DARLINGTON, S.C. — Erik Jones used every bit of stamina he had to hold off Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and win the rain-delayed Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
"I'm mentally drained," he said with a smile in the wee hours of Monday morning. "I'm physically drained."
Jones took the lead from Kyle Larson 85 laps from the end and stayed in front of Busch the rest of the way to add a win at the iconic track for his first NASCAR Cup Series victory since July 2018 at Daytona International Speedway.
"It's pretty crazy, right?" he said. "I'm not a hugely emotional guy, but to get a win here means a lot to me."
Some had wondered if the 23-year-old Jones was the soft spot in the JGR powerhouse as Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. had all won four times apiece this season while Jones was winless in the No. 20 Toyota.
"Is there anything more to say?" Jones asked as the crowd cheered.
Not anymore. Now all four JGR drivers have taken a checkered flag and are locked into the NASCAR playoffs that start in two weeks.
"It takes a lot to beat them," Jones of his teammates. "Especially when you're racing the same equipment."
To have the win come at Darlington made it even more special for Jones.
"This is one of those races for me that has always held a special place. You think of NASCAR, you think of Darlington," he said.
Larson was second for his third top-three finish at Darlington in four years. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver led 497 laps during that stretch, including 44 in this one.
Busch, who started in the back after swapping out an engine after qualifying, got up to Jones' bumper near the end. He brushed the wall on the next-to-last lap, though, and wound up finishing third.
"We kind of lost control that pit stop where we came in the leader and came out third," Busch said. "I thought if we could keep in touch with (Jones and Larson), keep close to them, we might be able to out-pit road them at the end of the race. We got by one of them, but not the other one. But overall, good day."
Busch clinched the regular-season points lead.
Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick was fourth and Team Penske's Brad Keselowski took fifth.
Clint Bowyer was sixth, followed by Kurt Busch — big brother won the opening stage before Kyle Busch won the second stage — Matt DiBenedetto, Paul Menard and Austin Dillon.
Hamlin came into Darlington as the hottest driver in NASCAR and left wondering what went wrong. He was caught up in a final-stage crash and wound up 29th, his second-worst finish of the season. On Saturday, Hamlin crossed the line first in the second-tier Xfinity Series race but was disqualified when his car failed a post-race inspection.
Jimmie Johnson made some headway on his quest for a 16th straight playoff appearance, but he was hindered when he was caught up in the same final-stage crash as Hamlin, getting bumped back to 16th in the race. Johnson trimmed his playoff deficit from 26 points to 18, but he'll likely need a win in Indianapolis next weekend to qualify for the postseason.
"We're running out of days, and if we miss it, it's going to be by a few (points) I believe," Johnson said. "I can look back over the first half of the season and see a lot of races where we gave away a few points."
Heavy storms Sunday delayed the race by more than four hours. Drivers were going through introductions shortly before the scheduled 6 p.m. start when skies got dark and heavy rain began. Crews covered up cars and racers grabbed umbrellas as they headed back through the garage areas to wait out the storm.
Darlington officials earlier announced they had sold out their reserved seating. Most fans also sought shelter, although some stayed out. One was interviewed on the NBC Sports broadcast by Bowyer.
"You have to explain yourself, son," Bowyer asked, wanting to know why he was out there in the rain.
When the fan told him he came to see a race and didn't care about the wet weather, Bowyer shouted, "That, ladies and gentleman, is a race fan!"
At one point, drivers Corey LaJoie and Bubba Wallace came out on the wet track to throw a football with fans in the stands — the same thing they did earlier this season during a rain delay in Michigan.
NASCAR spokesman Matt Humphrey said officials took many factors into consideration in starting the race after 10 p.m., including the sellout at Darlington and the approach of Hurricane Dorian toward South Carolina's coast. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster ordered evacuations of coastal counties for Monday that included lane reversals on roadways in the area.
Humphrey said the storm's approach was a factor for leaders deciding whether to race or postpone. He said the biggest reason was that NASCAR runs races on the day that it's scheduled if at all possible.
Now it's on to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the regular-season finale. Keselowski won the event last year — on a Monday, after all weekend on-track activity was canceled by rain.