Who saw that coming?
For the third time in his career and the second time in the Southern 500, Erik Jones captured his first win since 2019, the first win for Richard Petty since Aric with an A did it in 2010.
It was also the first time the famous 43 visited victory lane in Darlington since 1967. Jones was handed the lead with about 20 laps to go, after Cody Ware slapped the wall and both the dominant cars of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch had engine troubles.
He then had to hold off four-time Darlington winner Denny Hamlin and did so masterfully. Jones seemed emotional as he stepped out of his car and saluted the fans. He spoke of never giving up on himself after he was unceremoniously removed from Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020, and of his sense of serenity behind the wheel during the last few laps.
He also said “The King” owed him a hat just like Petty’s famous cowboy hat now that he had won. Jones isn’t in the playoffs this season, but his win makes him the 17th different winner in 2022.
Many playoff drivers met terrible fates during this particular crown jewel, as Chase Elliott, the regular season champion, spun off turn one early and collected Chase Briscoe. Briscoe’s car was damaged, but was able to get back going, albeit four laps down. Elliott was not so lucky, as the right rear toe link, the very same thing that ended his night in the Coca-Cola 600 earlier this season.
Elliott was so frustrated he was ordered to the care center after changing into his civilian attire after refusing to go. The crash let all of the air out of the section I was sitting in, surrounded by fellow Elliott fans.
The race resumed though, as everything does in life, and William Byron collected the stage one win. More playoff drivers encountered troubles though. Before Elliott’s crash. Kyle Larson had a mechanical issue that sent him spiraling down to the bottom of the pylon. Larson recovered but spun again on turn four. Despite all that, he managed to finish 12th.
Ross Chastain just never really seemed to have the speed his teammate Daniel Suárez had at points during the race, and he ended up back in 20th. Suárez went from the back to the front quickly, but got a speeding penalty that ruined his night. He held on for 18th. Kevin Harvick’s number four Ford inexplicably caught fire under the dash in stage three.
The veteran pulled into turn one and bailed immediately and ultimately was physically unharmed. Harvick’s post race comments were vitriolic as he slammed the Next Gen car and NASCAR, saying “it’s cheaper for us to crash and run into stuff and catch on fire than it is to fix it. Maybe they should find somebody who can actually run the show.”
Denny Hamlin was followed in the top five by fellow playoff drivers Tyler Reddick, pole sitter Joey Logano, and Christopher Bell. Michael McDowell, Brad Keselowski, and Bubba Wallace all scored a top ten this week, while the Hendrick brigade was led by William Byron in eighth, followed by Alex Bowman in 10th.
The Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway next week. Guys like Harvick, Briscoe, Austin Dillon, Suárez and of course, Chase Elliott will all need to rebound strong in the Midwest to recover from their disappointment in Darlington.
But that’s the playoffs. I prefer to remember the 2022 Southern 500 for what it was.
Photo Credit to Pat, @Puffadda on Twitter