Saturday January 18th, 2020 11:10PM

Erik Jones ends up-and-down Loudon race on upswing

By Reid Spencer-NASCAR Wire Service
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LOUDON, N.H. – The most critical aspect of Erik Jones’ third-place run in Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was the mistake he thought he had made — but didn’t.

Under the ninth and final caution for Kyle Larson’s spin in turn 2 on lap 265, Jones made a feint toward pit road but opted to stay on the track. But his right tires crossed the orange commitment box separating pit road from the racing surface.

At first, Jones thought he had drawn a penalty, but since only his left-side tires crossed the box, and he stayed on the track, he was okay under NASCAR rules. Jones lined up second next to race winner Kevin Harvick for the final restart on lap 273, quickly fell to third behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin (who had fresh right-side tires) but held third the rest of the way.

The third-place run came at the end of a roller-coaster day. Jones collided with Alex Bowman on pit road during an early stop and later drew a pit road speeding penalty that sent him to the rear of the field for a lap 144 restart. But astute pit calls by crew chief Chris Gayle helped him recover the lost track position.

“It was kind of a sloppy day in my opinion, but it was a good day,” Jones said in analyzing his race. “Got good stage points in the first stage (running second) and finished well at the end. But the Stanley Camry was good. All day I felt like we were close. We just needed to get up front and never quite did it and never quite got the lead, but we were there.

“Again, up in the top five, you can’t complain, and especially with the points we gained today, it’s good. We can definitely get more aggressive with that gap. We’re getting close there to having almost a race on them (those chasing Jones for a Playoff spot).

“If we can have a couple more good weeks, we’ll be there. We’ll keep doing it, but today was definitely a testament, I think, to our speed and this team. We keep fighting through it. We never gave up. We did what we needed to do, fixed the damage when we needed to and got a good finish out of it.”

Jones ended the day 14th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, 28 points above 17th place.

Loss Of Power Steering Ruins Jimmie Johnson’s Day At Loudon

Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has never missed any form of a series Playoff, but mechanical issues in Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 dropped him farther into the danger zone.

Halfway through the race, Johnson was sixth for a restart on lap 149, but the end of Stage 2 two laps later spelled the end of Johnson’s hopes for a strong finish.

“Well, it was certainly a letdown, to say the least,” said Johnson, who fell back precipitously after that lap 149 restart. “We had some issues with the power steering and the water pump pulleys. I thought it might have been from some contact on (the) restart. I got in the back of the car in front of me. They told me that wasn’t the case.

“So I assume some debris got in the pulley system and took out my power steering and the water pump as well. So it’s just unlucky on that front. Certainly, the wrong time of the year to have some bad luck. It looked like the guys I’m worried about in the points didn’t have the best day either, so maybe I got a pass on this one. I’m just disappointed to say the least.”

Nevertheless, Johnson leaves Loudon 17th in the standings, 17 points out of 16th, the last Playoff-eligible position.

Matt DiBenedetto Scores Second Top-Five Result Of 2019

An astute pit call by crew chief Mike Wheeler halfway through Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 got track position for Matt DiBenedetto.

To his credit, DiBenedetto drove like a man possessed to maintain his position in the running order.

DiBenedetto’s No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota didn’t show up in the top 10 in either the first or second stage of the 20th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season. But after Wheeler kept him on the track for a Lap 158 restart after the second stage break, DiBenedetto stayed in the top 10 the rest of the way, ultimately passing fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex, Jr. for the fifth spot.

The top five was DiBenedetto’s second of the season, adding to the fourth-place result he achieved at Sonoma Raceway in June.

“Yeah, that was awesome,” DiBenedetto said. “You always want more. It’s a great run for the team. You always want to get more, but we’re growing as a team. This just shows our strength.

“These types of tracks are kind of in our wheelhouse, and this just shows how good of people we have. It’s not just me driving the car. It’s all these guys. I’m nothing without them. Younger team that’s showing our strength, and what we’re here to do.”

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