Daytona Beach, Fla. — Michigan native Erik Jones created so much smoke during his burnout that he had trouble breathing afterward.

His first career Cup victory Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway was a needed breath of fresh air in a sport that has failed to see a supposed bumper crop of young talent emerge as bona fide stars.

The 22-year-old Jones’ motorcoach was wrapped in toilet paper as a prank, and he awoke to a steady string of congratulatory tweets ranging from Kyle Busch to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The feel-good, first-time win gave the sport a vital bump as it capped the official first half of the NASCAR season.

The question lingers: Is this a sign that perhaps the so-called “Young Guns” are poised to break through over the final 18 races, or was this just an aberration as Jones became the latest benefactor to survive the wild wrecks that litter Daytona?

When the smoke finally cleared around Jones’ No. 20 Toyota, this much was still clear — Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. remained the only three legitimate championship contenders.

“How many more wins can they get, playoff points can they get?” asked Earnhardt, now an NBC broadcaster. “Will anybody get in there and join the conversation?”

Led by five wins each from Busch and Harvick, the trio have combined for 13 wins over the first 18 points races.

All three have been the class of the field.

All three are former Cup champions.

Can any driver stop one from the Big 3 to ultimately claim the crown?

Asked if Jones’ victory was a momentum-builder for the next generation, third-place finisher AJ Allmendinger cracked, “One of those three are going to win next week, so I don’t know.”

It only seems like 35 other drivers have been riding around all season trying to play catch-up to Busch, Harvick and Truex. But the first step toward a title is making the playoffs. With eight races left before the field is set, only eight drivers have clinched the automatic playoff spot earned with a win. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Dillon, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman held the final eight spots on Sunday — an order sure to become jumbled after next week’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Consumers Energy 400

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12


Support race: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Corrigan Oil 200, 1 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 11