NASCAR Barometer: Jones Puts No. 43 Back in Victory Lane

NASCAR Barometer: Jones Puts No. 43 Back in Victory Lane

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Sunday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway kicked off the NASCAR Cup Series playoff battle and gave the standings a good shakeup at the same time. The long and demanding race hit many of the playoff contenders hard with fully half of the playoff field failing to finish in the top 15. The unpredictable storyline gave Erik Jones the chance he needed to capitalize on the speed he has had all season to put his car into Victory Lane, scoring the long-awaited 200th victory for the No. 43. It was a rare win in the playoffs for a nonplayoff team, but it wouldn't have come as a surprise to fantasy players who have seen Jones put himself into contention for wins multiple times this year. However, it does suggest that what has become a somewhat predictable playoff format in years past could be just as unpredictable as the rest of this 2022 season has been thus far. 

Many playoff contenders find themselves with significant work to do in the next two races to ensure they advance among the top-12 contenders. Up first is Kansas Speedway, where Kurt Busch won earlier this season. Austin Cindric, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe and Kevin Harvick all sit below the 12th and final transfer spot after Darlington with work to do in the next two races to advance to the next round. Just 21 points separate the bottom seven drivers, though, and much could still happen in what has been a highly unpredictable

Sunday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway kicked off the NASCAR Cup Series playoff battle and gave the standings a good shakeup at the same time. The long and demanding race hit many of the playoff contenders hard with fully half of the playoff field failing to finish in the top 15. The unpredictable storyline gave Erik Jones the chance he needed to capitalize on the speed he has had all season to put his car into Victory Lane, scoring the long-awaited 200th victory for the No. 43. It was a rare win in the playoffs for a nonplayoff team, but it wouldn't have come as a surprise to fantasy players who have seen Jones put himself into contention for wins multiple times this year. However, it does suggest that what has become a somewhat predictable playoff format in years past could be just as unpredictable as the rest of this 2022 season has been thus far. 

Many playoff contenders find themselves with significant work to do in the next two races to ensure they advance among the top-12 contenders. Up first is Kansas Speedway, where Kurt Busch won earlier this season. Austin Cindric, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe and Kevin Harvick all sit below the 12th and final transfer spot after Darlington with work to do in the next two races to advance to the next round. Just 21 points separate the bottom seven drivers, though, and much could still happen in what has been a highly unpredictable year. After Darlington, every team will be taking a deep breath and trying to reset themselves, focus forward, and ensure they deliver the consistent pace they need with no mistakes to see themselves through to the next round of elimination races.

UPGRADE

Erik Jones – After a big step forward in competitiveness and knocking on the door of a win all season, Jones got the job done Sunday night at Darlington, claiming his third series win. The victory was the 200th for the No. 43 and it came at one of NASCAR's most legendary tracks. A well-timed caution after a small pit mishap gave Jones the track position he needed to keep his car in the top five until the finish. From there, Jones' speed and lack of mistakes saw him inherit the lead after drivers ahead were forced to drop out with mechanical problems. Jones went on to nail the final restart of the race, emerging with the lead, and holding off late-race pressure from Denny Hamlin to win for the first time since 2014, becoming the 17th different winner this season.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin avoided the problems that struck down much of the playoff field in Darlington to race to a runner-up finish to start his playoff hunt. The No. 11 was one of the fastest cars throughout the race but only led six laps. Still, Hamlin avoided all the mistakes and mechanical issues that plagued much of the field to score his third top-five finish in the last five races. Sunday night's effort capitalized on many of his competitors' problems and leaves Hamlin third in the playoff standings with a 30-point cushion back to the elimination zone. Hamlin's consistent speed through the most recent couple of months could make him a favorite this week at Kansas where he finished fourth after starting 18th earlier this season.

Joey Logano – Darlington has been a good venue for Logano this season. He won the spring race, bumping William Byron from the lead with just a few miles remaining. Logano was just as fast in the return visit last week, too. The Team Penske driver led 64 laps and spent nearly the entire night racing among the top 10. He finished the race fourth, which was a great result considering how many of his playoff rivals suffered throughout the race. With two races left in the opening round of eliminations, Logano now sits atop the playoff standings with a six-point advantage over Byron in second. Logano now turns his focus to Kansas where he is a three-time winner. He started 34th and finished 17th in this season's first visit to the track.

William Byron – Byron started the return visit to Darlington right at the front as he sought redemption from being moved from the lead there late in the spring. He qualified well and quickly moved to the lead where he stayed to capture the first stage win of the night. However, the Hendrick team's bad luck also struck Byron as he felt engine issues similar to those that hamstrung teammate Kyle Larson. The No. 24 team worked around the issue and kept the No. 24 on track, but the initial pace Byron used to his advantage left him for the remainder of the race. However, he soldiered on and his eighth-place finish is a big boost to him in the playoff battle with so many other contenders having bigger problems. He is now second among the 16 playoff contenders. 

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Busch – Busch grabbed his third stage win of the year and the extra playoff point that comes with it in the second segment Sunday night. He raced among the top five through the first two-thirds of the race and then held off teammate Martin Truex Jr. in a late restart in the second segment to pocket the point. The night turned into a disaster in the final miles, though. Just after teammate Truex exited the race, and Busch seemed in position to inherit the inevitable victory, smoke began billowing out of the No. 18's exhaust while circulating under caution. With his engine expiring, Busch drove straight to the garage and out of the race in a terrible start to his playoff hunt. Busch has two Kansas wins and led 18 laps before finishing third in the spring race.

Kevin Harvick – Harvick was one of the many playoff contenders to suffer problems out of the gate. He had been building a top-10 finish into the final stage when his car caught on fire and ended his day. Harvick was able to exit the car to safety before the fire was extinguished, but his night was over and his playoffs are off to a horrible start. Harvick has three career wins at Kansas and will be hoping for another this week to quickly recover from Sunday's DNF and secure his future in the next round of elimination races. He sits 13 points behind the cutoff line for the next round of the playoffs and will need a smooth race this week to avoid heading to Bristol in a must-win situation to keep his championship hopes alive.

Chase Elliott – Elliott's playoff point advantage was virtually erased Sunday night at Darlington. The former champion made contact with the outside wall and lost control before being hit by Chase Briscoe. Elliott drove the car to pit road with the right-rear askew for repairs, but the team was not able to get through the extensive fix before time from the damaged vehicle policy expired and Elliott was eliminated from the race. He now has two races to turn things around and make sure he advances to the round of 12. He won at Kansas in 2018 and has eight top-10s from 13 starts. He led 10 laps there in the spring before falling afoul of a rear tire issue, which relegated him to the 29th finishing position.

Martin Truex Jr. – One week after missing the playoffs, Truex was poised to earn his first win of the season with a quick car at Darlington. With less than 40 laps remaining, and while in the lead, his car lost power steering and then began to overheat. He immediately slowed and was forced to pit road only for the crew to retire the car with a water pump failure. The bad luck has been the story for his 2022 season. Truex and team will continue to try to play a spoiler role in the playoffs, but with the chances at the championship gone, they really have nothing left to play for except race wins. Truex does have two Kansas wins and he hasn't finished lower than ninth in the last six races at the track either. Fantasy players know he will have to overcome a season's worth of missed chances to get to Victory Lane this week.

Chase Briscoe – Briscoe needed a confident start to the playoffs, preferably with a top-10 finish. That goal become impossible early when Briscoe clouted Chase Elliott's spinning car, though. Briscoe's machine suffered heavy front-end damage and lost laps to the leaders as the team made repairs. The damage also handicapped Briscoe's chances for the rest of the race, and he finished four laps behind in 27th position. While he wasn't the lowest placed playoff contender Sunday at Darlington, he didn't have the points cushion to give him room for error. Briscoe now sits 15th in the playoff standings, 10 points behind the safety line. It is going to be a big job for Briscoe to navigate the next two races and climb up the championship standings. From three Kansas starts his average finish is just 21.0.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Kyle Larson – For the second week in a row Larson heard something in the engine only for a mechanical issue to rear its head and force the No. 5 to pit road. Unlike at Daytona, though, the team got him back on track to make up laps. He was multiple laps behind with the situation getting worse. Things took another wrong turn in the second stage when he spun and made contact with the wall. However, the team's persistence kept him on track, and he eventually returned to the lead lap and held tough through the rest of the long race to salvage a 12th-place finish. Larson won the fall Kansas race last season and finished second this past spring, and the team's perseverance Sunday at Darlington may have saved its championship hopes. Hendrick must solve the engine gremlins quickly, however.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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