By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
The Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway was a tale of two races for the 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year (ROTY) contenders in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Of the five of the ROTY contenders, only the two BK Racing drivers have no previous experience at ‘The Track Too Tough to Tame.’
Erik Jones was the best rookie for the third week in a row, finishing fifth in the No. 77 5-hour ENERGY / Rookie Salute Toyota Camry after running inside the top-10 all night long. Jones kept his nose clean and slowly moved up the running order.
Jones had a surprisingly quiet night at the track nicknamed ‘The Lady in Black.’ Aside from the occasional ‘Darlington Stripe,’ he finished the race without a scratch on his Toyota Camry.
A late caution in Stage 2 prevented Jones from being inside the Top-10 at the end of both stages. He finished sixth in the first stage, gaining five Championship Points.
Jones was happy to score his third consecutive top-five,
“I lost brakes completely for a minute then they came back. I’ve never had an issue like that before, but turned out to be a really good night for us – top-five night. Chris (Gayle, crew chief) did a really nice job with running a really nice strategy there at the end and getting us back in contention and I was hoping we just were going to run in the top-10 and to get a top-five out of it is really good. So our car was good in the day, but when the sun went down we just kind of lost the handle and couldn’t really ever get back and everybody was fighting grip obviously. Good night for the 5-hour ENERGY Camry. A top-five here? We’ll take it. That’s three top-fives in a row for us.”
Ty Dillon finished 13th, one lap down, in the No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS after a quiet night. Driving a car inspired by one driven by Johnny Rutherford, Dillon ran inside the top-20 all night long.
Dillon’s Chevrolet never quite had the speed as the Toyotas and Fords. He was consistent throughout the night, ended the stages in 15th and 16th respectively.
Dillon was happy to match his career-best finish in the Southern 500,
“It was a good day. My first Southern 500, I enjoy it. I love this race track. I just love when you come to a track and the tires get worn out and you’ve got to be patient. And you’ve got to treat that throttle pedal like an egg and you can really make a lot of difference on a long run. That was what we were able to do tonight with our GEICO Chevy. I’m just proud of the guys. We had a good piece in practice and it was nice just to have a really solid weekend through and through. When you add in the honor of representing a race car from years past that was driven by Johnny Rutherford and fielded by Smokey Yunick – it really adds to the great night for our GEICO team here at Darlington. Good momentum going back to Richmond another track that we ran really well at. Excited for the end of this year.”
Corey LaJoie finished 28th, seven laps down, in the No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota Camry after a quiet day. LaJoie went down a lap early in the Davey Allison-inspired Throwback and was trapped multiple laps down by the end of the first stage.
Gray Gaulding finished 36th, over 150 laps down in the No. 83 Champion Machinery Toyota Camry. A cut tire sent Gaulding spinning into the outside wall, ending his night.
Daniel Suarez had another rough night in the No. 19 Arris Toyota Camry, finishing 38th after completing just 125 laps. For Suarez, a blown tire ended the night early.
Suarez had been running inside the top-15 before he cut a tire exiting turn two. By the time he returned to pit road, the hot rubber was burning in some places. By the time the small flames were put out and the damage was accessed, it was too late to beat the five-minute clock.
This was Suarez’s third DNF of the season.
Now all of the ROTY contenders will look to run well at Richmond Raceway, the last race before the Playoffs.