It took until the early hours of Monday morning before Darlington finally awarded its checkered flag to Joe Gibbs Racing's Erik Jones. It was Jones' first win of the season and it came in his 100th start in the series but maybe more important for him it may be the bargaining chip that he needs to solidify his contract situation with JGR for next season and moving forward.
The win was especially sweet for Jones as he had to battle teammate Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson in the closing laps on his way to one of the most historic victory lanes on the entire schedule. Jones was already safely in the playoff field of 16 drivers because of his standings in the points but the win automatically put him in and just as important was the five playoff bonus points that he picked up for the win that carries with him throughout the playoffs to the final race of the season at Homestead Miami
While Jones became the tenth driver to earn his way into the playoff field with a victory this season, the results from Darlington also locked several other drivers into the field for the 10-race playoff round. Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Aric Almirola clinched their spots on points and will not have to go to Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend with the pressure of having to drive their way into the playoffs.
That leaves only two playoff spots remaining and it appears to be a three-way battle between Clint Bowyer who is now in the fifteenth spot with a slim eight-point lead over Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman who are actually tied in points for the last transfer spot. Suarez is now listed as the 16th driver because he currently has the advantage in NASCAR's tiebreaker process that first looks at the highest finish of each driver during the season. Suarez has a third place finish while Newman's highest finish on the season is fifth
Jimmie Johnson appeared to be putting together the kind of night at Darlington that would put him back into the thick of the battle for one of the final two playoff spots as he scored points in both of the opening stages of the race but was caught up in a multi-car accident that took him out of contention. He and his team will now unload his Chevrolet at Indy 18 points out of the 16th position knowing that that their only path to the playoffs likely will be a win.
PIT NOTES: Erik Jones' win at Darlington solidified Joe Gibbs Racing's position of being the most dominating organization in the sport as each of JGR's four drivers have now visited victory lane this season. Jones' JGR teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. lead the series with four wins each. Those three drivers are all in the top-5 in points with Jones sitting in the 12th spot. Busch who sits on top of the points clinched the regular season points title and with it the fifteen playoff points. His consistency throughout the season showed each week in the standings as his lowest position (4th) of the entire season came early in the year after the Las Vegas race but he "rebounded" with a win the following week and held on to the top spot until the June race at Michigan. Joey Logano took over the top spot with his win at Michigan and stayed there until Busch retook the top spot after the road course race at Watkins Glen in August. In addition to the fifteen playoff points for winning the regular season title, Busch has already picked up 29 playoff points for his four wins (5 points each) and impressive nine stage wins which awards one bonus point each.Steve Mickey writes about NASCAR for HD Media