The Headline(s): Capitalizing on an extremely late-race caution, Brad Keselowski and team stayed out while leader Chase Elliott pitted. He then bested Jimmie Johnson on a green-white-checkered restart to win the 2020 Coca-Cola 600.
— Charlotte Motor Speedway (@CLTMotorSpdwy) May 25, 2020
The win was Keselowski’s first of 2020, his 31st career Cup win and 71st victory in NASCAR’s national touring series. Johnson, meanwhile, failed post-race inspection and was credited with a last-place finish. That left Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick to round out the top five in what, by mileage, was the longest race in Cup Series history.
How It Happened: Before the green flag even flew, Denny Hamlin found himself taken out of contention when a tungsten weight broke off from his car during the pace laps. That forced him to pit road for repairs that saw the No. 11 Toyota eight laps down before it could actually start competing.
Back on track, the drop of the green flag saw polesitter Kurt Busch easily lead the first 20 laps to the competition caution. But the fallout from Hamlin’s gaffe continued, with Joey Gase forced down pit road for repairs after he hit the tungsten on the pace laps.
The weight that fell from the 11 car is what caused this. We will take the wave around to get 1 lap back https://t.co/1F9v5mBXJG
— Joey Gase Racing (@JoeyGaseRacing) May 24, 2020
Kurt Busch stayed out front after the yellow and led until the red flag came out on lap 49 for a passing rain shower. Busch’s lead up front ended on lap 54 when Alex Bowman won the race off pit road with a two-tire pit stop.
Out front in clean air, Bowman proved untouchable, running away from the field until Clint Bowyer brought out the yellow flag on lap 98 with a savage hit in turn 1. The incident was later determined to have resulted from a broken sway bar. The caution handed the stage one victory to Bowman, who then maintained the lead through stage break pit stops.
Stage two had all the excitement of a parade, with Bowman leading all the way till green-flag pit stops on lap 159. The relief from his whipping was short-lived; he cycled back to the lead by lap 166. The No. 88 was never seriously challenged en route to the stage two win.
Bowman again prevailed off pit road but Martin Truex Jr. finally found something to deal with the No. 88. Truex kept him in striking range for 15 laps before successfully using the lapped car of Gase as a pick on the backstretch on lap 225. That was the first on-track pass for the lead in this race.
Truex stayed out front until pitting under green on lap 255, retaking the lead on lap 263 after Keselowski led for eight laps. Kes was playing the same long-run strategy that the No. 2 team used Wednesday night in Darlington to gain track position.
Once stops cycled through, Lap 275 finally saw the race stopped for an incident. That’s when Matt Kenseth spun and hit the turn 2 wall.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) May 25, 2020
Pit strategy ensued, with both Elliott and Joey Logano opting to stay on track as the leaders pit for two-tire stops. Logano prevailed on the lap 282 restart while Elliott was shuffled to the back. The No. 22 Ford went on to take stage three.
Having taken four tires under the lap 275 caution, Matt DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers team rolled the dice during the final stage break, taking two tires and the race lead for the lap 308 restart. DiBenedetto held off Truex on the initial start, but by lap 312, Truex and his four tires took the lead with Johnson in tow.
Truex’s lead stabilized until Gase brought out the yellow for a spin on lap 348. It’s a caution that brought the entire field down pit road for what was expected to be a final round of pit stops.
Truex, who had a slow stop, lost the top spot. Instead, he ended up pushing Keselowski to the front on a lap 354 restart. But it would be Elliott that caught and passed the No. 2 on lap 363 and appeared to be riding into the sunset… until disaster struck.
Hendrick Motorsports’ undoing came on lap 398. With Elliott cruising to victory, teammate William Byron brought out the yellow for a spin with a flat tire in turn 2. Crew chief Alan Gustafson opted to bring Elliott to pit road while Keselowski, Johnson and a half-dozen other leaders stayed out on old tires. Elliott would never recover, with Keselowski using a strong start under the overtime finish to score the trophy.
2020 Coca-Cola 600: Drivers Who Accomplished Something
It can be argued that the No. 2 team has been the slowest of the three Penske teams all year. Despite that, Keselowski and new crew chief Jeremy Bullins have proven ever the contrarians that the driver and Paul Wolfe used to be. Two-tire strategy got them track position during the final stage, and staying out on old tires under the green-white-checkered finish allowed the team to score the third crown jewel win for Keselowski in the final race for longtime Penske sponsor Miller Lite. That’s not to mention Keselowski driving the backstretch of Charlotte like Talladega Superspeedway, snaking up and down the surface to break the draft. The No. 2 is not up to speed to contend for a title right now, but winning this early in the year gives them a lot of leeway to test and race for playoff points.
The Busch brothers both staged impressive recoveries in the final stage of Sunday’s race. Kyle finished fourth despite falling back to 11th as late as lap 324 after completely losing the handle on his car. Kurt, meanwhile, finished seventh, recovering from a lap 313 pit stop made under green to replace a loose wheel.
Collectively, the big three of the Cup rookie class had their best day of the season. Tyler Reddick was a fixture in the top 10 all night and finished eighth. Christopher Bell scored his first career top 10 in a Cup car after weathering contact with both Blaney and Erik Jones over the course of the night. And Cole Custer, despite incurring both the wrath of Truex as a lapped car and an uncontrolled tire penalty, overcame it all to finish 13th. That’s Custer’s best result since the COVID hiatus ended. A shout-out as well should go to John Hunter Nemechek for a 17th-place result.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
It may be harsh to put a team that put two drivers on the podium here (at least before post-race inspection). But for the second time in three races since NASCAR restarted, Hendrick Motorsports as an organization snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. For as strong as Johnson was all night long, he proved unable to capitalize on front-row restarts both at lap 354 and on the overtime that could have set up the No. 48 with clean air that Hendrick cars thrived in.
He closed on neither occasion. Then, he got disqualified with a failed rear alignment that dropped him like a rock in the championship standings.
Bowman led a career-high 164 laps and won two stages, but ended up in 20th, a complete non-factor when the pay window opened. Byron is likely the most unpopular man anywhere in the South after bringing out the yellow on lap 398 with Elliott riding into the sunset.
And as for Elliott, the No. 9 team’s season may have ended in Charlotte early Monday morning. Gustafson’s call for Elliott to come down pit road did have some rationale behind it. As our own Matt McLaughlin pointed out in the Frontstretch staff chat, the crew chief was likely banking on an overtime finish triggering a melee of yellows that would allow Elliott and four new tires to prevail.
Logical or not, that decision took control of the race away from the No. 9 team’s driver, and instead relied on the rest of the Cup field to wad up. Ceding control of a crown jewel race mere days after being run over at Darlington is a worrisome place for a team this high-profile to be.
While the longest race of the year produced no engine failures, there were mechanical woes to go around. Ryan Newman finished a distant 28th after being forced to pit under green twice for expired batteries. Bubba Wallace was forced behind the wall before lap 130 with failed brakes. And as for Hamlin, well, someone at Joe Gibbs Racing may be out of a job after a tungsten weight visibly spewed from his Toyota on the pace laps.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 24, 2020
After a strong top-10 finish in his return to Cup racing, Kenseth has now been involved in on-track incidents in consecutive races. His spin and resulting damage on lap 275 resulted in a 26th-place result after the No. 42 quickly faded following a strong start.
JJ Yeley not only suffered through a tire rub that flattened his left rear tire during qualifying, he also completed only 251 laps before having to park the No. 7 car after making contact with the wall. Nobody relying on the FOX broadcast would have known that, however, so I’ll let the driver speak for himself.
Disappointing end to the day. I had a RR failure and got loose in Turn 2 and got into the fence. No caution was thrown and the damage was to severe to finish. A tough day all around for @VCP_HQ TBR #7
— JJ Yeley (@jjyeley1) May 25, 2020
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
After how good the 600 was a year ago using the same 550-horsepower package, it was both a surprise and a bitter disappointment to see just how bad a race Sunday’s was. The first on-track pass for the lead didn’t come until lap 225, and that took both a pick from a lapped car and a run which later showed Bowman’s No. 88 car had picked up a vibration that corded his tires.
The same No. 88 car led all but six laps between lap 55 and lap 223. And remember, his rise to the front came from a two-tire pit stop on lap 54. In sum, the cars on track proved more effective at social distancing than NASCAR’s vaunted pit road protocols did. (Anyone else notice how Kyle Busch was close enough to Elliott to whisper in his ear post-race as neither driver wore a mask?)
After a race that bad, for Wednesday, I hope the CMS staff just leaves the racing surface alone, the PJ1 corked and the tire dragon parked. Why? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. So here’s hoping they prepare the surface differently.
Keselowski winning was a surprise ending, but until the No. 2 became a factor late, Team Penske had to be having Daytona 500 deja vu. Between Blaney all but running over Bell with a bump from behind and Logano nearly wiping out the No. 12 team car on a lap 308 restart, the Penske cars couldn’t stay off each other. Just like Speedweeks.
After seeing Elliott wiggle out of any discipline for violating a well-known NASCAR rule by leaving his wrecked racecar, walking on the racing surface before the arrival of the medical crew to flip off Kyle Busch, I’m going to be irate if the same school of worm-for-a-backbone officiating is applied to the No. 11 team. Their blatant rules violation ended with the No. 11 spewing tungsten on the CMS surface. Not only is the rulebook explicitly clear on what the penalty should be for this error, this kind of mistake is about as dangerous as can be made in car prep. See Jamie Dick.
This is why losing ballast is such a big deal.
— Ben the Nascar Guy (@BenTheNascarGuy) May 24, 2020
While on the topic of Hamlin, part of me wants to castigate him for what appears to have been a whiny tirade to his crew once he was forced to pit road at the start to fix the car’s weight issue.
“Let me know when it’s the point of ‘no return’ and we can just go home,” Denny says
“Nope…we can’t do that,” Crew Chief replies.
— Alan Cavanna (@AlanCavanna) May 24, 2020
Having said that, given the rant that I went on (and stand by) regarding NASCAR’s “100% attempt” requirements for championship eligibility, Hamlin does have a point. He has two wins that have him all but locked into the playoffs and the seven points he scored by completing 398 laps Sunday are not likely to have any bearing on how his season goes. Plus, given that Hamlin is no stranger to injury on track (Talladega 2008 and Fontana 2013 come to mind), there’s a case to be made the No. 11 should have packed it up. The ironies of the playoff era.
It’s hard to know which of the last two Cup races hurt Bowyer more. Was it a strong run at Darlington derailed by a late flat tire? Or was it having a part failure this Sunday night triggering a violent crash, one that ended the No. 14’s race before it really started?
The real question is becoming whether Bowyer, who appears to be a lead contender to join the FOX broadcast booth, needs to call the driving career quits sooner than later. The reality is, Bowyer is proving largely irrelevant in Cup racing, which is problematic when he’s being considered to fill a seat that has been populated by the likes of three-time champ Darrell Waltrip and four-time champ Jeff Gordon. Bowyer’s accomplishments on track truly pale in comparison.
Any new blood may be welcome in said booth. Watching Gordon interview Elliott during the rain delay was like watching a sports therapy session. What driver (in the Hendrick camp anyway) is going to say they’re not confident after being prompted by the telecaster three times to say so?
That being said, it’s a confident celebrity driver that would Tweet this piece of content. (Full disclosure: I retweeted it).
— Chase Elliott (@chaseelliott) May 24, 2020
There were a number of issues I had with the 600 last year that were still to be found this year. First, the moment of silence “halftime break” being put into this race is manufactured and takes away from what was a truly somber pre-race ceremony that really hit close to home with empty grandstands. Scheduled passage in Thinkin’: Abundance does NOT make the heart grow fonder.
Second, despite being one of four crown jewel races (and certainly not the biggest of them), the 600 having four stages means it’s valued more in the standings than any other race on the schedule. The Daytona 500 is a bigger race. The Southern 500 is a harder race. This anomaly needs to be addressed.
Don’t give me tradition as a reason this race didn’t go green until 6:28 p.m. on a Sunday evening. Having attended every Coca-Cola 600 from 2004-2012, I can say with certainty the green used to fly at 5:45 p.m. But, on a day when there was no competition to be had from the Indianapolis 500 or any sport for that matter (no, exhibition golf does not count), why was the start time of this race not pushed up?
The 600 takes four-plus hours to run on a good day, and in the midst of a 2020 schedule that’s A) been interrupted by rain every time it wasn’t in the desert and B) has compressed seven events into 11 days, it blows my mind scheduling wasn’t addressed. Why not run earlier in the day, allowing for response time to showers such as the ones that delayed Sunday’s race? You’d think after losing out on millions of viewers from the “Trump bump” after the 500’s early rain delay that FOX would learn a freaking lesson.
FOX does seem to have learned a lesson from the fallout that ensued from Darlington last Sunday over a shot of the spotters’ stand not properly distancing… they stopped showing the stand. To steal a line from our own Tom Bowles, Did You Notice? (Wednesdays on Frontstretch) that they’ve also stopped showing replays of uncontrolled tire penalties? The Darlington telecasts showed footage from the Hawkeye trailer is available to the FOX crews, but Jones’s and Custer’s penalties were not replayed. Same with the three uncontrolled tire violations called at Darlington last week. There’s an advantage to having no witnesses in the arena. Turning the cameras away gets a lot more effective at hiding controversy….
Finally, I got some rather nasty feedback from a column I wrote during the hiatus defending what was then one of the first protests seen in the country over shutdown measures taken in response to the current pandemic. I still stand by those comments, as I still believe telling citizens ready and willing to work that they can’t provide for themselves and their own to be every bit as destructive as illness.
What I will not stand by and defend is the absolute disregard for distancing and mask protocols on display at short tracks across the South this holiday weekend that had nothing to do with folks putting food on their tables or paying the mortgage. Racing seems to have taken the Michael Scott approach to bankruptcy… if you just yell “distancing,” it’s all good.
Cherokee Speedway had crowds lined shoulder-to-shoulder to take pictures of feature winner Stewart Friesen. The grandstands at the Baby Rattler in Alabama were jam-packed. But the coup de gras of the night went to the nearly full Ace Speedway, whose PA announcer was reported to have said the equivalent of “don’t cough on people” when addressing the crowd.
So many people here there’s not nearly enough tickets for everyone wanting to get in. Stands are filling in, packed. Ace Speedway, Altamahaw, N.C. pic.twitter.com/Bpzm6kAdRY
— Andrew Carter (@_andrewcarter) May 23, 2020
After watching how sobering the 600 pre-race was when performed with empty stands, it presented a sharp contrast to what could best be described as irresponsible selfishness. Such behavior ignores the fact that there is already documented evidence that sporting events with large crowds in close proximity allow COVID-19 to run wild. It ignores the fact that local tracks in this environment are not playing host to just locals; the first race back in the U.S. at Park Jefferson in South Dakota drew drivers from Pennsylvania to California. A quick survey of social media from Ace last night made very clear that, despite low infection rates in rural North Carolina, the track had plenty of visitors from harder-hit areas up north.
It ignores how short-sighted it is for a sport with an aging and shrinking following to play Russian Roulette with said fanbase’s health. It ignores the very real possibility that, in the event of spread, stock car racing being the first sport to go back to competition is going to be left to explain itself. Perhaps worst of all, in the event that irresponsible gatherings like this do spread the virus, more shutdown measures are going to shut people out of work, not just fans out of grandstands. Race fans, I’m begging you, we have to be smarter than this.
There are ample ways to support local racing in this pandemic that don’t involve playing the ignorance card. A typical night at my home track (Winchester Speedway) sees me spend $15 on a ticket, $10 on a Dew and some chili dogs, and $5 to put into the 50/50 raffle. That’s completely comparable to what it costs to buy a race on pay-per-view online and spend a few bucks on PayPal contributing to the drivers’ points fund. Speed Shift TV, Speed51 and Dirt on Dirt all have done a tremendous job covering races during the pandemic. Stay at home and check them out.
In closing, the paint scheme of the night goes to Johnson in his final 600.
— Hendrick Motorsports (@TeamHendrick) May 24, 2020
Charlotte may not be his house anymore, but this scheme was a minimal, dignified one to go out in.
Where It Rated (with one bottle a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): This one gets two lukewarm Miller Lites. One for the race itself, and one for a fitting conclusion to one of NASCAR’s longest-term sponsor partners. The one for the race was clearly drugged… I haven’t slept that sound this whole pandemic.
What’s the Point(s)?: Hamlin, Logano, Bowman, Harvick and Keselowski have locked themselves into the Cup playoffs with race wins. In the event the playoffs started today, Elliott, Aric Almirola, Truex, DiBenedetto, Bowyer, Blaney, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Jones and Byron would point their way in. Byron holds a four-point lead over Reddick for the final playoff spot.
Up Next: De facto Cup doubleheaders continue at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, with another 500-kilometer race scheduled for Wednesday night. Coverage of the Alsco Uniforms 500 starts at 8 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.