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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press photos Erik Jones celebrates at the finish line after winning Saturday night’s Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway, his first career victory.

  • Kyle Busch, left, and William Byron, center, were part of a crash coming out of Turn 4 on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Monday, July 09, 2018 1:00 am

NASCAR Second Half

Jones' win harbinger of future?

Driver, 22, gives Cup Series bump at year's midpoint

DAN GELSTON | Associated Press

Top 5

Coke Zero Sugar 400

Finishers

1. Erik Jones Toyota

2. Martin Truex Jr Toyota

3. AJ Allmendinger Chevrolet

4. Kasey Kahne Chevrolet

5. Chris Buescher Chevrolet

Points

1. Kyle Busch 749

2. Harvick 692

3. Truex 629

4. Logano 618

5. Keselowski 596

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Erik Jones created so much smoke during his burnout that he had trouble breathing afterward.

His first career Cup victory Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway was a needed breath of fresh air in a sport that has failed to see a supposed bumper crop of young talent emerge as bona fide stars.

Jones, 22, had his motorcoach wrapped in toilet paper as a prank and awoke to a steady string of congratulatory tweets ranging from Kyle Busch to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The feel-good, first-time win gave the sport a vital bump as it capped the official first half of the season.

The question lingers: Is this a sign that perhaps the “Young Guns” are poised to break through over the final 18 races, or was this just an aberration as Jones became the latest benefactor to survive the wild wrecks that litter Daytona?

When the smoke finally cleared around Jones' No. 20 Toyota, this much was still clear – Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. remained the only three drivers in the rarefied air of legitimate championship contenders.

“How many more wins can they get, playoff points can they get?” asked Earnhardt, now an NBC broadcaster. “Will anybody get in there and join the conversation?”

Led by five wins each from Busch and Harvick, the three have combined for 13 wins over the first 18 points races.

All three have been the class of the field.

All three are former Cup champions.

Can any driver stop one of them from claiming the crown?

Asked if Jones' victory was a momentum-builder for the next generation, third-place finisher AJ Allmendinger cracked, “One of those three are going to win next week, so I don't know.”

Jones, who joined Daytona 500 champion Austin Dillon as winners at the track this season who only led the final lap, certainly has the talent and team to become a consistent winner. Joe Gibbs Racing thought so highly of his talent that it gave 2004 Cup champ Matt Kenseth the boot to make room for Jones.

“Regardless of who I'm replacing or where I'm driving, you want to win races, and you want to be a winner,” Jones said. “You don't want to be riding around.”

It only seems as if 35 other drivers have been riding around all season trying to play catchup to Busch, Harvick and Truex. But the first step toward a title is making the playoffs. With eight races left before the field is set, only eight drivers have clinched automatic playoff spots with a win. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Dillon, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman held the final eight spots Sunday – an order sure to become jumbled after next week's race at Kentucky Speedway.

You know, the track where Truex is the defending race winner.

So it goes, 18 up, 18 ahead.

Here's what to watch for in the second half of the NASCAR season:

The Big 4?

Should Busch, Harvick and Truex advance to the championship finale at Homestead – and it's certainly no lock all three qualify – who would join them as the fourth driver to race for the title?

Bowyer has two wins and is enjoying a career rebirth at Stewart-Haas Racing. SHR has dominated this season with Harvick, Bowyer and Kurt Busch regular contenders and Almirola, in his first season as Danica Patrick's replacement in the No. 10 Ford, has proved it was the driver and not the car that was the weak link in the top team in NASCAR.

Logano (one win) and Hamlin (winless) have come oh-so-close before to winning the title, and an Elliott championship would link today's fans with the old-school loyalists who loved rooting for his dad, “Awesome” Bill Elliott.

Blame Chevy

Remember 2007 when Chevrolets won 26 of 36 races?

Yeah, well, neither does Chevy in a short-term memory sport as it's mired in its worst slump since the 1980s.

Chevrolet extended its winless streak to 17 races, its longest since a 31-race drought in 1981-82. Bowman's pole and Dillon's win at the Daytona 500 remain the lone highlight of the season.

The American manufacturer replaced the maligned Chevrolet SS with the Camaro this year and it hasn't mattered. Chevy won 13 consecutive manufacturer championships in the Cup Series between 2003 and 2015. But Toyota and Ford have clearly closed the gap.

It has to pain the company to see Stewart-Haas Racing zip into a new stratosphere after it dumped Chevy for Ford in 2017.