DARLINGTON, S.C. — Erik Jones had been so close. Agonizingly close. All amidst uncertainty for next season, a future likely hinging on whatever comes out of 2019, and while his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates combined for 12 wins in 24 races.
On Sunday night, the 23-year-old finally put it all together and became JGR’s 13th. Jones led 79 of the final 86 laps to power to his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, an event that crept into the witching hour Labor Day morning after rain pushed the start back to 10:08 p.m.
“It’s been probably the biggest challenge of my life,” Jones said. “Tonight, those last 80 laps were a synopsis of the last three years. The last 80 laps I put in everything I learned over the last three years.”
Jones started 15th but positioned himself for the win by charging to fourth by the end of Stage 2. During the final intermission pit stop, Jones’ crew picked up two positions to put him in second for the final leg. Jones ran second for much of the last stage to leader Kyle Busch, and then on the final restart with 86 laps to go, lined up on the inside front row of Kyle Larson.
Jones and Larson swapped the lead three times the lap and a half following the restart, with Jones regaining control going into Turn 1 with 85 laps left.
Larson slipped to third shortly after and eventually settled for second after Busch slapped the wall pressing the issue with two laps to go. Busch, who managed to finish third, never really challenged Jones for the lead, getting as close as four-tenths off the lead over the final run. Busch did, however, clinch the regular-season championship and an extra 15 playoff points.
Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top five. Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Paul Menard, and Austin Dillon comprised the top 10.
Jimme Johnson, who finished second in Stage 1 and is 17 points behind the playoff cutoff, finished 16th. Pole-sitter William Byron stumbled to 21st, the culprit of a mid-race incident where he had nowhere to go.