By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Erik Jones survived several gnarly wrecks, defending Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. on his bumper late and the pressure of overtime at NASCAR’s most famous track.
Maybe these so-called “Young Guns” do know how to find victory lane.
Jones won a crash-filled race at Daytona International Speedway, passing Truex on the final lap and then wildly celebrating the first victory of his Cup career. Jones created so much smoke during his burnout that he had trouble breathing afterward.
“How about that race boys and girls?” said Jones, who replaced 2004 series champion Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing this year. “I thought we were out of it and all of a sudden we’re right back in it. My first Cup win. My first win at Daytona, My first superspeedway win. What an awesome day.”
It was huge for Jones, who clinched a spot in the playoffs. It may have been just as big for the up-and-coming generation of drivers who had gotten most of the promotion and none of the previous wins in 2018.
International Speedway Corp. President John Saunders pinned some of NASCAR’s woes on the failure of the new crop of drivers, who have struggled to replace the sport’s retired crop of stars.
Saunders said this week the sport needed the young guys to come along and “start to win and build their brands.” Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr. fired back at Saunders, saying the 20-somethings were trying their best to win.
Jones delivered the parting shot on the track.
Truex took a jab at the critics, saying “now maybe ISC and those guys can be happier about those things.”
Jones was involved in one of the many wrecks, but his No. 20 Toyota was still in good enough shape to get by Truex late. Truex blamed himself for failing to see Jones’ run coming in his rear-view mirror.
Truex finished second, followed by AJ Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne and Chris Buescher — another odd top 10 at Daytona. Ty Dillon was sixth, followed by Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Newman and Daytona 500 champion Austin Dillon.
For Jones, a 22-year-old Michigan native driving in his first season for Joe Gibbs Racing, the breakthrough victory came in his 57th career start.
Last year’s race winner, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., had the most memorable run of the night. He started two early accidents that wrecked more than half the field and was part of two more cautions late.
Stenhouse took out Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and others. Jones was one of the lucky ones who avoided major damage.
“I just think it’s cool for Erik,” said Truex, who had Jones as a teammate at Furniture Row Racing last year. “He’s a good kid. He’s worked hard. I don’t know the repercussions of him winning here, what they’re going to be. But I think for me, it’s a good story. So happy for him, happy for his family and his fans.
“Again, he’s put a lot of effort in to getting here and he’s in a good position and he’s got a lot of pressure on him, so to finally get that first one out of the way, I think it’ll help him a bunch. We’ll see where he takes it from here.”
CHEVY WOES CONTINUE
Chevrolet extended its winless streak to 18 races, its longest since a 31-race drought in 1981-82.
CEMENTED IN HISTORY
Austin Dillon celebrated his Daytona 500 victory by putting his signature, hand prints and right foot on a cement block on the track’s Walk of Fame earlier Saturday. It’s been a tradition for each Daytona 500 champ since 1996.
Dillon has enjoyed the spoils that come with winning NASCAR’s biggest race, including a visit with retired NBA great Shaquille O’Neal.
“He wrapped his hand around mine twice when I shook it,” Dillon said. “He just told me some pretty cool things, so it was cool hanging out with him because I’ve always been a great fan of him.”
PIT CREW HISTORY
Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O’Leary worked as tire changers for Rick Ware Racing driver Ray Black Jr.
Daniels is believed to be the first female black crew member to compete in a NASCAR national series event. She had pitted in more than 25 Xfinity, Truck and ARCA races and made her Cup debut on Saturday night.
“What I’m doing in NASCAR is so much bigger than me,” she said. It’s been so rewarding to be part of history while at the same time inspiring others to take on challenges they thought might not be possible.”
O’Leary made her third appearance overall in the Cup Series and second this season.
O’Leary and Daniels, roommates in North Carolina, are the fifth and sixth female NASCAR Drive for Diversity crew members to reach the Cup series.
Another Saturday night race, this one at Kentucky Speedway. Truex is the defending race champion.