Fifty-five years ago to the day, Richard Petty drove his famed No. 43 into victory lane in the famed Southern 500.
On Sunday night, Erik Jones drove Petty’s race car back into victory lane at the historic Darlington Raceway.
While other contenders fell by the wayside with various issues, Jones consistently plugged away, working his way all the way to second.
When leader Kyle Busch’s engine blew up under the final caution, Jones inherited the lead with 20 laps to go.
Jones then held off a hard charge from Denny Hamlin to score the victory – taking Petty back to victory lane for the first time since 2014.
“I get a (cowboy) hat,” Jones said. “He (Petty) told me I get a hat if I win.
“But Richard hasn’t been to victory lane at Darlington probably since he last won here. It’s just awesome. Just so proud of these guys, Petty GMS and FOCUSfactor Crew. We’ve been so close all year, and I didn’t think today was going to be the day. It was going to be a tough one to win, but no better fitting place.”
The last time a Petty car sat in victory lane in the Southern 500 was on September 4, 1967, when “The King” scored the win by five laps over fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson.
The last time a Petty owned car won at Darlington was on May 2, 1971 in the Rebel 400 with NASCAR Hall of Famer Buddy Baker at the controls.
It marks the third career win for Jones, and his the second at the track dubbed “Too Tough To Tame.”
“I love this track, I love this race,” Jones said. “On that trophy twice, man. I was pumped to be on it once, but to have it on there twice, pretty cool.”
He also had to keep Hamlin, one of the best in recent years at Darlington, in his rearview mirror.
“Man, I was focused forward,” said Jones. “Honestly that’s the calmest I’ve been in the race car going for a win ever, really. I think back to the last time winning here and I was driving my guts out. My nerves were pounding, my stomach was hurting, and today it was just business as usual.
“Just feel good about this track and knew Denny (Hamlin) would run me clean. I knew it was going to be tough for him to pass. It was tough to pass all day, and we got a good restart there.
“But man, so proud of everybody. Just what a dream come true. That’s all you can say.”
While Petty had already left the speedway before the checkered flag flew, Jones said he was congratulated by the NASCAR Hall of Famer over the phone after the win.
I obviously have gotten to know the King pretty well over the last year, almost two years now, and I wish I could have seen him face to face just to see his emotion, and I will. I really would love to just sit down and watch the race with him, especially the ending there and talk about it. But it’s been fun, man.
“With Richard, he hasn’t raced in almost 30 years now, but the cars change and everything, but what doesn’t really change is the mentality,” Jones said. “It’s the same. He’s a racer. He won 200 races, seven championships. I mean, he knows how to get it done, so he’s shared a lot of wisdom with me and has given plenty of constructive criticism, which has been good, and I’ve enjoyed…it’s been just cool to hear from him, just cool to hear what he thinks after watching a race what I can do better, and there’s totally been things I’ve learned from him. Some people may not believe that, but there’s been stuff that I’ve definitely learned from that guy.”
It also marks the first win for the new Petty GMS team pairing, as well as the 200th win in NASCAR for the No. 43. It also came at the expense of Joe Gibbs Racing, a team that released Jones just two years ago.
“Well, I never lost any belief in myself through any of it,” Jones said. “I knew I could still do it. I just knew we needed to grow the program to do it and we have. We’ve brought on a lot of great people in the last year. Dave Elenz (crew chief) called a great race today. His (first) Cup win, that’s pretty cool for him.
“I’m excited, man. We’ve been talking about this day a long time, and it is redemption in a lot of ways. Very fitting that it’s here at this race again. I felt like this was the race that saved my job the first time around, and coming back here with this win, I guess it puts you back on the map.”
Jones’ win serves as a spoiler as the Playoffs open, as he did not make the cut to compete for the championship. The win means no one leaves Darlington locked into the next round. It’s the first time a non-Playoff driver has won the first race of the Playoffs.
For Hamlin, who came into the night with three Southern 500 wins, a second place finish gives him a solid start to the Playoffs.
“Tried to do everything I could to get the car to respond with the front, but just a lot tighter than what we had been all day,” said Hamlin. “I think Kyle (Busch) said he had the same thing. Might have just been a track thing, but overall we weren’t great on short runs, but obviously we were good on the long run. Just needed that thing to go green.”
Another Playoff contender, Tyler Reddick, came home with a third place result. Joey Logano rebounded from early problems on pit road to finish in fourth, with Christopher Bell in fifth.
Jones’ win also came after two other of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, who looked to have the win in hand only for mechanical issues to sideline them.
Martin Truex, Jr. and Kyle Busch dominated much of the race, leading a combined 203 of the race’s 367 laps.
Truex, Jr. had the lead and was pulling away with 34 laps to go when his No. 19 Toyota slowed suddenly with power steering and overheating issues. Moments after being passed by Busch for the lead, Truex brought his car to pit road, his race over.
“Just mad. Upset, angry. We deserve better and no matter what we do this year it seems wrong,” said Truex, who was credited with a 31st place result. “When we run good, stuff goes wrong and when we run bad, nothing happens. Just one of those years that we can’t get anything to go our way. It’s about the fifth time I should have won this race and I’ve only won it once.”
Once Busch was back out front, he again built a strong lead, only to see it go away when a crash by Cody Ware brought out the caution with 28 laps to go.
Busch’s pit crew, as they had all night, got the No. 18 Toyota off pit road first ahead of Jones, Reddick, and Hamlin.
But as Busch’s car circled the track under caution, it began trailing smoke as the engine detonated, ending his night just a handful of laps away from the finish. He was credited with a 30th place result.
“Engine broke. Just unfortunate circumstances for us tonight,” said Busch, who led the most laps on the night, pacing the field for 155 laps. “The guys did a great job and brought a really fast M&M’s Toyota Camry. Just real proud of the effort. All the stuff the guys have done and gone through – just all the news and everything that’s going on all year. They’ve dug in and never given up and continue. Just had a great car and don’t have anything to show for it. That’s what I really, really hate about it.”
Michael McDowell, Brad Keselowski, William Byron, Bubba Wallace, and Alex Bowman rounded out the top 10.
While several of the Playoff contenders were able to put together top 10 results it was a tough night for others.
The scariest moment of the night occurred for Kevin Harvick, when his car caught fire while he was running in the top 10. With fire shooting out from underneath and the cockpit filled with smoke, Harvick stopped his No. 4 Ford at the bottom of the track and bailed out, his night over.
Harvick, who was credited with a 33rd place finish, confirmed that the problem was not engine related.
“No, I just stopped. The rocker (panel) was on fire for a couple laps,” he said. “I just stopped because I couldn’t see anymore because the flames were coming through the dash and I couldn’t make myself sit in there and burn up.”
Harvick did not mince words about the incident.
“I’m sure it’s just crappy parts on the race car like we’ve seen so many times,” said Harvick. “They haven’t fixed anything. It’s kind of like the safety stuff. We just let it keep going and keep going. The car started burning and as it burned the flames started coming through the dash. I ran a couple laps and then as the flame got bigger it started burning stuff up and I think right there you see all the brake fluid that was probably coming out the brakes and part of the brake line, but the fire was coming through the dash. What a disaster for no reason. We didn’t touch the wall. We didn’t touch a car and here we are in the pits with a burned up car and we can’t finish the race during the playoffs because of crappy…parts.”
While under the ensuing caution, a similar situation occurred on J.J. Yeley’s Ford. He was credited with a 34th place finish. NASCAR listed the reason for both Harvick and Yeley’s exit from the race as “exhaust.”
It was an up and down night for Kyle Larson, as electrical issues lost him three laps. Using the free pass rule with the multiple cautions that flew on the night, Larson was able to get back onto the lead lap, eventually finishing 12th.
“It felt like it was blowing up. It sounded funny off of (turn) two for a lap and by the time I got back around, it was really laying down,” said Larson. “People are passing me, and I was kind of pulling down and letting people go. We pitted and nothing looked funny. We went back out and it kind of ran crappy for a few laps, and then kind of cleared itself out and it was fine the rest of the race. So, I don’t know yet what it was. If it was fuel pressure, my dash would have been lighting up. So, I don’t know if it was something electrical for a quick second or what. I am sure when they plug in the data, they will learn the whole story.
“I am just glad that it wasn’t terminal, and we were able to get back out there and fight back from three laps down.”
Another Playoff contender, Ross Chastain, had issues with his left rear wheel that cost him multiple laps. He would solider home to a 20th place finish, one lap down.
“It’s what we prepare for…for moments like that,” Chastain said. “It’s not in my control. It’s a freak deal that we haven’t had happen in the whole time we’ve had this car, so it took me awhile to describe what was happening. To me, it felt like the left rear was just low on air.
“Our No. 1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet team came back from four laps down, to be one lap down at the end and plenty fast enough to fight with these guys.”
Dawsonville, Georgia’s Chase Elliott saw his championship hopes take a hit when he spun and backed into the wall in turn 2, gathering up Chase Briscoe with two laps to go in the first segment of the race. Elliott’s Chevy suffered a broken lower control arm. His team could not make repairs in the 10 minutes allowed by NASCAR, and his night was over. He was credited with a 36th place finish, dead last on the field.
After entering the night as the leader in the Playoff standings, he leaves Darlington in ninth place, only 14 points above the cutoff line.
Meanwhile, Austin Cindric, Austin Dillon, Briscoe, and Harvick find themselves below the cutoff line with two races to go in the opening round of the Playoffs.
NASCAR Cup Series
Darlington Raceway – Darlington, SC
Cook Out Southern 500 – September 4, 2022
1. (15) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 367.
2. (11) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 367.
3. (4) Tyler Reddick (P), Chevrolet, 367.
4. (1) Joey Logano (P), Ford, 367.
5. (2) Christopher Bell (P), Toyota, 367.
6. (10) Michael McDowell, Ford, 367.
7. (25) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 367.
8. (3) William Byron (P), Chevrolet, 367.
9. (8) Bubba Wallace (P), Toyota, 367.
10. (16) Alex Bowman (P), Chevrolet, 367.
11. (22) Aric Almirola, Ford, 367.
12. (7) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 367.
13. (9) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 367.
14. (30) Cole Custer, Ford, 367.
15. (21) Ty Gibbs(i), Toyota, 367.
16. (6) Austin Cindric # (P), Ford, 367.
17. (13) Austin Dillon (P), Chevrolet, 367.
18. (36) Daniel Suarez (P), Chevrolet, 367.
19. (14) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 366.
20. (12) Ross Chastain (P), Chevrolet, 366.
21. (28) Harrison Burton #, Ford, 366.
22. (29) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 366.
23. (24) Daniel Hemric(i), Chevrolet, 365.
24. (34) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 365.
25. (26) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 365.
26. (27) Chris Buescher, Ford, 365.
27. (19) Chase Briscoe (P), Ford, 363.
28. (31) Todd Gilliland #, Ford, 363.
29. (35) B.J. McLeod(i), Ford, 361.
30. (5) Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, Engine, 345.
31. (17) Martin Truex, Jr., Toyota, Water Pump, 336.
32. (32) Cody Ware, Ford, Accident, 331.
33. (18) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, Exhaust, 274.
34. (33) J.J. Yeley(i), Ford, Exhaust, 236.
35. (20) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Chevrolet, Accident, 164.
36. (23) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, DVP, 113.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 120.406 mph.
Time of Race: 4 Hrs, 9 Mins, 49 Secs. Margin of Victory: .252 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 9 for 58 laps.
Lead Changes: 21 among 11 drivers.
Lap Leaders: J. Logano (P) 1-37;L. Cassill(i) 38;J. Logano (P) 39-65;W. Byron (P) 66-74;B. Wallace (P) 75-76;W. Byron (P) 77-117;K. Busch (P) 118-152;D. Hamlin (P) 153;R. Chastain (P) 154;B. Wallace (P) 155-156;B. Keselowski 157-167;K. Busch (P) 168-193;C. LaJoie 194-197;K. Busch (P) 198-208;M. Truex Jr. 209-220;K. Busch (P) 221-293;M. Truex Jr. 294-319;K. Busch (P) 320;D. Hamlin (P) 321-325;M. Truex Jr. 326-335;K. Busch (P) 336-344;E. Jones 345-367.
Leaders Summary: (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led) Kyle Busch (P) 6 times for 155 laps; Joey Logano (P) 2 times for 64 laps; William Byron (P) 2 times for 50 laps; Martin Truex Jr. 3 times for 48 laps; Erik Jones 1 time for 23 laps; Brad Keselowski 1 time for 11 laps; Denny Hamlin (P) 2 times for 6 laps; Bubba Wallace (P) 2 times for 4 laps; Corey LaJoie 1 time for 4 laps; Landon Cassill(i) 1 time for 1 lap; Ross Chastain (P) 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 24,11,18,20,19,1,8,43,12,45
Stage #2 Top Ten: 18,19,12,22,24,20,48,99,43,34
Playoff Standings: 1. Joey Logano – 2065 (2 Wins); 2. William Byron – 2059 (2 Wins); 3. Denny Hamlin – 2057 (2 Wins); 4. Christopher Bell – 2055 (2 Wins); 5. Tyler Reddick – 2050 (2 Wins); 6. Ryan Blaney – 2047; 7. Kyle Larson – 2044 (2 Wins); 8. Ross Chastain – 2042 (2 Wins); 9. Chase Elliott – 2041 (4 Wins); 10. Alex Bowman – 2037 (1 Win); 11. Kyle Busch – 2035 (1 Win); 12. Daniel Suarez – 2029 (1 Win); 13. Austin Cindric – 2027 (1 Win); 14. Austin Dillon – 2025 (1 Win); 15. Chase Briscoe – 2019 (1 Win); 16. Kevin Harvick – 2016 (2 Wins).
(i) Ineligible for driver points in this series