DARLINGTON, S.C. — Erik Jones took the lead when Kyle Busch’s engine blew up, then pulled away from Denny Hamlin after a final restart 20 laps from the end to win the opening NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Darlington Raceway on Sunday night.
Hamlin, seeded sixth in the playoffs, closed in on Jones’ back bumper on the final lap but couldn’t make the winning pass. Jones went on to his second career win at Darlington and third Cup Series victory.
It was also the 200th win by the iconic No. 43 car, with most tied to Hall of Famer Richard Petty.
“He said if I won, I was going to get a (cowboy) hat,” Jones laughed.
Jones became the first non-playoff driver to win the opener in NASCAR’s 10-race run to a title. And he did it as many of the top seeds had breakdowns and wrecks.
Along with Busch’s blow up, No. 9 seed Kevin Harvick saw his car catch fire in a scary seen. Harvick scrambled away from his stopped car to safety.
Top-seeded Chase Elliott was gone during the first stage, sliding into the wall, hitting Chase Briscoe as he tore up his suspension and was out of the race.
Kyle Larson, the defending series champion, was three laps down in the opening stage after engine problems. Larson finished 12th.
Hamlin was second followed by three more playoff chasers in Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano and Christopher Bell. Michael McDowell was sixth, with Brad Keselowski, William Byron, Bubba Wallace and Alex Bowman rounding out the top 10.
Busch led 155 of 367 laps, the most of anyone. He ended in 30th.
“It’s unfortunate circumstances,” Busch said. “We just had a great car and didn’t come out with anything to show for it. That’s what I hate about it.”
The scariest incident came in the final stage when Harvick caught fire on lap 276 as he came down the front stretch. Harvick quickly pulled the car on the grass and jumped out of the car, running to safety.
Harvick said it’s another safety problem with the Next Gen car that NASCAR must fix.
“What a disaster, man,” Harvick said. “No reason … here we are in the pits with a burned up car and we can’t finish the race during the playoff” because of unreliable parts.
Round one of the playoffs continues at Kansas next Sunday.