DARLINGTON, SC — Sunday’s opening night of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs brought drama, damage and suspense — all on the big stage of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway.
At the end of a long and silly night, Petty GMS driver Erik Jones – who was not among the 16 playoff drivers – came out of the fire and frustration to win the 500, a major upset to open the way for NASCAR playoffs.
After multiple playoff driver problems, Jones had the lead on a green flag restart with 21 laps remaining. He jumped out to a one-second lead on the first lap of green and held off runner-up Denny Hamlin at the finish. Third was Tyler Reddick.
A significant portion of the sport’s playoff drivers have endured problems — big and small. And fiery.
The biggest problem of the night landed squarely on Chevrolet playoff points leader Chase Elliott, who entered the playoffs 15 points ahead of second place. Elliott finished last after losing control of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on lap 113. Elliott’s car sailed into the outside wall in turn 3 and was then hit by Chase Briscoe.
MORE: Darlington Cup results
Elliott’s team attempted to complete repairs under the right rear of the car, but ran out of time as the damaged vehicle policy forced the No. 9 to park for the night.
By the end of the night, Elliott was far from alone in the ugliness. Seven of the other 15 playoff drivers had problems, including former champion Kevin Harvick, who retired after his car burst into flames, prompting angry criticism of NASCAR. Also pitted was two-time champion Kyle Busch, who led 155 laps and appeared headed for his first Southern 500 victory before his Toyota’s engine gave out with 23 laps remaining.
Briscoe, also a playoff contender, stayed in the race after the Elliott incident but missed three rounds.
The first major problem to affect a playoff driver occurred on lap 78 when defending champion Kyle Larson, the fourth seed entering the playoffs, crashed on pit road and lost three laps while his crew worked under the hood of the No. 5 Chevrolets. After the service, Larson appeared to be running competitive laps, but returned to the track in 35th place. Later on lap 193, Larson lost control of his car and went back into the wall exiting Turn 4. He recovered from three laps down to contest the first lap.
Near the end of Stage 1, trouble struck again for the playoff team as Elliott’s Chevrolet and Briscoe’s Ford suffered damage.
Harvick saw his night end in a haze of fire and smoke on lap 277 of the 367. Fire broke out under both sides of the No. 4 car, forcing Harvick, battling smoke inside the car, to park on the apron of the track and hastily climb through the driver’s side window.
Harvick, who has previously criticized NASCAR for what he called safety issues with the next-generation car, again pointed to comments in the garage after he parked. He said the fire started despite not hitting the wall or another car, blaming parts.
The win was the third of Jones’ career. The victory returned the famous No. 43, which carried Richard Petty to dozens of victories across the country, to victory lane.
William Byron won the first stage, his first win since April. Joey Logano led 64 laps during the stage to 48 for Byron.
Kyle Busch won the second stage ahead of teammate Martin Truex Jr. Through two stages, Busch had led 82 laps to Logano’s 64.
Stage 1 Winner: William Byron
Stage 2 Winner: Kyle Busch
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Darlington Raceway Cup results: Erik Jones wins Southern 500 Kevin Harvick criticizes NASCAR, next-gen car after fire Chase Elliott finishes last in Southern 500 after crash
Erik Jones wins Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway originally appeared on NBCSports.com