(Photo: Randy Lanning)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 FanShield 500 at Phoenix

The Headline(s): Holding off Kevin Harvick on two successive late-race restarts, Joey Logano prevailed in overtime to win at Phoenix, his second win of 2020, 25th career Cup Series win and 56th NASCAR national series victory.

Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top five in the debut race for the Cup Series’ new low-downforce package, which produced a far more competitive on-track product than last November’s semifinal.

How it Happened

Weathering several challenges from Harvick over the opening 58 laps, polesitter Chase Elliott kept the Phoenix master at bay until the caution flew for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s spin while trying to lap under Joey Gase. Harvick used the high side to take the lead from Elliott on the ensuing lap 64 restart, a lead he would hold through the end of stage one. The first stage was marred, however, by a lap 64 wreck that saw Denny Hamlin make contact with all three Penske cars when he lost control of his machine entering turn 3.

Harvick was one of 10 cars to stay out on old tires under the stage break and would lead the field back to green at lap 85 until Elliott retook the point at lap 92. Elliott would lead much of the second stage, but the real story was Brad Keselowski, who despite incurring damage under the lap 64 crash tore through the field up to second by the time caution flew again on lap 131, this time for Austin Dillon pounding the wall after blowing a tire. Elliott held the lead through pit stops but was forced to pit under green around lap 155 with a loose wheel, handing control of the stage to Keselowski. Though Harvick got to within a half-second of Keselowski, stage two ended a lap early when Garrett Smithley’s blown engine brought out the yellow on lap 189.

Keselowski narrowly beat Martin Truex Jr. off pit road under the stage break and led the field back to green at lap 200. Race strategy came into play soon after on lap 213, when Quin Houff blew an engine and spun in his own oil into the turn 2 wall. Truex led a handful of drivers in taking two tires under the yellow and led the field to the lap 222 restart. Truex’s time out front proved to be short-lived, as Logano quickly rocketed to the front on four tires by lap 225. Truex, Tyler Reddick and the others on two tires continued to plummet through the field until lap 253, where two-tire Erik Jones lost control of his car in turn 2. Harvick led the field to the lap 259 restart, but spun his tires and yielded to Logano, only to see another yellow fly on lap 265 when Reddick tagged the wall.

Under the yellow, Keselowski stayed out on old tires and assumed the race lead, with Elliott, Larson and six other lead-lap cars while the rest of the leaders pit for four tires. Keselowski led the field to green on lap 272, briefly losing the lead to Larson when he overdrove the first two corners but taking it back before the yellow flew again on lap 277 when Chris Buescher pounded the wall. Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson stayed out again under this yellow, while the remaining cars on old tires came down pit road. 

Keselowski held the lead through a lap 283 restart that was short-lived after Truex pounded the turn 2 wall, and again on lap 289, aided by blocking from teammate Logano and hard racing between Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Harvick and Bowyer, who made contact early in the run. Logano’s four tires proved too much, however, and the No. 22 took the lead on lap 293. Harvick bumped his way past Keselowski for second on lap 295, and the two Fords drove away out front while Keselowski and Rowdy duked it out in a vicious battle until yellow on lap 304 for a Ross Chastain spin. Keselowski and Johnson pit for four tires under this yellow, leaving Logano to hold off Harvick on both a lap 308 restart and in overtime to score the win.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Four races into 2020, Logano and new crew chief Paul Wolfe have won twice on two completely different tracks using both of the 2020 aero packages. And this one came despite breaking a jack handle during a late pit stop under the lap 265 yellow. For all the flack Logano has gotten for his aggression this season, be it from Johnson for bump-drafting at Daytona or even teammate Keselowski for making contact on the lap 289 restart, the No. 22 is bad fast and winning. The 2018 champion is as hot as any driver in Cup racing.

Stewart-Haas Racing put all four of its cars in the top 10 for the first time since Texas last spring. That’s accomplishment enough, but seeing as how the organization did it despite Harvick’s pit crew having numerous rough stops, Bowyer surviving a late-race tire rub inflicted by teammate Harvick, Aric Almirola incurring the wrath of Truex after their run-in on lap 283 and Cole Custer surviving late-contact with the wall courtesy of Chastain, SHR showed some real grit this Sunday.

Kyle Busch shook off a disappointing Xfinity Series season debut Saturday to finish third, his 10th consecutive top-10 finish in Cup racing at Phoenix, again carrying the flag for Joe Gibbs Racing.

His brother Kurt Busch joined Ganassi teammate Larson in the top 10 at Phoenix, the third time in the last four Phoenix races both CGR cars have finished in the top 10.

And now for some underdogs. Ty Dillon was the top “RCR” car in Phoenix, finishing 15th. Michael McDowell somehow finished 16th despite pitting five times with an apparent engine issue during the second stage break. And JJ Yeley bounced back from missing the NXS race to finish 26th, the best for a Rick Ware Racing car in any of the NASCAR national series at Phoenix since 2013. Of note, despite being lapped by Truex multiple times during Sunday’s race, Yeley never once was criticized for his line on the track. That’s an accomplishment in itself.

In the Dogleg

Keselowski led 82 laps, won his first stage of the season and did an admirable job holding off Kyle Busch for position on old tires in the closing laps, but still only finished 11th. Elliott had arguably the fastest car in the field, rebounded from a loose-wheel pit stop under green and managed to pass Phoenix master Harvick under green on numerous occasions, yet finished seventh despite leading the most laps Sunday. It’s hard to know what to make of Sunday for both drivers. Both showed speed, both led laps, and neither garnered the results they should have. Keselowski’s 11th-place finish came as a result of an all-or-nothing pit strategy call that left the team on an island in the homestretch. Elliott, meanwhile, lived up to skepticism FOX analyst Larry MacReynolds expressed about the No. 9 team during the pre-race show; for all the laps led and speed shown, the deal wasn’t closed.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Fresh off a contract extension, Ryan Blaney got a harsh taste of life as a Penske principal when he was wrecked out thanks to contact from Hamlin on lap 64. I’m sure his teammates can offer some coping tips. Blaney finished 37th, his worst result since Texas last spring.

Reddick ran extremely well, Austin Dillon not so much. But at race’s end, both the No. 8 and the No. 3 were derailed by flat tires sending their cars hard into the wall. The situation becomes more unbearable based on this radio traffic.

Outside of Rowdy, Toyota endured another rough weekend out west. Hamlin and Jones limped around to finishes of 20th and 28th, respectively, after enduring wrecks. Jones’ was especially disappointing, as it saw him spin only a couple laps after his team implored him to slow down to keep his tires under him after an ill-fated call to take two tires under the lap 213 yellow. Truex DNF’d in 32nd after contact with Almirola. Outside JGR, Christopher Bell finished a distant 24th after incurring more issues on pit road (he sped under the lap 58 yellow) on a day that saw fellow rookies Custer and Reddick show potent speed with a low-downforce package similar to the Xfinity cars they wheeled a season ago. Lastly, Daniel Suarez finished 21st, his best finish of the season. That’s hardly a feather in the cap of a former Xfinity Series champion.

There’s nothing Houff can do about a blown engine dropping oil on his tires, but still, losing an engine and a racecar in the same wreck is about as bad a result as a team like Starcom Racing can endure. 

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

Note to FOX. Phoenix is NOT A SHORT TRACK. Lying to fans every single week won’t make it true.

On the whole, the officiating in the Cup Series has been improved in 2020, namely because it’s not doing as much. Still, the uncontrolled tire rule remains laughable, as it saw Logano’s pit crew penalized for a tire bouncing off their own pit wall into their own pit stall, impeding no competitors. There’s also the issue of the yellow flag flying on lap 304 for Chastain’s spin on the frontstretch. Fortunately, in a caution-filled race, that was the only trigger-happy yellow. 

KRISTL: RYAN BLANEY RE-SIGNS WITH TEAM PENSKE

While the return of compelling short(er) track racing to the Cup Series was the tale of Sunday, it’s arguable the biggest story this week came from the Team Penske camp, where Blaney was taken off the free-agent market after signing an extension at Penske. With Blaney and Logano now both under contract and both showing blazing speed working with their new crew chiefs, that leaves Keselowski without a contract after 2020, lowest in the standings of the three Penske cars, and with the most inconsistent results of the three team cars while being led by Jeremy Bullins, the most inexperienced and inconsistent crew chief by any objective measurement in the Penske stables. All of this while tensions between Keselowski and longtime teammate Logano carried over from Daytona, surfacing again late in Sunday’s race.

Speaking to the media earlier this weekend, Keselowski indicated he was not considering retirement but was very vague in discussing his contract discussions, be it with Penske or any other owner. The question to be asked? Now that Blaney is off the market and Penske has two of its three rides on lockdown, does the urgency for Keselowski to get his plans in order ratchet up? There’s few rides in the Cup garage that would realistically be available for Keselowski that would not be a step down from his current home at Penske, and they all come with complications. One potential landing spot could be at JGR, where Jones’ victory in the Busch Clash seems eons ago, especially after wrecking out of a race mere laps after being warned by his crew. That’s assuming, of course, that the JGR stable could handle the tractor-trailers worth of baggage that exist between Keselowski and JGR’s flagship drivers, and that Bell’s struggles as a Cup rookie in the No. 95 continue.

There’s also baggage at the most widely-rumored spot for Keselowski to end up… back in the Hendrick camp to replace the retiring Johnson. Elliott was more than frank in his appraisal of the 2012 Cup champ after a run-in around lap 272 on Sunday.

Perhaps most important of all considerations though? The situation at Hendrick Motorsports isn’t what it was even a few weeks ago; translation, it’s no longer a rebuild. Keselowski’s lasting legacy at Team Penske is not just his 2012 Cup title, but all the rebuilding he was a part of. Keselowski was the driving force for the team to establish its now-vaunted Xfinity Series program, as well as the leading advocate to hire Logano, a driver that’s delivered a Cup and Daytona 500 title to Penske. Now that Hendrick has proven resurgent, there’s no rebuild to be had. Which begs the question… just how attractive is that No. 48 ride now? 

Noah Gragson was visibly frustrated (and rightly so) when NASCAR pulled him from the seat of his Xfinity Series ride during Friday practice to have a “meeting” with the driver, reportedly based on concerns about his intentional spin of Myatt Snider at Las Vegas and his run-in with Chastain at Fontana. If that’s the standard for being pulled out of a car to visit the trailer, Hamlin should find himself summoned to the hauler at Atlanta come Friday. 

I hate to get anything near political in this column, but Brian France’s lawsuit against parody Twitter handle @drunkbrianf would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous in precedent. Given that this lawsuit would seem to have zero chance of succeeding on First Amendment grounds, this seems to my non-legally-trained eyes to be a means for the well-funded France family to shut up a critic through draining them financially. As a long-time writer for an independent outlet that’s richer in substance and sources than greenbacks, seeing the France family getting legally vindictive, even if it’s just the ousted Brian, is cause for concern. I may update this next week once I actually get to read the suit cover to cover, but in the meantime, I’ll leave a link to the GoFundMe for DBF’s legal defense fund here.

https://twitter.com/BryanDavisKeith/status/1236347887031902208

This week’s announcement that the 2021 Busch Clash will be run on the Daytona road course as part of a Speedweeks consolidation into one week is a largely positive development. While hosting an exhibition for winning poles across a schedule that consists of 92% oval tracks on a road course is a bit odd, making the event a true standalone that cannot be reduced to a test session for the Daytona 500 is necessary. No more single-car runs for a race that doesn’t have qualifying, the exhibition will now be just that. The one negative I see to all of this? Running the ARCA race the same Saturday as the Xfinity race. Seeing as how the ARCA race has often been used by development drivers to get cleared for the NASCAR national series, the value of running the ARCA race seems to be diminished by scheduling it after the trucks and possible Xfinity Series run. Considering the ARCA race at Daytona has seen car-count diminish four consecutive years, with the 2020 field the smallest the series has seen since 1980, that move is counterproductive. Plus, does this mean superspeedway licensing requirements are being loosened?

TOMLINSON: 2021 SPEEDWEEKS CONDENSED, CLASH TO ROAD COURSE

Remember how in Twin Peaks it took days for Cooper and Sheriff Truman to get the taste of fish-brewed coffee out of their mouths? That’s about how I’m feeling 48 hours removed from watching Friday’s farce of an ARCA race. Fortunately Saturday’s Xfinity Series race redeemed the weekend for NASCAR’s minor leagues, but the busch-league vibes continued post-race when the Bassett brothers team went after Brandon Brown in the pits post-race… before Brown even got out of his car.

Just like when Bowyer pulled this crap on Ryan Newman at last year’s All-Star Race, this has to be called out for being a candy-ass response to conflict on the track. If you’re going to fight a competitor, wait till the man is unrestrained before taking a shot. Ganging up on a vulnerable individual is thug behavior. Though given the Bassetts are from Winston-Salem, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised given the antics that pass as “racing” at the Madhouse.

On a more appetizing note, we’ll end with giving Ryan Preece the weekly paint scheme award. Without cheesy shells, this writer might starve

You Heard it Here Before

Dale Earnhardt Jr. actually started tweeting last week after the win. In one week he has added 330,000 followers. It will be interesting to see how long he embraces the social media interaction but, so far, he’s been very engaging with his new toy. – Mike Neff, 2014

Rather than rewriting the story that will permeate every single article written about Sunday’s race, I’ll let Dale Jr.’s Twitter do it for me. Suffice to say, the first race with the low-downforce package was a rousing success.

A special shout-out to Goodyear for delivering a tire that would wear out. The low-downforce package would not have shined on Sunday without it.

Where it Rated (with one a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – Let’s give this one 4.5 icy-cold bottles of Dos Equis. Late-race carnage, coupled with an unnecessary yellow for Chastain’s spin on 304 cost this one a fifth bottle. Still, a marked improvement over last fall’s rancid showing.

What’s the Point(s)? We’ll dive into this next week.

Up Next: Wagons, East! The Cup Series heads back to its home turf to tackle the ever-abrasive Atlanta Motor Speedway. Coverage from Elliott country begins at 2 p.m. ET on FOX.

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10 comments

  1. Avatar

    Denny Hamlin has now wrecked cars in 2 successive races…I wonder if he will post a joke about this time? Not impress with his ‘race’ tactics.

  2. Avatar

    I don’t think either of Denny’s incidents were intentional tho. California he just got too aggressive on a bump draft on a track where the cars are already bouncing around down the front and back stretch wanting to spin. Pheonix looked to me like he was 3 wide and just overdrove the corner being on the inside of the PJ1. Noah Gragson on the other hand turned right on the front stretch and needed a caution to make up the gap.

    Based on that I do not understand why Bryan thinks he should be pulled at Atlanta based off cause Noah did.

    I did not care of the PJ1 making this an upper groove track.

  3. Avatar

    and right now, i know it’s early rain is forecasted for weekend here in atlanta.

    just so you know we’ve received 23″ of rain since the first of the year. today marks the second time since christmas that we’ve had 4 dry days in a row.

    • Avatar

      Just up I-20 here in Columbia, we haven’t had a week without rain since November. If this keeps up, Nascar needs to start a speedboat series.

      • Avatar

        Carl D – when i heard on news this morning that last fri, sat and sun and today were the first 4 days in row we haven’t had rain. need a week or two of dry weather so my roof can be repaired.

  4. Avatar

    I think you give short shrift to the lap 304 caution. That’s twice now in the last 3 races that Ross Chastain has spun late in the race, with no contact, and kept rolling. Still, NASCAR immediately throws caution for no good reason. A classic finish at Vegas was taken away from Blaney and Bowman. Yesterday’s finish would have been much better for Stenhouse and Nemechek had NASCAR not been up to their manipulative caution shenanigans again. The 22 car should have never had to defend those 2 late race restarts had NASCAR kept their nose out of it but, I guess that’s asking too much. Hell, may as well put Drunk Brian France back in charge.

  5. Avatar

    The racing was pretty good in Phoenix. I was glad to see Brad K. bounce back after the overly-aggressive-and-way-too-early dipstick move by Hamlin. I’m sure the Penske drivers will be expressing their displeasure with Denny when they get the opportunity.

    My guess is that Brad will either stay with Penske or go to Hendrick. SHR is a possibility, but I don’t see Brad and Tony Stewart working well together. And like Bryan pointed out, JGR is not a good fit for all involved.

    I’ve always liked Martin Truex Jr., but he sure seems to have developed a habit of whining about other drivers when things don’t go well. Sometimes, Marty, it’s best to keep your mouth shut and do your talking on the track.

    With the exception of Daytona, the racing seems to be a little better this year. I hope that continues.

  6. Avatar

    I thought the race was better than last year but still not where it needs to be. Tire wear was again a factor as it should be, so that was good. I thought at least one or two of those cautions were questionable. Never a fan of the race being decided by a late caution and GWC but at least a driver that ran up front all day won. I didn’t want to see anyone win multiple races this early in the season but Joey deserved the win. Elliott, Harvick and Keseloski would also have been deserving winners base on how they ran yesterday. I am glad I missed them referencing Phoenix as a “short track”, it would have pissed me off because it definitely IS NOT.

    I think Truex’s cars aren’t quite where they need to be and where he’s used to them being (when Cole Pearn was CC) and that’s why he is whining so much. I’m not defending him just pointing out that I’ve noticed his cars aren’t as dominant as they were last year. I am with everyone else, shut up and drive.

    Tired of seeing Denny Hamlin make bold moves and ruin someone else’s day. He needs to chill a bit and let the races and positions come to him if his car is as good as he thinks it is.

    I’d be really surprised it Brad doesn’t stay right where he is.

    I was impressed with Reddick’s run and was pulling for him if only to show what someone not named Dillon might be able to do in an RCR car. It would be hilarious if Reddick proved what we all know to be true.

  7. Avatar

    Phoenix isn’t a short track, but it races like one, very similar to Richmond. I think that’s the point they were trying to make.

  8. Avatar

    Someone should start a pool to guess who Hamlin will put into the wall at Atlanta.