By PETE IACOBELLI
AP Sports Writer
DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Erik Jones took the lead when Kyle Busch’s engine blew up, then pulled away from Denny Hamlin after a final restart 20 laps from the end to win the opening NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Darlington Raceway on Sunday night.
Hamlin, seeded sixth in the playoffs, closed in on Jones’ back bumper on the final lap, but couldn’t make the winning pass. Jones went on to his second career win at Darlington and third NASCAR victory.
It was also the 200th win by the iconic No. 43 car, with most tied to Hall of Famer Richard Petty.
“He said if I won, I was going to get a (cowboy) hat,” Jones laughed.
Jones became the first non-playoff driver to win the opener in NASCAR’s 10-race run to a title. And he did it as many of the top seeds had breakdowns and wrecks.
Along with Busch’s blow up, No. 9 seed Kevin Harvick saw his car catch fire in a scary seen. Harvick scrambled away from his stopped car to safety.
Top-seeded Chase Elliott was gone during the first stage, sliding into the wall, hitting Chase Briscoe as he tore up his suspension and was out of the race.
Kyle Larson, the defending series champion, was three laps down in the opening stage after engine problems. Larson finished 12th.
Hamlin was second followed by three more playoff chasers in Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano and Christopher Bell. Michael McDowell was sixth, then Brad Keselowski, William Byron, Bubba Wallace
Busch led 155 of 367 laps, the most of anyone. He ended in 30th.
“It’s unfortunate circumstances,” Busch said. “We just had a great car and didn’t come out with anything to show for it. That’s what I hate about it.”
CHASING PROBLEMS: Chase Elliott was out of the Southern 500 before it got to halfway. Elliott slid in turn one, then collected playoff participant Chase Briscoe. Elliott’s suspension was damaged. His crew could not fix it in the pits and took it to the garage.
Elliott finished 36th, last in the field. His plans going forward: “Run better than we did today.”
FIRE DRILL: The scariest incident came in the final stage when Harvick caught fire on lap 276 as he came down the front stretch. Harvick quickly pulled the car on the grass and jumped out of the car, running to safety.
Moments later during the caution brought out by Harvick, J.J. Yeley’s car headed into the pits on fire. That blaze, too, was extinguished.
Harvick said it’s another safety problem with the Next Gen car NASCAr must fix.
“What a disaster, man,” Harvick said. “No reason … here we are in the pits with a burned up car and we can’t finish the race during the playoff” because of unreliable parts.
QB1: Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall at the track “Too Tough To Tame,” as NASCAR’s first college athlete to receive a name, image and likeness deal with Darlington Raceway. McCall did some promotional work for the track and even had his face on the side of Ryan Vargas’ No. 6 car in the Xfinity Series race here.
McCall was the NCAA record-setter in passing efficiency at 207.6 last season. He threw three TD passes and ran for a fourth as the Chants opened the season with a 38-28 victory over Army on Saturday night.
Round one of the playoffs continues at Kansas next Sunday. Kurt Busch, currently recovering from a concussion in a crash at Pocono, won the race there in May. He gave up his playoff spot because he has not been medically cleared to return to the track.
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