Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Erik Jones & Darlington — A Match Made in Heaven

Peanut butter and chocolate. Charlie Brown and Linus. Or if you are Elvis Presley, peanut butter and banana on a sandwich.

All of these are things (or cartoon characters) that go well together. In racing, you can add Erik Jones and Darlington Raceway to that list.

Entering the Cook Out Southern 500 (Sept. 3), let’s face it, 2023 has been a down year for Legacy Motor Club. It has been covered in this column and all over motorsports media. One year after so much promise and a new co-owner in Jimmie Johnson, the road has been anything but smooth for the team.

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However, the team’s foundational driver, Jones, has found a way to excel in the face of adversity. He proved that by winning the Southern 500 last year despite missing the playoffs.

While a win was not in the cards this year, Jones’ Darlington prowess was on display again with a top 10.

After starting 20th, Jones accelerated forward, finishing stage one in 12th. By the time a caution came on lap 180 for the turns 3 and 4 lights going out, the No. 43 was positioned in sixth. Restart after restart and pit stop after pit stop, Jones slowly climbed up the leaderboard, resulting in a third-place stage two finish.

Jones was on the front row to begin the final stage, staying inside the top 10 for much of the run. The Byron, Mich. native pitted after a caution on lap 319, putting him outside the top 10. In a race and at a track where passing can be tricky, Jones was unable to drive back into the top five. However, he cracked the top 10, crossing the start/finish line in 10th to end the night.

The result is Jones’ second top 10 at The Lady in Black with Legacy and his eighth in 12 career Cup starts at the track. It was also his fourth top 10 in the last seven races, giving him valuable momentum for the final nine races.

Playoff Underdog Watch

For most drivers at Darlington, leaving the track with a relatively smooth night is almost a win, especially for playoff drivers. Neither Ricky Stenhouse Jr. nor Michael McDowell were able to experience that.

After showing impressive speed in practice, a 25th-place qualifying effort set Stenhouse back for the race. Given the dirty air he faced, it was an undesirable challenge from the beginning.

While fighting to stay on the lead lap early on, Stenhouse sped on pit road, quickly putting him one lap behind. However, he never backed down, earning the free pass on lap 219. Stenhouse took advantage of that, staying out under a late caution in stage two to gain track position and earn a vital stage point in 10th.

The roller coaster continued from there, as the Daytona 500 winner was as high as 10th and as low as 28th in the final stage. In the end, he scored a 16th-place finish. Though it wasn’t pretty, it was a solid comeback for Stenhouse, who sits just four points below the cut line entering Kansas, a track he finished 12th at in the spring.

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For McDowell, his night was anything but optimal. McDowell played catch up from the start, falling two laps down by the stage two mid-point. Despite gaining one lap back, the wheels fell off the bus on lap 331.

Kyle Busch pinched McDowell’s Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland exiting turn 4, causing Gilliland to lose control on the frontstretch. In response, Denny Hamlin was forced to take evasive action, sliding right in McDowell’s path. The No. 34 nailed Hamlin and slid into the outside wall, collecting Christopher Bell.

A 32nd-place DNF was not what McDowell needed if he has hopes of advancing to the Round of 12. He is now behind the eight-ball, 19 points below the cut line.

Who Impressed

AJ Allmendinger was on a short list of drivers who had relatively smooth nights. The Dinger kept his car clean all night, running inside the top 10 at multiple points and staying inside the top 15 for a majority of the race. Despite missing out on the playoffs, the Kaulig Racing driver still had something to celebrate, as he capitalized on his best Darlington run with a career-best finish of 13th at the track.

Just two Cup starts in the books and Carson Hocevar has been beyond impressive. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series regular received the call to pilot Legacy’s No. 42 this weekend and he did not disappoint. It immediately started in qualifying, laying down a lap good enough for 15th. But that was just the beginning.

Hocevar stayed on the lead lap the entire night, an overlooked feat given that the race went green for the entire first stage. He kept the No. 42 inside the top 20 almost all night, and at the end, he held off former Cup champions Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick to finish 17th. The 20-year-old has now stepped into the No. 42 and Spire Motorsports’ No. 7 (at World Wide Technology Raceway), displaying top 15 speed at times in both rides. He will be back in the No. 42 for the next two races as well.

What They’re Saying

Allmendinger (13th): “I’m really happy with the whole weekend our No. 16 team had in Darlington. We made significant improvement from the spring race. Our car had a good amount of speed, and we tried to fine tune the balance all night. This was the best I’ve ever felt in a Cup car and a career-best finish for me at this track. I’m satisfied with our end result.”

Hocevar (17th):

Justin Haley (24th): “Darlington was tough for us this time by. We lacked grip and fought really free from tire falloff during the first part of the race. We were kind of stuck sitting two laps down and in need of clean air and got really tight before we got free again. At the very end we were able to get the car close and find what we needed for the long runs, but unfortunately it was too late for us to make any gains. We will regroup for Kansas next week.”

McDowell (32nd):

Harrison Burton (35th):

Small Team Scheme of the Week

While the scheme has now run for three consecutive weeks, it certainly has not grown old. Hocevar piloted the teal No. 42 with Sunseeker Resorts as the sponsor once again. The car has a relaxing feel to it and will likely make you want to be sitting on a beach somewhere.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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WD

“Beyond impressive” , well said for Carson Hocevar . Hope this young man gets a shot in that ride or Spire Motorsports . He has made a statement in his 2 auditions this season, hopefully the remaining are as impressive. Not sure what money he has behind him as we all know that is a prerequisite for a full time ride

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