On Sunday evening (May 24), NASCAR held its annual Coca-Cola 600. Longest race of the year means intriguing stats, right? Even when clean air put a damper on the proceedings.
There was a seven-time champion crossing the finish line in second, for what was believed to be his best finish in nearly three calendar years. You had a young shoe continuing his standout 2020 season and, for the love of God, how long can it take to pass the race leader on track?
Let’s dig into this week’s NASCAR Stat Sheet.
There’s no doubt about it, the past three years have not gone as planned for seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. Sunday proved the latest bump in the road… although it didn’t start that way.
Whenever the sport takes to its backyard track, No. 48 is likely going to be a factor. That trend remained the case in Sunday’s 600-mile marathon. Johnson began the race from the front row, alongside polesitter Kurt Busch. While the No. 1 Chevrolet dominated early, the No. 48 car stayed in contention, finishing eighth in the opening stage.
By the end of stage 2, Johnson was sitting 10th. Then, the team hit on the setup in the third stage, moving up to fourth on the scoring pylon. And in the fourth and final stage (yep, fourth stage!?), the No. 48 car was a mainstay in the top five, as it hovered around third. When a caution flew with two laps to go for his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, Johnson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, kept him on the track, setting up for a two-lap shootout from the front row next to Brad Keselowski.
Unfortunately for Johnson, Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney didn’t get a good enough restart to soar Johnson to the lead from the outside lane. It resulted in what was believed to be a second-place finish for the No. 48 car.
— Hendrick Motorsports (@TeamHendrick) May 25, 2020
As Johnson noted post-race, “second sucks.” But on the bright side, the runner-up finish is Johnson’s best since winning at Dover International Speedway, 102 races ago, right…?
Wrong. In the end, that second-place result was wiped out after the No. 48 Chevrolet failed post-race inspection for its rear alignment being off after going through the Optical Scanning Station (OSS). That best finish in three years evaporated into a last-place result, dropping Johnson to 15th in the championship standings.
Disappointed about our post-race OSS. We think something must've broken but won't know until we get it back to the shop tomorrow and can diagnose. Tough news after a strong night. This team is getting stronger We are focused forward. We’ll be back Wednesday with another great car
— Cliff Daniels (@DanielsCliff) May 25, 2020
Seven races into the 2020 Cup season and the biggest surprise might be the hot start for Alex Bowman.
The Daytona 500 is always a crapshoot, as it was for Bowman this year, finishing 24th. But in the second race of the year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the No. 88 car was closing in on Blaney for the lead late in the race. A late caution flew in that one, setting up for a green-white-checkered finish. Both Blaney and Bowman elected to pit (don’t remind Chase Elliott!) robbing both drivers of a potential victory. (Bowman wound up 13th).
The following week at Auto Club Speedway, Bowman’s No. 88 wouldn’t waste a second chance. He unloaded off the hauler as the fastest thing in SoCal, earning his second career victory in dominating fashion. Then, the No. 88 car finished 14th at Phoenix Raceway, the last race before the sport was shut down for 10 weeks due to COVID-19.
Was all momentum lost for Bowman coming back from racing hiatus? Hell no. He led 41 laps and finished runner-up to Kevin Harvick in NASCAR’s return at Darlington Raceway. Bowman had another fast hot rod in the second Darlington race last Wednesday, earning 10 stage points before dropping to 18th at the finish.
Then, Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 came. Bowman had himself a great chance of winning, cruising to two playoff points by winning the opening two stages. The No. 88 car led a race-high 164 laps, but when the checkers flew, he was 20th because of a bad last restart. (Ironically, that collapse also helped him; Bowman will start from pole on Wednesday at Charlotte because of NASCAR’s top-20 inversion rule).
Through seven races, Bowman has led 318 laps, the most he’s ever led in a single season. In his first two years as a full-time driver at HMS (2018 and 2019), he led 271. Total.
2020 is shaping up to be a career year for the Arizona native.
Some years, NASCAR’s longest race is a joy to watch. Some years, it’s hard. This year was in between.
Clean air is king. Always has been, always will be in an era where engineering has taken center stage in NASCAR. But it’s even more pronounced with the 550 horsepower, high downforce aerodynamic package. The racecars might as well be called slot cars, sticking to the ground and in need of clean air for maximum speed.
Starting from pole, Kurt Busch led the opening 54 laps of this Coca-Cola 600 before losing it on pit road during a caution flag. Bowman went onto lead the next 105 laps before giving it up through a cycle of green-flag pit stops. Once that cycle was complete, the No. 88 was back out front with a charging Martin Truex Jr. in second.
Then, finally, it happened. The first on-track pass for the lead of the race occurred on lap 225 (337.5 miles) when Truex passed Bowman, albeit in lapped traffic. That’s longer than the Wednesday night race at Charlotte is even scheduled for.
New leader: @MartinTruex_Jr.
Aside from green flag pit stops, it's the first pass for the lead on track tonight…. 337.5 miles in. #NASCAR
— Dustin Albino (@DustinAlbino) May 25, 2020
Over the final 262.5 miles over the race, not much changed. Clean air continued to dictate the moves of the race. On lap 311, Truex got around Matt DiBenedetto (who was on two tires nonetheless) for the second on-track pass for the lead. On a restart with less than 50 laps to go in the scheduled distance of this event, Keselowski passed Johnson. Nine laps later, Elliott passed the No. 2 car.
Regardless of how one feels about this package, clean air will always matter. Tire wear should matter at all tracks, but unfortunately, it doesn’t at Charlotte. Just ask Joey Logano, who earned his first stage win of the season on two fresh tires after restarting from the lead late in stage 3.
Joys of clean air, first car to stay out wins stage. Other 2 cars finish the last 2 cars on the lead lap. Only works if you get the lead.
— Cole Pearn (@colepearn) May 25, 2020