|PHOTO: Jared C. Tilton, Getty Images|
Jones arrived in Charlotte 14th in the point standings, jumping back into Playoff contention after back-to-back top-ten finishes in Dover and Kansas. Following his last-place run in the season-opening Clash at Daytona, Jones finished a strong 3rd in the Daytona 500, following his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch to the finish line. A 13th-place finish in Las Vegas was followed by three finishes of 19th or worse, though at Fontana he nearly overcame minor damage to the driver’s door before he faded late. A 4th-place run in Texas was followed by three more poor showings at Bristol, Richmond, and Talladega, before a 6th at Dover and a 3rd at Kansas brought him to the All-Star break.
Locked-in to his first All-Star Race after his first career win at Daytona last July, Jones’ #20 Toyota would carry sponsorship from Craftsman for the first time since Bristol. In opening practice, Jones turned the 10th-fastest lap, then improved to 7th in the second session. He also qualified 7th of the 15 locked-in cars, his combined pit stop and hot laps equaling out at 134.546mph (2 minutes, 0.405 seconds).
Starting last in Saturday’s All-Star event was Alex Bowman, who after three consecutive 2nd-place finishes finished 3rd in the Open and earned the All-Star Fan Vote. Bowman looked to turn things around from a difficult showing in 2018, where he gave Hendrick Motorsports its first All-Star last-place finish since 1995.
What ensued was one of the most competitive and fast-paced last-place battles in recent history.
At the start, Bowman pulled alongside Kyle Larson, whose #42 Advent Health Chevrolet won the final stage of the Open race. As the two raced side-by-side, William Byron’s #24 Hendrick Autoguard Chevrolet fell back in the far outer lane. Byron then reeled in Bowman, pulled to the inside, and on Lap 2 got by off the second corner. On Lap 3, Bowman worked his way past Aric Almirola, whose #10 Smithfield Ford trailed the race for the first time. Three circuits later, Almirola raced past Kurt Busch, putting the #1 Gear Wrench / Monster Energy Chevrolet to last. Kurt raced past Almirola on Lap 9, and Almirola slingshot past seconds later. On Lap 14, Busch passed Bowman on the inside, but this time the #88 stayed locked on the rear bumper of the #1. Bowman side-drafted Kurt to get by on Lap 20. Kurt did the same in Turn 1 on Lap 23, and Bowman again blasted past in Turn 3.
Jones entered the battle on Lap 27, when the caution fell for debris from his #20. Running 9th at the time, Jones slid up the track in Turn 4, then cut down a right-front tire, sending him sliding into the outside wall. He managed to get down to the apron with the right side of the car scraped-up and the right-front fender torn up, but a tire carcass from the right-front drew the yellow. Since caution laps didn’t count, Jones didn’t lose a lap as he made repeated stops for new tires and repairs. Kurt Busch also made an extended stop with his crew looking under the rear of the car. The incident forced a green-white-checkered restart with Jones still last and a patched-up right-front fender. Jones managed to keep up with the pack, and passed Bubba Wallace’s #43 World Wide Technology Chevrolet to his inside off Turn 2. On Lap 33, Wallace zipped past Jones on the backstretch, then both split around a slowing Almirola, who now had a loose wheel. The caution then fell to end Stage 1 with Almirola in last.
Under the Stage 1 caution, Jones made another long pit stop and resumed control of last place. But when the race restarted on Lap 34, Ryan Newman took over the spot in his #6 Acorns Ford. Newman suffered damage to the nose of his machine, forcing the crew to repair it with several strips of green tape. Newman then worked past Almirola in Turn 3 before sliding into Wallace’s left-rear and sliding into the infield grass. The Astroturf surface from last year’s Roval event prevented Newman’s splitter from digging into the soil.
After another lengthy stop, Newman managed to return to action for the Lap 40 restart for Stage 2, though now a full 22 seconds back of the pack. He was 27 seconds back on Lap 48, and in danger of becoming the first to lose a lap. This lasted only until Lap 52, when race leader Kevin Harvick in the #4 Busch Beer Millennial Car caught Newman in Turn 3 and made the pass. “That's pretty embarrassing right there, guys,” said Newman, who stayed in touch with Harvick as Stage 2 ended on Lap 53, allowing him the night’s first Lucky Dog. Under this caution, Wallace retook last since he pitted behind Newman. Wallace returned to the track first, however, dropping the #6 back to the rear.
Setting up for another two-by-two restart in Stage 3, Jones and Newman were in the final row with the #20 outside of the #6. When the green flag dropped, Jones held it briefly, but dropped Newman back to last in Turn 1 before Bowman slipped to 19th off Turn 2. On Lap 54, Ryan Blaney took last for the first time in his #12 Body Armor Ford. Just a moment later, Newman breathed yhe throttle in the high lane and dropped four seconds back. Newman then made an unscheduled stop on Lap 56 which again dropped Newman a lap down. Jones, meanwhile, tangled with Austin Dillon’s #3 Dow / RCR 50th Anniversary Chevrolet in Turn 4 after Dillon crossed the nose of Kyle Busch’s #18 M&M’s Hazlenut Spread Toyota. This saved Harvick from losing a lap to pit for a loose wheel, and also handed Newman his second Lucky Dog. With that, all 19 cars were not only still running, but all were on the lead lap.
Under caution, Dillon took over last on Lap 60 for repairs from the Jones accident andw as told he had just one set of sticker tires left. His current set had just five laps on them, but were likely flat-stopped from the accident. The only other set left were 20-lap scuffs. Regardless, Dillon passed Jones, who received additional repairs on Lap 61. The #20 crew said that nothing appeared broken on the #20 despite his multiple incidents, but the team may park the car if it was running too slow. The team thus decided on that stop to put on their last set of tires and see what Jones could do.
Newman also pitted on Lap 61, and once again came out by himself, struggling to catch the field as they took the restart. The #6 was 37 seconds back of the lead when the green flag fell, a gap which stabilized at 13 seconds when the field reached full speed. When Stage 3 ended on Lap 73, last place changed between several other drivers, including Denny Hamlin’s #11 FedEx Express Toyota, Jimmie Johnson’s #48 Ally Chevrolet, Wallace, and Dillon. Almirola took last for a brief moment when he was forced to serve a penalty for too many crewmen over the wall. But Newman again retook last under the caution and would restart in that spot.
Stage 4, the last of the night, began with Newman staring down a two-wide field in front of him. The next time by on Lap 75, as Newman was again making a move for 18th, Martin Truex, Jr. took the spot for the first time when his #19 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker ATVs & Boats / USO Toyota was shaken out in the middle line. Seconds later, the caution flew for an accident in Turn 3 when Hamlin had a left-rear tire go down in front of Blaney, who spun the #11 into a passing Dillon. Despite the damage, Hamlin took less time on pit road than Truex for his problems, and the #19 took last for the Lap 76 restart.
When the green flew once more, Truex remained last and fell back on the backstretch. He managed to catch Johnson off turn 4 at the stripe, but couldn’t clear him. Meanwhile, Jones re-enacted Fontana by charging up to 4th before he found the outside wall once more, drawing the caution before a single lap was completed. Shaken out of line once more, Jones was 14 seconds back of the lead when the yellow came out. This time, the #20 beat Blaney off pit road, dropping the #12 to last. Blaney then worked past Johnson on the Lap 77 restart, and Johnson slingshot past Blaney once more. Both then moved past Jones, who slowed on the backstretch on Lap 79.
It was then, with nine laps to go in the final stage, that Jones pulled down pit road, then made a left-hand turn into the garage area. Hamlin followed two laps later, and Busch four circuits after that. Blaney and Johnson were still on the track – and on the lead lap – when Larson took the hard-fought victory, rounding out the Bottom Five.
The feel-good story of the night turned out to be Bubba Wallace, who finished a strong 5th. A difficult start to the season saw his #43 just 29th in points coming into the All-Star Race. The driver revealed that he has been dealing with depression, and a series of increasingly-bizarre rumors surrounded the Richard Petty Motorsports team through the week. Not considered a favorite to make the main event, Wallace parlayed pit strategy in Stage 1 of the Open and found himself side-drafting Kyle Larson on the final lap before William Byron snatched away victory in a photo finish. Frustrated but undeterred, Wallace repeated the strategy in Stage 2, this time running the opposite lane alongside the #41 Arris Ford of Daniel Suarez. The two bumped across the line with Suarez spinning and Wallace racing in. After a second round of repairs and congratulations from his friend Ryan Blaney, Wallace started his first-ever All-Star Race. Though he spent his own times in last, as mentioned above, he clawed back into the Top 5 in Stage 4, running as high as 3rd before the finish.
*This was Jones’ first last-place finish in the All-Star Race, but the second in three years for Joe Gibbs Racing’s #20. In 2017, Matt Kenseth trailed the All-Star with a busted oil cooler.
*Jones becomes the first driver to finish last in both the Clash at Daytona and the All-Star Race in the same season since 2011, when Kasey Kahne did the same in Team Red Bull’s #4 Toyota. The only other time it happened was in 2000, when John Andretti drove for Petty Enterprises, though that time is was because the Petty team voluntarily made themselves ineligible for the Budweiser Pole Award at the time.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
19) #20-Erik Jones / 77 laps / crash
18) #11-Denny Hamlin / 79 laps / crash
17) #1-Kurt Busch / 83 laps / crash
16) #12-Ryan Blaney / 88 laps / running
15) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 88 laps / running