NASCAR Race Weekend Central
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Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Toyota 500 at Darlington

The Headline(s): After showing long-run speed during a late green-flag run, Denny Hamlin’s pit crew got the No. 11 out front off pit road after a lap 194 caution at Darlington Raceway. Following a brief restart, Hamlin then capitalized when an incident between Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott on lap 200 brought out the 11th caution of the night in the Toyota 500. The heavy rain that came along with it ended the May 20 race 20 laps short of the scheduled finish. 

The win is Hamlin’s second of the 2020 season, 39th in the Cup Series and 58th in NASCAR’s national touring series. Behind Hamlin, Rowdy, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones rounded out the top-five drivers. 

How it Happened: With the top-20 finishers from Sunday’s race inverted to set the starting lineup, Ryan Preece started on pole for Wednesday’s race. However, it was outside pole sitter Ty Dillon who would lead the opening laps. This time, the race got to lap 2 before the yellow flag flew, with rookie John Hunter Nemechek falling victim to the Lady in Black days after taming her. 

Joey Logano assumed the lead on lap 9 and would hold it until pit stops ensued under the lap 25 competition caution (though Nemechek brought out another yellow on lap 10 for a second spin). The lap 31 restart saw Bubba Wallace stay out on old tires and assume the race lead, though Clint Bowyer made quick work of the No. 43 to take the point. Bowyer proved untouchable out front and ran away to win stage one. 

Bowyer held off a spirited charge from Ryan Blaney on the lap 71 restart, but stage two was quickly back under yellow when, in the span of a lap, Preece’s engine expired, then Chris Buescher spun in turn 2 after coming down across Michael McDowell’s nose.

When the next yellow flag flew on lap 81 for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s contact with the wall, Bowyer finally relinquished the lead on pit road to Martin Truex Jr., who managed to keep Harvick at bay until lap 99. Harvick would stay out front until a lap 107 caution when Cole Custer hit the wall; Bowyer bested the No. 4 team coming off pit road. The No. 14 Ford driver went on to win stage two.

With rain threatening, Roush Fenway Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Buescher stayed out on old tires during the second stage break. The weather held off, though, and after one green-flag lap, Jones surged to the front. The defending Southern 500 champion led the way until lap 160, when Elliott caught the No. 20, besting him a lap later despite a strong crossover from Jones. As Jones faded and Elliott led, it was Hamlin’s JGR Toyota that came alive during the final run. He ran down the No. 9 and a battle was brewing up front. 

It was then that a lap 178 caution for a Matt Kenseth spin shook up the running order. Both Keselowski and rookie Brennan Poole trapped all but Elliott and Hamlin a lap down on tire strategy, leaving those four cars out front when the race went back to green on lap 187. Though Keselowski would lead lap 191, Elliott was out front when Bowyer spun in turn 4 on lap 194.

Pit crews next tried to play the strategy game. Hamlin’s crew left him out on older tires, as they were out of stickers, but benefited when disaster struck on lap 200. That’s when the Shrub misjudged a move on Elliott in a big way and dumped the No. 9.

The skies opened soon after, handing Hamlin the victory.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Joe Gibbs Racing put any questions from Sunday to bed, placing all four of its cars in the top 10 Wednesday night. Hamlin again proved an absolute master of tire conservation, running down Elliott during the final green-flag run of the race and getting enough out of his scuffs on the final restart to capitalize on Rowdy being Rowdy. Speaking of the No. 18, Busch shook off a listless performance over the weekend with a runner-up finish. It was his best Darlington result since 2017 after what crew chief Adam Stevens described as the biggest in-race adjustment he ever made on the JGR Camry. Though Busch now owes Elliott a debt (more on that later), that the No. 18 was able to score a top five with mid-race adjustments despite the lack of practice bodes well for their 2020 season.

Jones scored a top-five finish that saw him make power moves both in taking the lead and (attempting) to keep it from Elliott. Further back, Truex scored a second straight top-10 finish after starting the year 0-for-4.

The Blue Oval brigade put more cars in the top 10 than any other manufacturer Wednesday, though their paths to it were diverse. Harvick put his race-winning car from Sunday to good use, proving a fixture up front again. Keselowski no longer has crew chief Paul Wolfe, but the No. 2 team utilized contrarian pit strategy to perfection late in the race, catching 90% of the field a lap down with a long-run pit strategy to finish fourth. Aric Almirola scored a career-best Darlington finish of seventh despite disputing his restart position on lap 187 right up to the drop of the flag. And Matt DiBenedetto finished ninth; he’s finished in the top 20 in every race so far this season with the Wood Brothers. 

Over in Chevrolet land, Kurt Busch finished 15th despite expressing repeated profanities during the opening stage of how much worse his car was between a top-five result Sunday and a 29th-place running position during stage one. And outside pole sitter Ty Dillon led eight laps and finished 19th, his third consecutive top-20 finish and the most laps he’s led in a Cup race (eight) since the Dover spring race in 2017.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Almirola and Harvick’s ecstasy was countered at SHR by the agony of Bowyer and Custer. Custer again lagged behind fellow rookies Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick (who both finished in the top 15), slapping the wall to bring out the lap 107 yellow flag. He struggled to a 31st-place finish. As for Bowyer, despite winning both stages and leading the most laps he has in a Cup race since the 2018 Bristol night race, misfortune again bit the No. 14 team. They lost the lead during the second stage break when Newman stayed out on old tires and never recovered. It wasn’t a piano falling from the sky, as The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck predicted, but a flat tire on lap 194 did enough to cost the No. 14 a decent finish.

JTG Daugherty Racing had another rough outing, with Stenhouse tearing up his second racecar in four days. As for Preece, his latest DNF left him, well, exasperated. It’s his third in six races this season.

Nemechek’s top-10 finish Sunday seemed a distant memory when he wrecked on lap 2 and then spun again with a smashed rear end on lap 10. When it comes to rookies, the Lady in Black prefers her one-night stands….

Elliott had a rocket ship for a Camaro Wednesday night. But any chance he had of besting Hamlin for a Darlington win disappeared when Kyle Busch flat dumped him into the inside wall on the frontstretch. Reduced to giving Rowdy the one-fingered salute, Wednesday marked two straight Darlington Ws that got away from the Hendrick camp.

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

It was a fitting musical choice for FOX to use Incubus’s “Wish You Were Here” going to commercial early in Wednesday’s race. After Rowdy pulled his stunt on lap 200 that effectively ended the race, it’s safe to say NASCAR was thankful for empty grandstands. Otherwise, South Carolina’s finest were going to have their work cut out for them just as Virginia’s did in Richmond back in 2008.

What happened on lap 200 was 100% Kyle Busch’s fault. It also was 100% unintentional, and anyone insisting otherwise needs to put down the Mountain Dew long enough to take off their tinfoil hat. Fact, Kyle Busch is not a good enough teammate to throw away his chance at a win to wreck the second-place driver and hand it to Hamlin. Hell, Busch was the guy that a year ago who had to be lectured while out of contention in a Daytona 500 qualifying race that he needed to help Toyota teammate Parker Kligerman actually make the race.

Another fact: Rowdy visibly damaged the fender of his No. 18 car when he made contact with Elliott. Love him or hate him, Kyle isn’t stupid, and damaging his own Toyota is not something he’s going to do intentionally.

Busch’s post-race interview made several acknowledgments that he would face repercussions from Elliott’s team for his mistake. And Busch is right… he will. The No. 9 team owes him one now, and there’s no rule saying they have to play that card in the regular season. Let’s not forget Elliott is far from a saint when it comes to on-track incidents; he all but ran over Keselowski in the 2017 Cup playoff race at Martinsville. The folks at the Dawsonville Pool Room would do well to remember that before going holier than thou….

Busch screwed up. He screwed up big, and in a way that come playoff time could have dire consequences. That’s more than penalty enough. As for Elliott, I’d wager my proverbial stimulus check that he’ll face no penalty both for A) exiting his racecar and walking on the racing surface before the safety crew arrived (a major no-no since the Tony Stewart/Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy in 2013) and B) making a visibly profane gesture toward Busch on track. 

I love the fire, and it was justified. But Elliott getting away with this behavior is a double standard, entertaining or not. 

While Rowdy’s curse will likely come later, the curse of Chris Buescher was on full display all weekend. Buescher was already falsely labeled responsible by the FOX booth Sunday for a lap 90 incident that was entirely Jimmie Johnson’s fault. Next, the booth jumped on him Wednesday for being involved with Stenhouse’s latest wreck, minus a smoking gun. Coupled with a race that did see Buescher screw up, cutting across McDowell’s nose on lap 71 and spinning out, the Texas native just couldn’t catch a break in South Carolina.

Wednesday’s race was entertaining, but race fans need to put their hard-ons for regular, shorter, midweek races away. For starters, the intensity seen Wednesday night was just as much the product of rain in the vicinity as a shorter race distance. Case in point, there’s no way Newman would have rolled the dice and stayed out on old tires to start the final stage if the No. 6 team wasn’t watching the radar. That decision by Newman caused enough turmoil up front to put Jones in the lead and stifle Bowyer, who to that point had been running away with the show.

What’s more, midweek races are to the Cup Series in 2020 what Saturday night races were to the Cup Series 10-15 years ago. Namely, they’re encroaching, again, on the turf of short tracks. Already forced to compete with a growing number of NASCAR races on Saturday nights (Kansas, the new Martinsville night race?), short tracks of late have been adapting by hosting midweek events. Just look out west to Las Vegas, where the bullring or dirt tracks have been running races the Thursday prior to the Cup circus the last two seasons.

The same pattern persists on the east coast. Last season, I wrote about how Virginia Motor Speedway marketed its Thursday night sprint car show directly with Richmond Raceway on its spring Cup weekend. Now, the Cup Series has to go there too? If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, absence, not abundance, makes the heart grow fonder.

Plus, in the stage racing era, going to shorter-distance races is going to further neuter pit strategy.

Of course, I guess NASCAR could enforce a stricter tire limit over a shorter distance race? Oh look, we invented the NASCAR Xfinity Series…

It bears repeating that, despite the shorter race distance and the stage breaks, the most memorable stretch of Wednesday’s race (before Rowdy poured gasoline on Elliott nation and lit a match) came during a long green-flag run. Jones’ short-term speed overpowered Newman on old tires, only to see Elliott come on mid-run and Hamlin get faster toward the end of it. NASCAR isn’t rocket science. Get out of racing’s way and it’ll get good.

The video clips FOX used to introduce the top-10 starters were entertaining and refreshing. There were 29 more drivers that would have been nice to see. If FOX needed more time to air said intros, maybe don’t hire Bleeding Gums Murphy (err, Jewel) to spend 20 minutes delivering the national anthem.

If there’s a silver lining to Newman’s brush with death earlier this season, it’s that the NASCAR Twitterati are now appreciating his intense efforts on-track that have made him unanimously known as the hardest driver to pass on the circuit. Despite holding up fan favorite Bowyer in a way that cost him any shot at a win early in the final stage, Newman was all but universally celebrated for his efforts on old tires. It’s a sharp contrast to the Bristol night race last season, where doing the exact same thing in the heat of the playoff chase saw Newman all but lynched on social media for “costing” DiBenedetto a win in the Leavine Family Racing No. 95. 

I’ve got to side with Eric Estepp on this one, inverts are indeed a gimmick. 

If NASCAR is going to insist on trying to apply short-tracking to races on intermediate ovals, they’d be better off adopting the cone selection procedure on restarts. What’s that, you ask? Put a cone on track and let the cars pick the groove they want to restart in, based on their running order. That way, it’s as least based on something achieved on the track rather than a random draw. 

For those who follow soccer, there’s a concept in that game known as “persistent infringement” that will see referees yellow-card players for committing repetitive fouls, even if none of them are overly egregious. At some point, I’ve got to wonder if NASCAR needs to do the same thing for persistent pit road infringement. The MBM Motorsports No. 66 team incurred eight penalties on pit road over the course of two Darlington races, six of which occurred for crew going over the wall too soon.

Of course, after seeing NASCAR’s vaunted social distancing procedures prove lax, there doesn’t seem to be concern from NASCAR about any form of persistent infringement that isn’t captured by the Hawkeye system. Members of the No. 18 and No. 9 teams were sitting next to each other on pit road during the red flag Wednesday night, with crew from the No. 1 and No. 11 teams mixing in the box next to them.

In closing, I’m giving the paint scheme of the race to Dillon on Hump Day. 

Regardless of what you think of GEICO ads, carrying a camel on the car is a Jimmy Spencer-era throwback well-suited for Darlington.

What’s the Point(s)? Hamlin, Logano, Alex Bowman and Harvick have all locked themselves into the playoffs with their 2020 race wins. If the playoffs were to begin today, Elliott, Keselowski, Almirola, Blaney, DiBenedetto, Bowyer, Truex, Johnson, the Busch brothers, Buescher and Jones would point their way in. Jones currently holds a four-point lead over Austin Dillon for the final playoff spot.

Where It Rated (on a scale where one bottle is a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): This one gets four-and-a-half bottles of Busch Light that we bought Sunday night with Harvick’s triumph on the brain. There was some very good racing to be had on Wednesday night with plenty of comers and goers. But, as has been the case with most of the Cup races in 2020, a late caution has robbed us of a more natural finish playing out.

Up Next: The Cup Series takes center stage on Memorial Day weekend as the only crown jewel race to go green on what’s usually the world’s biggest day for motorsports. Coverage of the Coca-Cola 600 begins Sunday at 6 p.m. ET on FOX.

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About Bryan Keith

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9 comments

  1. Avatar

    I thought it was an entertaining race, even without the Busch/Elliott incident. I agree that the stages took away sine if the strategy and tire wear that could have made the race even better. And yes 6 sets of tires may have made things even more interesting.

    Also nice to see that someone else besides me always thinks of that Bleeding Gums Murphy episode when someone gets carried away with the national anthem. And yes, Jewell did rate high on the BGM scale.

    It was also another Michael Waltrip free race which makes gives the race an extra beer when rating it.

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      when i flipped on tv on whatever day the xfinity race was suppose to run, first face i saw is old mikey’s. so if xfinity is on tonight, i fear he’ll be on that broadcast.

  2. Avatar

    I am not a KB fan but I do believe that his spinning Chase was just poor judgment. It did make Denny’s chances of winning considerably better. Maybe he should save some of his luck for the playoffs where he seems to come up short.I do agree that any Nascar race is better without MW and I am glad that DW is home comfortable on his sofa. I am always confused when I hear drivers show enthusiasm for tires that wear out quickly when they cry baby at every stop for more tires. One set of hard tires for each stage and one set for the pit stop during the longer last stage should liven things up

  3. Avatar

    “Plus, in the stage racing era, going to shorter-distance races is going to further neuter pit strategy.”
    An excellent point. my vote is for no ‘Stage racing” formats and for no shortened races. IMHO the key to NASCAR’s appeal is the complex shifting race strategy based on the unpredictability of unexpected cautions in semi-endurance-length races.

  4. Avatar

    Newman is always tough to pass, but even more so if he doesn’t like you. I notice it took Bowyer considerably longer to get by Newman than it did anyone else. Perhaps if Clint hadn’t gone “Rock ’em Sock ’em Robot” on him after the All Star race last year…

  5. Avatar

    I thought it was hilarious that after changing the start to 6 for the weather that the green flag dropped at exactly 8. It’s the time it should get the green after the hour of crap leading up to it. The rain gods are really angry at NA$CAR since the Busch race is delayed by rain today at noon.

  6. Avatar

    It was clearly unintentional, but that doesn’t mean Busch doesn’t have a debt to pay. And, Chase has already shown he adept at collecting at the right time (e.g. Hamlin @ Phoenix Fall 2018). It really sucks because Chase probably was a lap or two from blowing by Hamilin with fresher tires for the win.

  7. Avatar

    Those Gibbs girls love them some CHASE! TAG TEAM!