The Headline(s): Brad Keselowski was right to ask if Las Vegas has re-opened yet, because Sunday proved it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good. Capitalizing on a spat between Joey Logano and Chase Elliott for the race lead sending both leaders into the wall on lap 498, the No. 2 drove past the wreck and onto victory. The win was Keselowski’s second of 2020, 32nd career Cup win and 72nd victory in NASCAR’s national touring series.
— Xfinity Racing (@XfinityRacing) May 31, 2020
How it Happened: Keselowski led from the drop of the green flag through the two competition yellows that flew during the race’s first stage, one on lap 20 and another on lap 60. Minus a Ryan Newman solo spin on lap 8, those opening 60 laps went caution-free, though many drivers in the field struggled until around lap 45 with the PJ1 grip compound sprayed on the lower groove, which started the race icy. By lap 45, however, the compound heated up and the lower groove became viable. Keselowski had challengers behind him gaining ground in the form of Elliott and Ryan Blaney but still held the race lead until lap 83 (Matt DiBenedetto stayed out at the second competition yellow and led four of those laps) when Blaney pulled ahead. Elliott proved stronger on the long run, taking the lead at lap 105 and scoring the stage one win.
Blaney took the lead under stage break pit stops and held it until lap 169 when Keselowski’s No. 2 again assumed the point. That lead held until the yellow flew on lap 200 when Blaney spun by himself, only to be tagged very late in the going by Ty Dillon.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 31, 2020
Elliott prevailed off pit road under the caution flag, and held the lead from laps 204-223, weathering cautions for solo-car incidents involving Rick Ware Racing teammates Joey Gase and Bayley Currey. Logano managed to lead lap 224 immediately after a restart, but Elliott drove away the next lap. Lap 228 saw the race interrupted by the “Big One” after contact between Johnson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. unleashed hell on the high banks.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 31, 2020
Elliott still went on to win stage two.
When the final stage started on lap 262, tire strategy put the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Hamlin and Busch up front. Hamlin would hold the lead through a lap 268 yellow flag for Chris Buescher scraping the wall, only to yield soon after the ensuing restart to Busch on lap 278. Busch ran away with the lead until a lap 329 yellow flew for Austin Dillon scraping the wall. Elliott would lead one lap before Busch went back up front. Hamlin retook the lead on a lap 361 restart after Newman’s second spin of the day, where he would stay until lap 416.
Lap 417 saw Busch use the lapped car of JJ Yeley to pass Hamlin back for the lead, a run that continued until the yellow flew on lap 434 when Kevin Harvick cut a tire and scraped the wall, collecting Jones in the incident. Hamlin won the race off pit road and took the green on the lap 440 restart, holding off a strong challenge from Elliott on lap 446 using the high groove and staying out on old tires when Gray Gaulding brought out the yellow on lap 458 after hitting the wall. The yellow flag flew again on lap 465 for another large crash when contact from Bubba Wallace collected Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Michael McDowell.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 31, 2020
Hamlin drove away with the lead on the lap 472 restart, using the high groove to keep Logano at bay. With the race win seemingly in hand, come lap 488 Hamlin jumped the cushion and hit the wall, allowing both Logano and Elliott to surge ahead. In a chaotic lap, Logano overdrove the ensuing corner and made contact with Elliott, with Hamlin shortly thereafter spinning and collecting the lapped car of BJ McLeod to bring out what would be the final yellow flag.
The race restarted on lap 496 with Elliott leading Logano. Logano passed Elliott for the lead on lap 497, but disaster struck for the two leaders on lap 498, when Elliott got under Logano and put both cars in the fence, handing the lead and win to an opportunistic Keselowski.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 31, 2020
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Keselowski and the No. 2 still are arguably the slowest car in the Penske camp and faded for much of Sunday’s final stage. Despite all that, the veteran has two wins in the span of a week and leads the Cup field in playoff points. New crew chief Jeremy Bullins had adopted the contrarian pit strategies of predecessor Paul Wolfe, and the results speak for themselves.
Bowyer’s runner-up finish was his best since Texas last spring, and best at Bristol since the spring race in 2017.
Though he was culpable in causing the lap 228 Big One (more on that later), Johnson put a complete race together in finishing third, his best finish of 2020 and his best result at Bristol since the spring race in 2018.
Though Hamlin dropped the ball in the closing laps, Toyota was arguably the most dominant manufacturer in Thunder Valley this Sunday. Kyle Busch finished fourth despite a pit-road speeding penalty, Jones fifth despite being involved in the lap 432 incident with Harvick, and Christopher Bell ninth despite his own troubles on pit road. Also worth noting was an 18th-place finish by Daniel Suarez (again despite multiple pit-road penalties) that marked the team’s best finish of 2020, as well as the best ever finish for Gaunt Brothers Racing off a superspeedway.
The same perseverance yielded strong finishes for a number of Chevrolets outside the Hendrick umbrella. Dillon finished sixth despite a pit-road speeding penalty and lap 328 contact with the wall. Six-time Bristol winner Kurt Busch finished seventh with a battered racecar that was a rare survivor of the lap 228 Big One. And Wallace capitalized on the reorganized Cup schedule, utilizing a trip to a Bristol bullring he’s been successful on to deliver his first top-10 finish since Las Vegas months ago, his sixth career top-10 finish in Cup competition.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Both Logano and Elliott had strong racecars and should be commended for leaving it all on the high banks seeking the win on Sunday. Having said that, Logano’s rage at Elliott during the caution laps prior to the lap 496 restart was completely misplaced (Elliott did not make contact with Logano to trigger their dust-up on lap 488), and played a big part in the two being so charged up racing for the win that come lap 498, both the Nos. 9 and 22 were in the wall. Yes, Elliott was at fault for washing up into Logano on lap 498, and his on-the-fence suggestion that he may have had a flat tire was ample reason for Logano to demand he man up in post-race remarks. Whatever side of the battle lines you fall on, these two can’t afford to lose their cool like this. There’s cagey veterans out there willing to steal race wins.
Both Hamlin and Blaney derailed days where their cars were definitely fast enough to win with self-induced mistakes. Hamlin’s will certainly be the one remembered, as had he not bobbled on lap 487 the race was his to win. But Blaney’s lap 198 spin that resulted in his front-end being smashed destroyed the only Penske Ford without a win in 2020. The speed is there, the complete races haven’t been.
Rick Ware Racing’s entries today accounted for three yellow flags on-track, with Gase being parked by NASCAR for incurring two black flags for failing to maintain minimum speed.
Joey Gase is back on the track with his one shot to make minimum speed
Kyle Busch isn't happy with that speed
"Good god, he's a fucking road block."
Now the 18 team is talking about slow he is in the middle of the corner "which isn't helping at all."
They're nudging NASCAR.
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) May 31, 2020
The only positive on the day was that RWR entries did not collect any leaders on track.
Even before a broken tie-rod forced the No. 21 behind the wall for repairs during the final stage, DiBenedetto and team had screwed their Sunday up. Leaving their Ford out on track during the break for the second competition yellow, by the end of stage one Matty D was running sixth with track position. That all went out the window during the stage break courtesy of a pit-road speeding penalty that the team would never cover from. An underwhelming follow-up to his breakout performance in last year’s Night Race.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
More short tracks. Less downforce. Go figure that the first 2020 race with the low-downforce package on a short track is by lightyears the best of the season. MORE MORE MORE!
Two competition yellows in the first half of a stage is ridiculous. Throwing the competition yellow on lap 20 despite nearly half of those 20 laps were run under yellow is more ridiculous. That more than half the field stayed off pit road for at least one of those yellows is most ridiculous. Either mandate cars come down pit road and change tires to analyze wear or end this charade of bunching up the field early.
Sunday’s race was royally entertaining, and both the Hamlin slip on lap 488 and the Logano/Elliott scrub in the closing laps were as surprising a Cup finish as has been seen in recent memory. The only unfortunate side to this thing was the inconsistent officiating that decided the second consecutive Bristol spring race. Elliott and Logano’s incident on lap 498 saw every bit as much contact and wall contact as had brought out the yellow when Buescher did it on lap 268, Dillon on lap 328 and Harvick on lap 432. Yet this time, Keselowski was left to drive off to victory.
On that same note though, given how NASCAR hosed Keselowski with the scoring order in this race a year ago, in a karmic sense the No. 2 deserved that send-off.
Yes, once he got onto the straightaway where Blaney’s car had come to a stop for his lap 198 spin, Ty Dillon had very little time or space to react. But damn if an ARCA amount of time didn’t elapse between Blaney’s spin and Dillon taking evasive action.
The Athletic’s Jordan Bianchi this week broke what appears to be the next stretch of NASCAR’s Cup Series schedule, carrying the series into August with a trek to the midwest. This schedule all made sense with the exception of an inexplicable stretch where the Cup cars will run Kentucky on a Sunday, return to Charlotte for a Wednesday night All-Star Race, all to pack up and head to Texas the next Sunday. That’s already a haul enough given current distancing requirements in the shops. But it’s also problematic in that it marks three intermediate oval races in seven days, one of which means nothing, in terms of points or otherwise. If you ever wanted to see the All-Star Race treated as a throwaway, this’ll be the year. Why not just throw it away for good?
Race winner Keselowski has been one of the most outspoken advocates in the Cup garage for the current weekend format of no practice, no qualifying, echoing such sentiments in his post-race remarks.
Brad Keselowski says the racing has been better due to the lack of practice.
"We're seeing more mistakes … and I don't think that's a bad thing. I hope we keep this up. I called this format a home run earlier this week and I stand by it."
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) June 1, 2020
While Keselowski may be onto something in terms of comers and goers on track, it also seems that a lack of a practice on a track that has one of the trickiest pit roads on the Cup circuit yielded a literal pandemic of pit-road speeding penalties (21 were assessed on Sunday). Comers and goers making mistakes on-track are good for racing. Pit-road mistakes juggling the race order in such a volume is not.
FOX’s coverage of Sunday’s race was arguably the best since the return from hiatus, in no doubts aided by the track being so short and thus able to be covered by cameras more easily. Credit where it’s due, FOX gave us a full-field introduction during the pace laps, captured every major event on camera (including multiple angles of the lap 228 Big One), and even gave viewers a shot of the socially distanced spotters in the grandstands. Given how many short tracks are actively disregarding safety protocols, it was good to see that on camera. Two requests that I’ll relay from my two Frontstretch colleagues who used to write Thinkin’. From Matt McLaughlin, please keep the scoring pylon on screen when we “Crank it Up.” And from Mike Neff, please see below.
— Mike Neff (@MNeffShortTrack) May 31, 2020
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee took some flack on social media for a, shall we put it, composed command to fire engines. Hard to fault a politician for staying composed when one sees how acting like a grand marshal should ended Howard Dean’s career. Besides, there’s plenty of other more valid things to fault them for.
Anyone that’s read my work here for the last decade knows I’m far from a fan of Kyle Busch. In fact, I detest his decade-plus looting trophies from the Xfinity and Truck series as a Cup regular almost as much the looters ravaging cities across the U.S. this weekend. OK, not almost as much. But yes, I detest it.
Having said that, there is no denying that Jeff Gordon and numerous media at-large employed a double standard in reacting to Johnson’s triggering of the lap 228 Big One as an accordion racing incident merely days after donning torches and pitchforks when Kyle Busch misjudged and collected Elliott in the closing laps at Darlington. Yes, Rowdy has a rep well known. So does Johnson for causing Big Ones… that is exactly how he scored his last win in the Busch Clash in 2019. Both were obviously unintentional miscalculations by drivers that don’t typically make such mistakes. Both triggered violent accidents. Yet the two were treated very differently by the booth. Either back off Rowdy for Darlington, or tar and feather Johnson. That is all.
Autoweek’s Matt Weaver made astute observations on how new Bristol plus the PJ1 compound has made the Bristol Motor Speedway the closest thing to a dirt track the Cup cars are running on in 2020.
The TrackBite legitimately makes Bristol the most dynamic track in NASCAR right now.
It runs like a dirt track and it might be my favorite version of Bristol.
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) May 31, 2020
Between the variance in grooves run every lap of the race to the visible cushion that several drivers jumped in the final stage, the high banks of Bristol did have the Cup cars running like sprints on a slick, feature-race dirt track. No wonder Sunday was as good as it was. Really REALLY makes one hope that dirt shows up for 2021.
Though given what else was going on in North Carolina this weekend, maybe NASCAR is being smart keeping dirt and Cup racing separated. Only 42 miles apart, 311 Speedway owner Mike Fulp managed to top Ace Speedway’s Turner family in demonstrating utter stupidity stewarding short-track racing in the South with the most baffling COVID response plan conceived. Speaking to the Winston-Salem Journal, Fulp stated he planned to ban journalists from the track because a New York Times reporter that had recently been in Europe had inquired about covering the race. “The reporters could be [carriers]. We don’t have people here with the corona, and we got to protect our people here.” Fact check: There are confirmed “corona” cases in Stokes County, N.C.
However, a Facebook post on Fulp’s page (that also has plenty of images demonstrating that distancing and masks were nowhere to be found) went further to say reporters could purchase tickets, but would be removed from the facility if caught filming. I didn’t need my North Carolina public high school diploma to understand the logical fallacy here. There must be lead or something more toxic in the water in the North Carolina Piedmont.
Of note, the News & Observer‘s Andrew Carter reported Ace Speedway pulled the same stunt Saturday night, limiting reporter access while jamming the stands. I’m going to hold short-track promoters to the same standard that I’ve held NASCAR for the decade-plus I’ve covered this sport… when behaving like there’s something to hide, there’s something to hide. Like civil liability perhaps? If this caliber and intelligence of person are the ones holding the keys, I weep for the future of this sport’s grassroots.
Fearing for the future, the paint scheme of the race is going to the past. Quin Houff and Starcom racing FTW with the Mane ’N’ Tail special.
— StarCom Racing (@StarcomRacing) May 31, 2020
Yes, I gave Landon Cassill recognition for a similar scheme last year, but this one’s classier.
Where it Rated (where one bottle is a stinker and a six-pack a classic): This one gets five icy cold Miller Lites and a shot of Jack. The only thing keeping Sunday from six-pack status was that for as great a finish as it was, it came as a product of inconsistent officiating.
What’s the Point(s): Hamlin, Logano, Alex Bowman, Harvick, Keselowski and Elliott have locked themselves into the playoffs with race wins. If the playoffs were to start today, Truex, Blaney, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Almirola, Bowyer, DiBenedetto, Jones, Johnson and Dillon would point their way in. Dillon holds a five-point lead over William Byron for the final playoff spot. (Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that Chase Elliott has locked into the playoffs with a race win. Thanks to commentariat member Bill B for catching this omission.)
Up Next: A full week off is finally in the cards for the Cup Series before heading down South to the site of the COVID hiatus. The long-delayed 500-miler at Atlanta Motor Speedway has coverage starting at 3 p.m. ET on FOX.
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