While Denny Hamlin emerged victorious in a wild, eventful and controversial finish to the YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, October 4, Erik Jones and Ty Dillon survived a late charge to the finish as both collected strong podium results while competing with uncertainty for next season.
Coming into Talladega, the site of the fifth NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race of this season, Jones’ goal was to receive another opportunity to win at a track where he nearly won at in April as the Byron, Michigan, native was entering the tri-oval with a run until late contact with eventual winner Ryan Blaney ended his bid for the victory.
Starting in 16th place in his No. 20 Sport Clips Toyota Camry, Jones was able to carve his way to the front and link up with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. along with Toyota teammate Daniel Suarez in the draft. Battling towards the front, he was able to collect a handful of stage points following the first stage after finishing in fifth place while also leading a total of seven laps within the first stage.
Restarting in fourth place for the second stage, Jones went on to lead a total of six laps and continue to battle towards the front against competitors battling or not battling for the title in the Playoffs before he settled in 13th place. Lining up in third place prior to the final stage and with an opportunity to win, Jones remained in contention within the lead pack and with an opportunity to strike for the win.
During the race’s third overtime attempt to the finish, Jones was battling Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto and William Byron for the lead and the win when he made contact with Buescher in Turns 3 and 4 while working together for the lead. Their contact allowed Jones’ teammate Denny Hamlin to make a bold move below the apron to pass both as he went on to battle and overtake DiBenedetto and Byron for the win. At the finish line, Jones was scored in third place, but with DiBenedetto being assessed a penalty for forcing Byron below the double yellow line, Jones was promoted into second place.
The runner-up result marked Jones’ eighth top-five result and best result since winning the 2019 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in September. The finish was much needed for Jones, who failed to make this year’s Playoffs and has yet to secure a ride for next season with the Michigan native set to depart Joe Gibbs Racing and the No. 20 Toyota team following this season while Christopher Bell will replace him in 2021.
“[The race] was good,” Jones said. “Obviously, wish we could have won it there at the end. We had to throw a big block and got in the wall, but still came back and finished second there. Good day. The car was strong. The Sport Clips Camry had good speed and we led a lot of laps. Just didn’t totally play out at the end. You can’t ask for a lot more. We were there and coming to the line with a shot to win.”
“I’m still working for 2021,” Jones added. “There’s still some things I’m trying to work out and get locked in for next year. But, I don’t know that it really changes my hand at all with them, the teams that I’m in discussion with, I’ve been in discussion with for a while. I told teams in the last few month that I know I can do it. I’ve won a couple of these races and feel like we could’ve won more along with way and just haven’t had the things work out for us. I’ve enjoyed my time at JGR, but definitely wished we could’ve won more races along the way. This last month has been awesome. As a driver, you’re running strong, you’re running upfront, but I don’t know that it changes too much with what I’ve got going.”
For Ty Dillon, Sunday’s race at Talladega produced an opportunity for the Welcome, North Carolina, native to notch a strong result in a season where his highest finish through last weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was 10th place, which occurred at Vegas in February.
Starting in 28th place, Dillon methodically worked his way to the front before he settled in 17th place when the first stage concluded. Throughout the second stage, Dillon worked his way up into the top 10 on the track. Running as high as fifth place near the Lap 100 mark, Dillon remained inside the top 10 throughout the run and he rallied from sustaining nose damage to the front of his No. 13 GEICO For Your RV Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE to settle in ninth place when the second stage concluded.
Restarting in 13th place for the final stage, Dillon was scored in third place on Lap 148 while he continued to battle towards the front and inside the top 10 against a bevy of title and non-title contenders. Through three overtime attempts and entering Turns 3 and 4, Dillon was scored in sixth place while the top-five competitors duked it out with contact ensuing. At the finish line, Dillon streaked across in fourth place. With DiBenedetto being penalized from second place due to forcing Byron below the double yellow line, however, Dillon was promoted into third place on the final scoreboard in front of Byron and Chase Elliott.
The third-place result marked Dillon’s career-best result in his 157th start in NASCAR’s premier series and his first top-five result since finishing in fourth place at Daytona International Speedway in July. Like Jones, the result was much needed for Dillon, whose team, Germain Racing, will be ceasing operations due to sponsor GEICO opting to not remain with the team for next season and with the North Carolina native currently out of a ride for 2021.
“I’m so proud of the effort for Germain Racing and GEICO,” Dillon said. “We are all fighting for jobs next year, including myself, so that’s the foot you want to put forward at one of these races winding down. It’s been a great run with this team and hopefully we can all work together in the future. I knew it was going to be hard to push anybody in front of me with these noses having a little too much point, but our GEICO For Your RV Chevrolet had enough speed to hang in there. I fell back to sixth in line, but when they all started to get into each other, I knew my outlet was to the bottom to have a chance to win and that’s what we are here for. I stayed on the bottom to hopefully be in position to win low if something were to happen. But to finish third – my personal career-best Cup finish and Germain’s best Cup finish as a team – is something I’m really proud of. It was a fun day and a long day. Thanks to all the fans who came out today too. It was good to have them here with us. I’m just extremely grateful to GEICO and Bob Germain for everything they have done for me the last four years.”
“I absolutely want to be in the Cup Series,” Dillon added. “I feel like in the right situation over the right time, [I] can win races and be a championship contender. My time is not up here and I definitely have a lot to prove still. I’m starting to reach a pinnacle of my life physically and mentally as far as a Cup driver. I’m so eager for the next opportunity, but as far as the opportunity, I have nothing yet. Hopefully, this inspires some more talks and more sponsorship opportunity. It’s getting to a tough place in this sport where you have to bring money with you as far as sponsorship and a little bit goes a long way right now. If I have to take an opportunity to go down the Xfinity Series and try to win races there and reprove myself, I’ll absolutely take it. But, I’m a hungry driver right now and I want an opportunity next year to continue to prove what I can do and start fresh.”
Both Jones and Dillon, along with their fellow NASCAR Cup Series competitors, will return for the next scheduled race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval on Sunday, October 11, at 2:30 pm. ET on NBC.