NASCAR: Erik Jones wins playoff opener at Darlington as myriad playoff drivers have problems

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DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 04: Erik Jones, driver of the #43 FOCUSfactor Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 04, 2022 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 04: Erik Jones, driver of the #43 FOCUSfactor Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 04, 2022 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

The first race of the 2022 Cup Series playoffs featured a non-playoff driver in victory lane.

Erik Jones inherited the lead during the final caution flag when leader Kyle Busch had an engine problem with less than 25 laps to go and led the final 23 laps on the way to his first win of the season and the 200th win for the No. 43 car at the top level of NASCAR during Sunday night's Southern 500 at Darlington.

Jones ran near the front of the field all night. His win wasn’t a fluke. He had earned his position to inherit the lead from Busch’s misfortune and then kept Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin at bay for the final green flag run of the race.

His win is also the first for a non-playoff driver in the opening race of the playoffs. Dating back to the inception of NASCAR’s playoffs in 2004, no driver outside the postseason had ever won the playoff opener.

Jones also became the 17th different winner over the first 27 Cup Series races of the season. Sixteen different drivers won races during the regular season. The victory is Jones' third of his career and first since he won the 2019 Southern 500.

He won that race while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. But Jones was replaced by Christopher Bell after a winless 2020 season that didn't include a playoff appearance. Without many top-tier rides available, Jones signed to drive for Richard Petty Motorsports, a team that's now Petty GMS Motorsports after a merger before the 2022 season.

RPM isn't the powerhouse it once was in Petty's heyday. The No. 43 car hadn't been to victory lane since 2014 and now has just two wins in the 2000s. Before Aric Almirola won at Daytona eight years ago, the last driver to win in the No. 43 car was John Andretti at Martinsville. Just five of the 200 wins by drivers in the No. 43 have come since 1984.

Jones' win also came as myriad playoff drivers had problems throughout the night. Regular-season champion Chase Elliott finished last after he crashed out and Kevin Harvick finished 33rd after his car randomly caught fire during the third stage.

Busch finished 30th after his engine issue and Chase Briscoe was 27th after he got caught up in Elliott’s wreck. Overall, six of the top-10 finishers were playoff drivers.

Tyler Reddick finished third behind Hamlin while Joey Logano was fourth and Christopher Bell was fifth.

Race results

1. Erik Jones

2. Denny Hamlin

3. Tyler Reddick

4. Joey Logano

5. Christopher Bell

6. Michael McDowell

7. Brad Keselowski

8. William Byron

9. Bubba Wallace

10. Alex Bowman

11. Aric Almirola

12. Kyle Larson

13. Ryan Blaney

14. Cole Custer

15. Ty Gibbs

16. Austin Cindric

17. Austin Dillon

18. Daniel Suarez

19. Justin Haley

20. Ross Chastain

21. Harrison Burton

22. Ty Dillon

23. Daniel Hemric

24. Corey LaJoie

25. Landon Cassill

26. Chris Buescher

27. Chase Briscoe

28. Todd Gilliland

29. BJ McLeod

30. Kyle Busch

31. Martin Truex Jr.

32. Cody Ware

33. Kevin Harvick

34. JJ Yeley

35. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

36. Chase Elliott