In the end, Erik Jones came out victorious after a wild string of events late in the race.
It was the first race of a 10-week stretch of competition that will end in Arizona in November with just four drivers competing in the highly anticipated NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway.
The 16 drivers who were part of the playoff field that participated in the Cookout Southern 500, an egg-shaped oval track made up of 367 laps, included Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, Kyle Larson, William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, Tyler Reddick, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch, Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suárez, Austin Cindric, Alex Bowman and Austin Dillon.
Here are the top moments from Darlington Raceway:
Logano won the pole for Sunday’s race. Things got underway on “The Track Too Tough to Tame” with he and Bell battling side-by-side through the first two laps.
A caution came out early for some rain, but it came and went quickly, and the green flag returned at Lap 17.
Follow the leader
Polesitter Logano didn’t relinquish the lead for much of the beginning of the race, and at Lap 54, he extended his lead to nearly a full second over Byron.
Elsewhere, Harvick’s long pit stop in the opening stage left him in trouble, dropping him all the way out of the top 20.
Byron was finally able to close in on Logano and take the lead on Lap 66.
Larson’s team had to troubleshoot and check for engine issues when he came to pit road without power.
The caution flag came out at the end of the first stage, as Elliott and Briscoe collided on the track. Elliott got the worst of it, breaking the rear-toe link of his car and ending his race early.
Stage 1 in the books
Byron was able to pick up the Stage 1 win — his fourth stage win of the year and his first since Talladega in April.
The rest of the field got right to work putting their mark on the second stage.
Things got chaotic in Stage 2 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the wall hard and headed to the garage immediately with hefty right-side damage. Elsewhere, the caution flag flew when Todd Gilliland took a spin off Turn 2, nearly picking up Jones, Logano, and Suárez in the process.
The green flag was back out at Lap 187, but it didn’t stay that way for long, as Larson got turned around.
As the second stage winded down, Martin Treux Jr. overtook Busch for the lead, which he then built up to 1.9 seconds.
Shortly after, Suárez got put into the wall by Bell, who then got put into the wall by Logano. All drivers involved avoided a serious wreck, while Busch took the Stage 2 win — good for a playoff point.
The green flag was back out with 131 laps left, at which point Busch had led over 100 laps on the night. The top four cars at that time — Busch, Logano, Truex Jr. and Suárez — were separated by just 1.7 seconds.
It was short-lived, however, as the caution came out when Harvick’s car caught fire on the track.
Harvick, who had previously expressed concerns about issues with the rigidness of the Next Gen car, spoke candidly about his early exit shortly after the incident.
Joe Gibbs Racing goes 1-2-3
Later, Truex Jr. opened up a 1.5-second lead on Busch, who was getting hounded by Hamlin in third.
Things looked promising for Truex Jr., but his night ended prematurely due to untimely mechanical issues.
Busch took the lead after Truex Jr.’s exit, but then something wildly unexpected happened — a large plume of smoke came out from underneath Busch’s car and the motor blew up on the track. Busch was out of the race just like that, making way for Jones — the 2019 Southern 500 winner — to move into the lead spot.
Busch had previously led 155 laps of this race.
Jones started to pull away with 10 laps to go, while Reddick was challenging Hamlin inside for second. In the end, Jones was able to hold off the rest of the field and secure the win in Darlington.
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