Who… should you be talking about after the Toyota 500?
Denny Hamlin has been strong at Darlington Raceway, and he had a rocket ship as the laps ticked down in Wednesday’s (May 20) Toyota 500. Thanks to that, even though Hamlin stayed on track when the caution flew with 30 laps remaining, typically a disaster at Darlington, he was able to hold off the field. The rains came with just 20 laps remaining to seal the deal, giving Hamlin his second win of 2020 and 39th of his career. He also tied Jimmie Johnson as the active win leader at Darlington with three victories.
Two rookies scored career-best finishes on Sunday, and Christopher Bell joined the club Wednesday night. Bell has struggled mightily to open his Cup career, finishing no better than 21st in the first five races with two DNFs. Bell wound up 11th on Wednesday, though, and looked much more like the driver fans learned to expect in his NASCAR Xfinity Series career. While the competition in Cup will prove tougher, Bell is a better driver than he showed to start the year. It certainly came together for him in this race.
What… was the hidden gem in the Toyota 500?
How about this one: we’ve had two races already at Darlington, and we still get another event later on this year. It’s hard to top three races in a season at one of NASCAR’s historic venues. The move’s almost like magic considering Darlington is a unique track that generally produces a better race than other intermediates on the circuit.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Polesitter Ryan Preece and Ty Dillon, who started next to him, had never started a Cup race from the front row in their careers. Neither would finish where they started, though. Preece wound up 39th after an engine issue, his third DNF of 2020. Dillon finished 19th, a couple of spots ahead of his career average.
Sunday’s race winner, Kevin Harvick, struggled early. His team brought the same car with few changes, but the difference was night and day – literally. Harvick is at his best on a hot, slick track, and that showed Sunday. It took him a bit longer under the lights, but he was in it at the end. The No. 4 team surged to third to make his average for the week a solid second.
Active Darlington win leader (at least going into the race) Johnson had a rough start to the week with a heavy crash on Sunday but fared better this time around. Starting 37th, he picked off a lot of cars and had speed at the end. With some good pit work, he finished a solid eighth.
Defending Cup champion Kyle Busch struggled early (as he did Sunday) but used a combination of strong pit stops and well-timed moves to be in contention for the win at the end. Unfortunately, his last move wasn’t so well-timed, and Busch finished second, but not without angering the N0. 9 team after a tangle with Chase Elliott finished Elliott’s night a few laps shy of the rain.
Stage one and two winner Clint Bowyer looked like he had the car to beat. While others caught up to him in the late going, he looked like a top five was in his grasp. But a cut tire led to a spin on lap 195, just a baker’s dozen laps before the shortened finish. Bowyer finished the race and stayed on the lead lap but ended up 22nd for his trouble.
When… was the moment of truth in the Toyota 500?
It was a rare mistake by the reigning champion. With just over 20 laps remaining and rain on the way, Kyle Busch was attempting to pass leader and teammate Hamlin, while Elliott closed in on the pair. Elliott got to Hamlin’s bumper and pushed him easily past Busch, who almost immediately turned up the track and hooked Elliott’s left-rear quarterpanel, sending the current Most Popular Driver into the inside wall on the frontstretch.
Elliott looked like he thought it was intentional (and judging by the radio chatter, he wasn’t alone). He waited for Busch to come around and gave him a one-finger salute on the track.
Busch obviously misjudged the opening, but whether his spotter told him clear is part of the equation. Busch certainly had his hands full and said after the race he was mirror driving. The hook wasn’t on purpose, though he took responsibility for the incident.
The real question here might be whether it’s over now. Will Elliott let it go once Busch owned up and apologized? Or will it spill over to another race (the series does hit Martinsville in three weeks)? It’s worth keeping an eye on.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
Unlike Sunday’s race, this one didn’t feature the same rules under the competition caution, which is a real shame. The point of the competition caution is for teams to be able to check equipment after running on a green racetrack. At Darlington, these yellows are done for safety, and it’s the one time teams should not have pit strategy on their minds. But different teams did different things Wednesday in order to preserve track position.
In Sunday’s race, the field was frozen under the competition yellow, so unless the pace car lapped them, they restarted where they had been before. That was absolutely the right call by NASCAR and the way these cautions should be handled in the future. All cars should be required to pit for four tires and have a few moments to make adjustments and look over their cars. Otherwise, there’s really no point in throwing the yellow at all.
NASCAR has been more proactive with safety in recent years, and here’s another opportunity to make the sport even safer. It’s something that should be looked at.
How… come the race was so short?
At 500 kilometers, Wednesday’s race was almost 200 miles shorter than the Southern 500 at Darlington, and nearly 100 miles shorter than Sunday’s race. To racing purists, it’s a very short contest at an intermediate track.
But it makes sense for a midweek race. It’s a work night for many fans, and teams have a race on Sunday to prepare for. They don’t want to be pulling back into the shop at 3 a.m.
And these midweek races are an experiment of sorts. If they draw an audience that’s satisfactory to the television networks, it’s something that could happen in the future. It would shorten the season by a couple of weeks or add a couple of Sundays off, at least one of which is needed. It’s likely that shorter races would be a part of that.
NASCAR’s experiment does one more thing, at least for now: it forces teams to build new strategies because they don’t have a playbook for shorter events. The pit window doesn’t change, but how the teams use those stops will. Perhaps not at Darlington, because tires wear so much, but at other tracks the distance could come into play.