson, who held it until Newman brought out the yellow on lap 140 when he spun while racing hard with Suarez (there was controversy as to whether Suarez actually made contact with Newman’s Ford). Kurt Busch retook the lead on pit road after the first of what turned out to be several rough pit stops for Larson’s crew and held off a strong charge from brother Kyle on the lap 146 restart. The No. 1 car stayed out front until lap 158, when Corey LaJoie spun with a flat tire after contact with Newman.
Kyle Busch’s crew got the No. 18 out front for the lap 163 restart, where Rowdy remained until a lap 198 caution when B.J. McLeod hit the turn 2 wall after contact with Matt Tifft. Stage two ended under yellow with Kyle Busch out front, his 10th stage win of the year.
Rowdy ran away from the field after a lap 206 restart, losing the top spot only briefly during a cycle of green-flag pit stops. What looked like a runaway for the No. 18 team changed when the Big One of Darlington struck on lap 276, taking contenders Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Byron all out of contention.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 2, 2019
Despite a terrible stretch of stops, Larson’s crew delivered under the yellow flag and put the No. 42 back out front for the race’s final restart on lap 282. The lead was short-lived, however, as an intense back-and-forth with Jones saw the No. 20 take the lead on lap 283. Though Jones lost the lead during green-flag stops midway through the final run, he took it for good on lap 327. Kyle Busch closed to within a few car lengths of the No. 20 inside of 10 laps to go, but a strong run through turn 4 on lap 362 saw Jones outrun the No. 18 despite earning a Darlington stripe. One lap later, Kyle Busch overdrove turn 2 and slapped the wall, crippling his machine and allowing Jones to pull away for the win.
Why Should You Care? It’s the freaking Southern 500 over Labor Day. And the racing actually lived up to the history of the event and the pomp of Throwback Weekend.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
With as much time as Jones has spent on the hot seat in 2019, it’s easy to forget that he owes all his time as a Toyota driver, including his time as a Cup driver at JGR, to a clutch performance where he bested Kyle Busch to win the Snowball Derby. That Jones duplicated that effort in a crown jewel Cup race over a long green-flag run to lock himself into the playoffs and continue a summer hot streak that Tony Stewart made the No. 20 team famous for is every bit as big a triumph as this sentence is long. Powerhouse JGR now has four loaded guns heading into the playoffs.
As if there was any doubt that Kyle Busch would drive from the back of the field to the front. Rowdy fell short this Sunday and, it could be argued, made an uncommon mistake in the closing laps when he pounded the wall trying to catch his teammate, but finishing third and locking up the regular season championship makes the No. 18 the odds on title favorite heading into the playoff stretch.
Despite an inconsistent effort on pit road, Larson’s runner-up finish was his best of the 2019 season on a stellar overall evening for the Chip Ganassi Racing organization. Here’s hoping the team’s NASCAR efforts takes the sting out of a disastrous Portland Grand Prix for Scott Dixon.
Keselowski didn’t defend his Southern 500 crown, but after dropping like an anchor on the long run at the end of the first stage, to see the No. 2 car finish in the top five at race’s end despite missing pit road under green on lap 249 marked the first time the team has scored consecutive top fives since Martinsville in March. Momentum for this team could be timely; they’re the defending winners of both the Brickyard and fall Las Vegas races.
Despite a very slow start to the evening, SHR on the whole cashed in at Darlington. Harvick finished fourth despite battling an early electrical issue. Bowyer and Suarez both scored top-15 finishes that have them in the playoff field heading to Indianapolis. And though finishing 17th is hardly stellar, it snapped a streak of consecutive finishes outside the top 25 for Aric Almirola, who barring a major disaster at Indy will point his way into the playoffs.
Finishing eighth marks three top 10s in four races for Matt DiBenedetto, who has to have Christopher Bell salivating to take over the Leavine Family Racing No. 95 next year. Paul Menard scored his first top 10 finish since Richmond in April. Chris Buescher extended his top 20 streak to 14 consecutive races.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
While SHR was the rebound story of the night, Hendrick Motorsports went the exact opposite direction after Byron won the pole and Johnson was a dominant force in the first stage. Byron, Elliott and Johnson all collected damage in the lap 276 wreck, relegating them to finishes outside the top 15. Those results were especially damaging for Johnson, who despite scoring points in both stages left Darlington trailing both Newman and Suarez by 18 points for the final playoff spot.
As for the fourth HMS car, Alex Bowman came out of nowhere in the second half of the event and was a top 10 fixture until lap 347, when he slapped the wall in turn 4 and was forced to pit road under green. The 18th-place finish for the No. 88 leaves the team with only one top 10 finish since its win at Chicagoland in June.
LaJoie and his competitors took the Crunch paint scheme a little too literally; Newman made contact with his No. 32 that led to a spin on lap 158, while LaJoie made contact with Hamlin that spun the No. 11 into its pit box under yellow following the lap 276 Big One. His 36th-place finish was his worst since the June Pocono race.
Newman was the most unpopular driver among Bristol race fans after his battle with DiBenedetto in the closing laps two weeks ago. He leaves Darlington as possibly the most unpopular driver amongst his peers. Between threatening payback at Suarez for minimal contact at lap 140, and making contact with both LaJoie and Daniel Hemric that resulted in cut tires for his competitors, the question if Newman even makes the playoffs is… how far will he get before someone pulls a Kenseth on him?
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
For as much flak as JGR has gotten (and often deserved), it as the arm of Toyota in NASCAR deserves credit for giving DiBenedetto as much notice as it did he would be out of the fold in 2020. Otherwise, Jones’ victory this evening could have been more of a dagger to Guido than his near-miss at Bristol was. Not to mention that the confidence of a secure contract may well have played into Jones’ mature race-winning drive.
While on that topic, what the hell was Rick Allen doing inferring that Bell could be taking over the No. 20 car next season?
— Not David Hoots (@HootsNot) September 2, 2019
Though this Sunday’s telecast was arguably the strongest of the season so far for the NBC crew, Allen’s struggles at Bristol waited out the rain delay at Darlington.
It was also by far the longest telecast of the season thanks to an extended rain delay that resulted in hours of pre-race. And while Larson had the mic-drop moment of note (more on that later), another of the highlights was to see Bowyer go up into the stands to interview a fan that sat through the rainstorm… and mistake his Bowman No. 88 shirt for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The misfire was a bit comical, given that Bowman is locked into the playoffs and Bowyer isn’t. But more notable, it speaks to a real need for Bowman to establish more of an identity for himself both as a contending driver and as a brand not dependent on being the follow-up to Junior. Since winning at Chicagoland, Bowman has been all but invisible in terms of on-track results. The ties to Junior and the No. 88 were also not enough to keep primary sponsor Nationwide Insurance, which is gone after the season ends. Bowman is kind of a unique case in how he landed his ride at Hendrick Motorsports, coming up as a test driver after spending years toiling in an underfunded Cup ride. While there’s nothing wrong with that career track, it’s not a track that lends itself to building a fanbase a la incoming prospects such as Bell or Tyler Reddick. Bowman made headlines for his Tim Richmond impersonation over the Throwback Weekend. Maybe a return to the No. 25 for 2020 is just what the doctor ordered:
Trust me Alex, this is what I've been going through the past 2 seasons haha. Yes I was a Jr fan. But now I'm a ALEX BOWMAN fan. Lol. This is why I'm praying you change your number next year. Need your own identity dude 👍
— Philip Goodman (@yep_itsphilip) September 1, 2019
Sticking with the Hendrick camp for a minute, this tweet didn’t age well:
Jimmie Johnson being competitive that's a throwback #Southern500
— Daniel Schell (@DanielSchell14) September 2, 2019
Frontstretch alumnus Nick Bromberg gave one of the more accurate depictions of the racing seen at Darlington this Sunday by stating “This race has been perfectly fine. Just needlessly different…”
Make no mistake, this race was different, though I’d argue the reasons for that are at best inconclusive. For all the whining Kyle Busch did post-race about aero preventing him from closing the deal against teammate Jones (and for as consistent as Sunday’s finish at times looked compared to races at Richmond and Dover, where drivers could close on cars in front without completing passes), the reality is any shot Rowdy had at closing the deal went out the window when he pounded the wall inside of three laps to go. In the interest of full disclosure, Kyle Busch wasn’t the only driver to express aero concerns over Sunday’s race.
This aero package takes away the variable of turns one and two because they run flat out through that section. The reliance on aero makes such a narrow track really tough to race near someone because of how badly the dirty air affects the car behind. Racing seems spread out.
— Ryan Ellis (@ryanellisracing) September 2, 2019
Much was made of the fact that the event was largely devoid of the Darlington stripes, with the NBC broadcast crew at least once pointing out how clean the red & white walls were. Some on social media were even more blunt.
— TheFrontBumper (@BumperFront) September 2, 2019
Yet, with the race on the line, Jones pulled away from Kyle Busch using a line that saw the No. 20 scrape the turn 4 wall on corner exit. The track’s 500-mile marathon robbed finishing positions from top=10 runners Bowman and Kyle Busch. And also important to note is that by starting at 10 p.m., much of the heat and grease that the track surface generates in the Carolina summer was absent. Translation: fewer stripes and scrapes.
Personally, I’d love to see the 2020 Southern 500 bring these cars back with 200 more horsepower. But then again, I loved last year’s Southern 500 more than most.
Another observation about Kyle Busch’s post-race remarks, where he bemoaned NASCAR not throwing a caution flag in the closing laps after he cut a tire. Rowdy Nation was right there with their driver, irate over the lack of a yellow flag.
I love how #NASCAR said the hell with the rules. Let’s just hand the win to him.
— Vita Vea-der (@TommyBayBuc) September 2, 2019
Considering the literal lifeline NASCAR threw the No. 18 team for barely kissing the wall at Loudon back in June, let’s call it even.
Two weeks ago, Newman was literally more hated than Kyle Busch because he had the nerve to race DiBenedetto hard, both to stay on the lead lap and to battle to preserve a playoff spot. Fast forward to the first half of Sunday’s race, and Elliott was showered with praise for racing Joey Logano hard enough to get the No. 22 driver to erupt over the team radio as the two battled for position. There’s no getting around it, Elliott is the new Dale Jr. in the Cup ranks. The rest of the field better hope the Talladega playoff doesn’t come down to a yellow line call involving the No. 9.
With Hurricane Dorian lurking off the Atlantic coast and South Carolina facing mandatory evacuations for the storm tomorrow, it was 100% the right decision by NASCAR to run this race late in the evening. Doing so means race fans in the affected areas of South Carolina have no distractions from evacuating or battening down the hatches, while law enforcement can focus on their primary public safety tasks. Speaking as a former resident of the Carolina coast, to all of those along the Atlantic seaboard, please take this storm seriously and protect yourselves as you see fit.
Though I will also point out that if this race had started in the early afternoon as it used to (and in the heat that it earned its reputation in), the Southern 500 would have been done before rain arrived in Darlington.
Best Paint Scheme: Landon Cassill. Bubba Wallace’s scheme was most sentimental. Johnson’s was personal. Keselowski’s eagle-clad hood may be the sharpest logo to grace a race car in 2019. But from the font to the color scheme, Cassill and team’s resurrection of the Silver Bullet was truly striking.
— StarCom Racing (@StarcomRacing) September 2, 2019
Rain Delay Mic Drop Moment: Larson. We’ll let the tape speak for itself.
“I’m shocked [playing video games] is what you’re doing, Larson.”
“Why, is that an Asian joke?”
“I’ll probably get in trouble for that. But I’m Asian, so I can say it." pic.twitter.com/7MDBx6C8MV
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) September 1, 2019
Truly Too Tough To Tame Salute: Darlington race fans. Selling out the Southern 500, and seeing literally the entire crowd brave a four-hour rain delay for a late-night event was just the latest example of the resilience of Darlington fans, whose continued patronage and support of the Lady in Black brought this crown jewel race back to life. This Sunday’s race was the first Southern 500 that I’ve missed since it moved back to Labor Day, and that was only because family obligations mean I have to call in a sub for this column next week. After missing this show, I’ll be more proactive to ensure I have this weekend in 2020 blocked off.
Where it Rated: We’ll give this one a Cajun Filet biscuit combo where the drive-thru crew forgot to throw a BoBerry in the bag. A sellout crowd and a race that, despite the late aero issues, did see loads of action and lead swapping throughout was worthy both as a follow-up to the stellar night race at Bristol and as a race carrying the Southern 500 name. Well worth staying up for.
What’s the Point(s): Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Elliott, Hamlin, Harvick, Jones, Keselowski, Logano and Truex have locked into the playoffs by winning races in 2019. If the playoffs were to start today, Larson, Ryan Blaney, Byron, Almirola, Bowyer and Suarez would point their way in. Suarez currently is tied with Newman on points for the final playoff spot but holds the tiebreaker by virtue of his third-place finish at Texas back in March.
Dust Off the VCR: After a stellar weekend, the Cup Series heads to what will be a cavernous Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the alleged crown jewel Big Machine Vodka 400. Coverage from the Brickyard begins at 2 p.m. ET on NBC. Family obligations that I may or may not have scheduled to coincide with stock car racing at Indy mean a more talented Frontstretch writer will bring this feature to you next week.