NASCAR Race Weekend Central
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Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Alsco Uniforms 500 at Charlotte

The Headline(s): Opening night jitters be gone. Fast all night again at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Chase Elliott bested Kevin Harvick for the lead on lap 181 and never looked back, holding off hard charges from Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney to score his first Cup win of 2020, seventh career Cup win and 15th victory in NASCAR’s national touring series.

Hamlin, Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kurt Busch rounded out the top five. 

How it Happened: Continuing a trend that the current spate of NASCAR races with no practice has seen play out repeatedly, an early yellow flag flew in Thursday’s race. This one came on lap 1, when Rick Ware Racing’s Joey Gase got hit by teammate Garrett Smithley in turn 3. Though FOX’s cameras didn’t catch the beginning of the incident (more on that later), Gase was quick to explain the incident in a now-deleted Tweet that blamed his teammate for wrecking him.

After a lengthy clean-up, the race went back to green on lap 10, with William Byron besting Matt DiBenedetto by lap 12 and leading until the competition caution flew on lap 20. Byron handed the lead to Joey Logano during the ensuring stage break, as the No. 22 stayed on track during pit stops. Logano was pushed to the lead on the lap 25 restart by Blaney, where he would stay until the caution flag flew on lap 30 for a dual incident that saw Brad Keselowski slow in turn 4 with a flat tire, and Matt Kenseth spinning in the same turn evading the accordion that ensued. The red flag would fly shortly later for rain and lightning passing the speedway.

74 minutes later, the red was lifted, and after the lap 35 restart, Logano drove away to an easy stage one victory, though Harvick managed to climb to second after taking four tires under the competition yellow. 

Stage two opened with a bang, as Stenhouse took Kyle Busch and others four-wide exiting turn 2 and made it work, though the tight quarters saw Busch and Aric Almirola make contact in turn 3, forcing the No. 18 to pit road with a left-rear flat and fender damage. 

Meanwhile, Harvick took the lead from Logano on lap 66, holding the point until the yellow flew on lap 73 when Quin Houff was knocked into the wall after Brennan Poole got loose in turn 2. The ensuing pit stops saw both Logano and Alex Bowman stay out on old tires, with Bowman showing his Coca-Cola 600 speed as he drove away from the field. Though Elliott began to show strength during this run, Bowman won the stage comfortably.

Bowman prevailed during stage break pit stops and led the field again following the lap 123 restart, but fell into the clutches of Harvick again on lap 126 (Bowman would fall from contention on lap 136 after slapping the wall). Following another yellow flag for Timmy Hill slowing in turn 4, Harvick would again pull ahead of the field. 

Come lap 181, Elliott caught up and passed Harvick, who would fade to the back of the top 10 during the final run. With the race not interrupted by yellow after Hill’s incident on lap 144, Elliott drove away to the win.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Elliott’s victory Thursday marked CMS wins on consecutive nights for the Dawsonville, Ga. native (he won Tuesday night’s Truck Series race). The win locks the No. 9 team into the playoffs, giving them increased flexibility in the coming races to test and gamble in preparation for a title run. More importantly, two observations. One, though it could be argued that teammate Jimmie Johnson was faster than the No. 9 team during Sunday’s 600, and that Bowman was faster both nights at Charlotte, the No. 9 team was the only one from Hendrick Motorsports that proved able to put a complete night together and deliver a trophy. Second, this exchange demonstrates just how hungry Elliott is.

Though they couldn’t follow up Sunday’s 600 triumph, Team Penske posted results every bit as good as the Hendrick camp Thursday. Logano won stage 1, Blaney was among the fastest cars on the track in the closing laps, and Keselowski rebounded from hitting the wall with a flat tire on lap 30 to finish seventh at night’s end. All three Penske cars scored top-10 finishes, the only team in the field to achieve that.

Despite having four crew members suspended after dumping tungsten weights on the track Sunday, Hamlin’s No. 11 proved the fastest car in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable on Thursday, scoring a runner-up finish. I don’t care what the points say, the No. 11 team has to be the title favorite at this point in the season.

Stenhouse’s four-wide pass on lap 63 saw him truly best the ever-aggressive Kyle Busch on a restart, and was one of many power moves that the No. 47 made in securing a top-five finish. The fourth-place result was Stenhouse’s first top 15 since Las Vegas.

For all the moaning and groaning Martin Truex Jr. did about his car being junk in the opening stages, at race’s end Truex finished ninth. The No. 19 has finished in the top 10 in every race since the Cup Series returned from hiatus.

John Hunter Nemechek led the rookies again, finishing 13th in his Front Row Motorsports machine. The “big three” of the rookie class has company. 

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Causing a nearly 10-lap cleanup after two of the team’s cars were wadded up on the first lap is not exactly the best way to prepare for a trip to Bristol. Especially not for a low-budget team like Rick Ware Racing. But that’s what happened, with Smithley finishing dead-last and Gase being black-flagged a short-time later for failing to meet minimum speed.

The lower-budget cars kept tripping over themselves after the RWR mess. Houff was an innocent victim of Poole getting loose on lap 73, but the end result was two damaged cars that finished outside the top 30.

Again, Bowman racked up stage points and laps led. Again, when the pay window opened, Bowman and the No. 88 team was nowhere to be found. The wall contact that ended his night on Thursday was entirely self-inflicted. 

Ever since Kenseth scored a top 10 in his first race back in Cup competition with Chip Ganassi Racing, the results have faded for the No. 42 team, and on this Thursday, the rust started to show. Not only did Kenseth bring out a yellow flag for the third straight race for an on-track incident, Kenseth also incurred pit-road penalties for driving through too many boxes and missing the commitment line. That’s not characteristic of a driver that for years owned pit road with the help of Roush’s “Killer Bees.”

Bubba Wallace finished 37th with a car that was fast enough to run in the top 15 after slamming the wall around lap 165 with an apparent hub issue (more on that later).

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

First things first, a shout-out to longtime Frontstretch colleague and former Thinkin’ author Mike Neff. Mike, the first Frontstretcher I met on staff some 12 years ago, had a bit of a health scare this week but is back home resting comfortably. What’s more, he didn’t let that stop him from talking short-track racing with longtime Frontstretch supporter Ed Lane on his radio program this week, a hit that’s well worth a listen. Here’s to our next race buddy, though with 2020 looking dead in the water we’re going to have to pick a track other than Myrtle Beach.

Second things second, I wrote after Sunday’s 600 that “the No. 9 team’s season may have ended in Charlotte early Monday morning” following crew chief Alan Gustafson’s ill-fated call to pit Elliott from the race lead in the closing laps. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I’ll take my heaping serving of crow pulled, with a side of vinegar. Elliott’s response over the past 72 hours, both in effectively closing out Thursday’s Cup win and in giving Rowdy a taste of his own medicine with a cheeky bow after winning Tuesday’s truck race, has NASCAR’s most popular driver as relevant at the front of the field as any Hendrick Motorsports driver has been in recent memory. I think I can hear the pool hall siren from here…

Sticking with my writing from earlier this week, following Tuesday’s truck race, I questioned whether NASCAR needed to go the Formula 1 route of implementing a super license for competitors to hold them responsible for on-track incidents after the truck race fell victim to a rash of accidents triggered by backmarkers Jesse Iwuji, Natalie Decker and Smithley. After seeing Smithley at the center of another on-track mess only three corners into Thursday’s race, I rest my case. At a minimum, I wasn’t wrong.

What is proving to be VERY wrong is the continued tenure of Wallace as the driver of the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43. Yes, the addition of crew chief Jerry Baxter to the team has improved the speed of the No. 43 car on-track so far this year. But listening to Bubba’s literal meltdown after seeing another top-15 run go up in smoke late Thursday night, a distressing sense of deja vu had to be hitting the RPM camp.

That deja vu stems back to the fall race at CMS back in 2010, the final race of Kasey Kahne’s tenure at RPM. Following an on-track incident relating to brake failure at that race, Kahne refused to return behind the wheel of his repaired racecar. The driver said he was ill, the team said the driver quit. Whatever the true story, a Kahne ESPN’s David Newton accurately described as “disgruntled” was released days later. 

There’s no getting around the limitations at RPM. A single-car team with limited sponsorship is going to struggle in 2020 Cup racing. Wallace, of limited Cup experience, a seemingly limited ability to control his emotions under duress (don’t forget his cheap shot at Bowman after last year’s ROVAL race at, you guessed it, CMS), and a marketability that has proven limited in securing sponsorship (NASCAR does skew old and white, after all), has done what he can for the No. 43 team. The frustration speaks for itself.

Let’s stick with the topic of limits. Thursday night’s race was probably the most visible example yet of the limitations that FOX’s current broadcast strategy have in delivering a Cup race. FOX’s cameras missed the start of the opening lap incident between Smithley and Gase. They missed what happened to Hill that brought out the yellow on lap 145. Mike Joy sounded a bit fatigued from the booth, all but giving up on the transition to commercial at the end of the first stage. What’s more, the restrictions that the TV crew face dealing with social distancing and staff limitations resulted in the Xfinity Series race at Bristol being preemptively moved from Saturday to Monday. 

I don’t mean any of that to be harshly critical, merely constructive observations for process improvement. Hosting seven races in less than two weeks with the weather delays NASCAR has faced would strain any TV crew, and despite the limits FOX has done an admirable job bringing the show to those of us at home. If nothing else, such should be a reminder of the challenge that adding mid-week races to the schedule will pose, even in normalcy.

To demonstrate goodwill towards FOX, the decision to wait until Thursday evening to run this race was absolutely correct, even if that meant yet another rain delay. Why? Even in the shutdown environment, plenty of us still have to (or rather, are fortunate to) go to work. If mid-week racing is going to be a thing, it will ALWAYS be televised in the evening to capture viewers home for the day.

Monte Dutton remains as sharp as ever. I’ll let this tweet speak for itself

Sunday’s 600 was a bad race, and by a much wider margin than the c. 51-49 margin that The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck’s post-race poll indicated (Elliott nation votes it seems). Thursday’s race, while improved, wasn’t much better. 15 years after the levigation disaster, the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval surface remains just that, despite the best efforts of traction compounds and tire dragons. Let’s get radical in fixing this. Make Charlotte Speedway dirt again (and yes, I know CMS isn’t the original 1950s Charlotte Speedway. Wordplay people.)

Staying in the 1950s for a minute, did anyone else see Kyle Busch’s flared fender after his contact with Almirola on the lap 63 restart and think of the chariot race from Ben-Hur?

Joe Gibbs Racing is no stranger to NASCAR officials these days, and this Thursday saw two of their cars make compelling cases for revisiting longstanding penalties within the sport. Despite incurring what many pundits considered severe penalties for shedding tungsten weights on track Sunday (four senior crew men were suspended for multiple races), Hamlin and the No. 11 team literally didn’t miss a beat, scoring a top-five finish. Just as Johnson proved over a decade ago when he won the sport’s biggest race with his crew chief on suspension, in the 21st century suspending crewmen does NOTHING to penalize big-time race teams. If NASCAR is going to continue to avoid parking cars for major infractions the same way the NCAA avoids the death penalty like the plague, let’s do it hockey-style and make a team do pit stops with fewer guys over the wall. That will actually impact on-track results.

Second, FOX’s Bob Pockrass fielded a ton of questions about the one-lap penalty assessed to Erik Jones for pitting outside the box in the second half of the race. While this penalty has been among the most consistent, black and white calls in NASCAR racing for some time, some officials’ discretion could be welcome here. In the same vein that I’ve campaigned for uncontrolled tire penalties to be called solely on the basis of whether or not a team’s control of their tires adversely impacts a competitor, the same could be applied to pitting outside the box. After all, if Jones wasn’t blocking another car or gaining an advantage with his nose over the front line of his box, where’s the harm?

Lastly, a piece of good news from my home in the Commonwealth of Virginia came today, with Governor Ralph Northam giving racetracks the green light to race (without fans). In NASCAR terms, that means all systems go for a scheduled Cup race at Martinsville on June 10. Coupled with North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper publicly lauding NASCAR earlier this week for their proactive efforts in establishing safety protocols and working with local officials to host their races responsibly, it has been a competent and confident week for the sanctioning body. The future of NASCAR’s 2020 season is looking much brighter than it did a month ago.

A large part of that comes from the very public images that have been telecast of NASCAR competitors wearing masks, even outdoors. Not only did those public images from Darlington give NASCAR the credibility needed to sell Cooper on allowing the Coca-Cola 600 to run on Memorial Day, they undoubtedly played a role in getting Northam to allow Martinsville’s events to go forward (as of this Friday, the Commonwealth is requiring adults in Virginia to wear masks in many public places). 

It doesn’t matter if you oppose Northam or Cooper politically. It doesn’t matter if you believe masks are unnecessary and silly (they’re not. Yes, if God wants to take you, He doesn’t need a virus. That type of thinking doesn’t stop our collective heroes from donning helmets and seatbelts when they strap in). For NASCAR racing to continue, they have to appear a responsible corporate partner, able to work with both red-state and blue-state governors (Dover, Michigan and Pocono for example also are in states with Democratic governors). If you are a race fan, wear a damn mask. Play the game and keep the party going. 

Keeping the Thinkin’ party going, paint scheme of the night goes to Cole Custer. 

The side and quarterpanels of his Mustang were a sharp throwback to Davey Allison’s Texaco/Havoline specials.

Where it Rated (where one bottle is a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): This one gets two and a half room temperature bottles of O’Douls (Friday is a work day after all). The final stage of Thursday’s race did see Elliott best Harvick under green for a winning pass, and both Blaney and Stenhouse proved comers as Harvick ended up a goer, which was a sight sorely lacking from Sunday’s 600. Having said that, this race was still a snoozer. Cue the (Athletic’s Jeff) Gluck:

What’s the Point(s): Hamlin, Logano, Bowman, Harvick, Keselowski and Elliott have all locked themselves into the playoffs with race wins. If the playoffs started today, Blaney, Truex, Almirola, Kurt Busch, DiBenedetto, Kyle Busch, Jones, Clint Bowyer, Austin Dillon and Johnson would point their way in. Johnson currently holds a three-point lead over Tyler Reddick for the final playoff spot.

Up Next: Leaving the Carolinas is on NASCAR’s mind. The Cup Series ventures a tick west to Thunder Valley to tackle the high banks of Bristol. Coverage from the Last Great Colosseum begins at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.

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About Bryan Keith

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4 comments

  1. Avatar

    it will see so strange not seeing fans at brisol.

    seems like we have an interesting crop of rookies this year.

    i’ve always thought you had to have some kind of on track clearance from nascar to race on the tracks. i know they use to have that for daytona and dega because of the size and speeds, but honestly looking at how the back of the field tends to have problems (where majority of these folks start), it would be a good idea.

  2. Avatar

    With the exception of the red flag for rain (damn we’ve had a crappy spring in the mid-Atlantic), the race was pretty entertaining. At least Elliott fans can chill now since he finally got the win that he’s come so close to in the last few races. Johnson got lucky when that last caution fell. The booth didn’t mention it but he was dropping like a stone (lose lugnut?). As usual, Harvick was fast again as well as Logano and Hamlin.

    I get that with the lack of practice they need a competition caution, but damn, that’s like adding a 4th stage to an already short race. If NASCAR can add a stage because the 600 is such a long race, why can’t they remove a stage if it’s a short race? (That is a rhetorical question, we all know why).

    I am glad that we will get a Martinsville race in a few weeks. I would have really missed that one.

    I agree with Janice, Bristol with no fans will be really weird.

  3. Avatar

    “Staying in the 1950s for a minute, did anyone else see Kyle Busch’s flared fender after his contact with Almirola on the lap 63 restart and think of the chariot race from Ben-Hur?”

    No! I thought “Why isn’t he black flagged?” He’s going to cut a tire on another car and bring out the caution he needs, just like when he’s stretching his mileage and a caution comes out just before he has to pit.

    And why didn’t a crew member push it down during the pit stop to replace the flat tire? It’s right under the fuel filler.

  4. Avatar

    2 things that I have an issue with that I have come to notice:

    1.) Competition Cautions: I thought these were for the drivers safety? If that’s the case, why are teams not required to pit and change tires? If they aren’t requiring teams to do this, then they need to get rid of this unnecessary break.

    2.) Start Times: Why are we waiting until 6:30 on a Sunday night with no competition from anyone to throw the green flag. On a Wednesday night it was 8:30 (until rains came). Nascar’s obsession with prime time needs to stop. People who have to get up early for work the next day aren’t going to stay up till midnight to watch the end of a race. Some aren’t going to do it on a weekend either. As a result I feel some casual fans won’t even watch at all. Start these races early so they can end at a reasonable time.

    And now some positives:

    1.) I do like the lack of practice/quals. It does help to even the playing field. It has made the racing better, too, even though the same veterans are winning most of the races. But I contribute that a large group of far less experienced drivers in the field.

    I also like the short races. I hope Nascar continues with these even when we get back to normal. I think it has added to the urgency of these guys to get to the front. It made this race in particular more exciting. This race compared to the 600 was far different. It also saves teams money with less pit stops for tires etc.