Erik Jones locks up playoff spot with Southern 500 victory

Erik Jones guaranteed himself a spot in the 2019 playoffs with his win at Darlington early Monday morning.

Jones held off teammate Kyle Busch until Busch slammed into the wall with three laps to go. Busch lost significant time after smashing the wall and then hit the wall again after suffering what appeared to be a cut tire in the first impact.

That left Jones with a different type of pressure. Instead of worrying about a potential pass for the win, he needed to make sure he got to the white flag without NASCAR throwing a caution. Race control didn’t, and Jones scored a win of more than three seconds over Kyle Larson.

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“When he started to inch out a little bit I was trying to save my right front because I knew my right front [tire] wasn’t going to make it the rest of the way without me knocking the wall down,” Busch said after he finished third behind Larson. “I was right. I hit the wall with about four to go and then I hit it again with three to go and it killed it that time.”

“Luckily we were able to salvage a third just dragging the fence for the last two laps. I don’t think I’ve ever seen NASCAR not throw a caution in that scenario — oh yes I have. That’s right. I blew a left front tire at California in an Xfinity race and we had to finish the whole last lap. So it doesn’t surprise me.”

The win is Jones’ second of his career. He got the first win of his Cup career a year ago in the July race at Daytona.

He was set to make the playoffs on points before Sunday night’s rain-delayed race anyway. But he entered it as the only driver from Joe Gibbs Racing’s four car stable to not have a win. While teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. each had multiple wins through the first 24 races of the season — and each scored their second win through the first 11 races of the season — Jones hadn’t reached victory lane.

That relative struggle combined with the success of JGR development driver Christopher Bell in the Xfinity Series, led to wonder if Bell would replace Jones in the No. 20 car in 2020. It didn’t happen. Jones has reportedly reached an agreement to stay in the No. 20 car for next season while Bell joins the No. 95 team at Leavine Family Racing.

“There’s been a lot of doubt, a lot of speculation,” Jones said. “I’ve put my heart and soul into this and this race team and this my living and how I want to make a career in what I want to do. It doesn’t get any better. On my list this race is really high. And it’s gonna look damn good to see my face on that trophy.”

Jones got the lead shortly after the race’s final restart and held it as the leaders pitted for fresh tires with 45 laps to go under green. That pit stop cycle was the only green-flag stop cycle of the night.

JGR has won 13 of 25 races in 2019

Joe Gibbs Racing didn’t need a win Sunday night to establish itself as the best team in the Cup Series this season. That was already pretty cut and dry. But it’s now looking very possible that JGR could end up being the best Cup Series team of the modern NASCAR era.

Hendrick Motorsports won 18 of the 36 races in the 2007 season and all four of its drivers got a win. While 16 of those victories came from Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, that season is the standard when it comes to the four-car NASCAR team era.

JGR has at least a fighting chance to set a new standard. Every Gibbs driver now has a win and the team needs five wins over the last 11 races to tie Hendrick’s mark.

Newman and Suarez tied for final playoff spot

Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez will enter next week’s race at Indianapolis effectively racing heads up for the final playoff spot in the 16-driver field. The two are now tied for 16th after Newman went spinning just ahead of Suarez earlier in the race. While Suarez admitted that he had gotten Newman “aero loose” he contended that he didn’t touch the driver of the No. 6.

Suarez finished 11th while Newman ended up 23rd. If the two somehow ended next week’s race tied in the points standings — not impossible because of stage points — Suarez would currently hold the tiebreaker over Newman.

14 drivers locked into the playoffs

There are just two playoff spots up for grabs heading into Indy. Fourteen of the spots have been filled and are occupied by Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Aric Almirola.

The first 10 drivers are qualified via one or more wins this season. The final four are qualified based on their points total through the first 25 races.

While Newman and Suarez are tied for the final spot, Clint Bowyer currently holds the No. 15 position eight points ahead of them. Bowyer was sixth on Sunday.

Jimmie Johnson is in 18th, 18 points back of the tie between Suarez and Newman. He’s the only other driver who can mathematically make the playoff field on points without having to win at Indy. Every driver from 19th on back is in a win-and-in situation to steal a playoff berth.

If Johnson doesn’t make the playoffs — a scenario that seems far likelier than not at this point — it’ll be the first time in NASCAR’s playoff era that a Cup Series playoff field won’t include him. He’s the only remaining active driver to make every postseason since NASCAR started a playoff format in 2004.

Race results

1. Erik Jones

2. Kyle Larson

3. Kyle Busch

4. Kevin Harvick

5. Brad Keselowski

6. Clint Bowyer

7. Kurt Busch

8. Matt DiBenedetto

9. Paul Menard

10. Austin Dillon

11. Daniel Suarez

12. Chris Buescher

13. Ryan Blaney

14. Joey Logano

15. Martin Truex Jr.

16. Jimmie Johnson

17. Aric Almirola

18. Alex Bowman

19. Chase Elliott

20. Ty Dillon

21. William Byron

22. Ryan Preece

23. Ryan Newman

24. Bubba Wallace

25. Landon Cassill

26. David Ragan

27. Matt Tifft

28. Ross Chastain

29. Denny Hamlin

30. Reed Sorenson

31. Joe Nemechek

32. JJ Yeley

33. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

34. Joey Gase

35. Garrett Smithley

36. Corey LaJoie

37. Daniel Hemric

38. Michael McDowell

39. BJ McLeod

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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