Jones’ Win May Prolong His Career At JGR

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 2 2019
Erik Jones got a really big victory Sunday/Monday at the Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Speculation has persisted throughout the year that Erik Jones’ ride at Joe Gibbs Racing might be in jeopardy for the 2020 season, but early Monday he silenced his skeptics, mastering tough old Darlington Raceway to emerge victorious in the Bojangles Southern 500.

In the Labor Day classic that spanned two days due to a four-hour rain delay, Jones held off mentor and JGR teammate Kyle Busch to lead the final 41 laps and claim his first victory since July 2018 at Daytona. It was his second in NASCAR’s premier series.

“I’m worn out mentally and physically, but more mentally,” the 23-year-old Jones said shortly after taking the checkered flag in the sport’s oldest superspeedway race.

“I feel like that last 80 laps was a synopsis of three years. Everything I had learned in three years was used in that last 80 laps as far as the aero and trying to run lanes and hold them up and watching where they were going and being patient, knowing when to go hard. I’ve been trained since I was 7 years old to drive a race car left and when you’re that locked in, sometimes things just happen, and that’s how I felt.”

Jones had a brief battle with Kyle Larson before taking the lead for the first time on lap 283 of the 367-lap race. He then held the top spot for the next 38 laps before the final round of green-flag stops began. Once everyone had pitted, Jones cycled back into the lead with 41 laps remaining. He then had to drive a mistake-free race as Busch chased him down. In the waning laps, however, Busch smacked the wall and rode it for the last 1 ½ laps for a third-place finish. Larson took second in the race that didn’t receive the green flag until 10 p.m., which was about four hours after the scheduled start. It ended shortly before 2 a.m. on Monday. 

Crew chief Chris Gayle admitted it had been an up-and-down year for the team where “things have kept us from reaching our potential.”

“But I think if you look over the last eight to 10 weeks, there’s only been a couple of races  that we haven’t been in contention to get that win every week,” Gayle said. 

Gayle said Jones often was guilty of pushing too hard at certain times early in his career and the fact he didn’t at Darlington made the difference.

“I saw him not push too hard and get himself in trouble, work the lap traffic and get through the lap traffic really clean, those type of things that maybe he would have gotten himself in trouble for sure two years ago, but maybe a year ago depending on the situation,” Gayle said. 

“I think it’s tough to have those two guys (Busch and Larson) breathing down your throat the last 80 laps. There’s nobody tougher than those guys, especially here. It’s crazy how good of a job he’s done being patient, keeping that thing up front and not overdriving it, not getting into the wall. Pretty much Kyle (Busch) ran into the wall trying to catch us.”  

Jones’ victory made him the 51st driver to win at Darlington in the 1.366-mile track’s 70 years. He also solidified his position in the playoffs. Ten drivers have now won this season. Jones’ JGR teammates Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. lead with four victories each. Entering the regular season finale at Indianapolis next weekend, there is still a tight four-way battle for the final two positions in the playoffs. Bowyer moved into 15th in the standings with his sixth-place finish. He is now eight points ahead of Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman who are tied for the 16th and final position in the playoffs. Jimmie Johnson is 18th in the standings, 18 points below the cutoff.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 2 2019
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