(Photo: NASCAR Media/Getty Images)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead

The Headline(s): Denny Hamlin scored his third victory of 2020 and second since NASCAR returned from hiatus on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (June 14). All three have come under rainy circumstances.

His Daytona 500 win in February was on a Monday after the normally-on-Sunday race was postponed. Next up, his May win at Darlington was shorted by about 20 laps due to rain. Sunday’s victory at Homestead completed the trifecta, featuring multiple lightning delays totaling almost three hours.

Hamlin started from the pole at HMS, won the first two stages and led 138 of 267 laps. But his dominance almost came to an end in the waning laps of the 2020 Dixie Vodka 400. He lost the lead to Chase Elliott during the final green-flag pit stop sequence before surging forward to take it back.

Elliott began to close back in on the No. 11, but scrubbed the wall late and then had to fight Ryan Blaney for the runner-up spot. Elliott held on with Blaney, Tyler Reddick and Aric Almirola rounding out the top-five finishers.

How it Happened: The green flag was delayed slightly by rain to kick things off, not a great harbinger of what was to come. Once the race got underway, just five laps were run before a nearby lightning strike put things back in a holding pattern. Drivers were called back to their cars, only for lightning to strike again. After two hours, racing finally got going while a rainbow graced the horizon.

It didn’t last. Yet another lightning strike followed after about another 25 laps of racing. It took about five hours, but the race was able to finally, blissfully, get underway.

In the several installments of competition before the race really got going, Hamlin immediately lost the lead. He started on pole, but Joey Logano‘s No. 22 swung around the No. 11 and took the top spot. But Logano would wind up with damage following contact with Quin Houff and quickly drop out of contention.

Once the weather officially cleared, the lead changed hands nearly 20 times throughout the race, largely between the same trio of drivers: Hamlin, Blaney and Elliott. Rookie Tyler Reddick ran strong, sneaking up front for a few laps, but couldn’t quite match the aforementioned trio.

A half-spin by Ryan Newman brought out the first caution of the night. The Roush Fenway Racing driver was involved in the only other yellow flag for an incident late in the race. Only six total cautions flew: two for an accident, two for rain and two for normal stage breaks.

With a clean race paired with long, green-flag stints, Hamlin was able to rise to the front by the end of each stage. He won the first two, withstanding occasional challenges from and battles with Elliott and Blaney. Then, Hamlin fought back for the win after falling behind on the final green-flag pit stop. He was aided when Logano’s damaged car appeared to hold up Elliott when they tried to lap him.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 car might be the early title favorite for 2020. Hamlin scored the 40th win of his career, tying Mark Martin on the all-time list. He’s the 20th driver to hit the 40-win mark, tying the modern-era record for the most wins of any driver without a title. In NASCAR’s full 71-year history, only Junior Johnson, who never ran a full-time schedule, has more all-time Cup victories without a championship (50).

Did ESPN’s excellent five-part documentary series “The Last Dance” have an influence on Hamlin’s season? Don’t discount it. His current momentum and post-race memeing might be an indicator.

Behind Hamlin, the biggest story of the race was Reddick, who finished fourth. It’s the rookie’s first top-five finish of the year, coming at the track where he won two consecutive NASCAR Xfinity Series races (and, in doing so, two consecutive NXS championships). Starting 24th, he was up to fifth in the first five laps before the red flag flew and stayed there most of the night. Leading his first career laps in the Cup Series, keep an eye on that No. 8 car this season… as long as he remembers what lap it is.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ryan Blaney. Blaney recorded his third-straight top-five finish in 2020, running fourth at Atlanta Motor Speedway and then second at Martinsville Speedway despite a lot of adversity at that short track. Blaney followed up with 70 laps led Sunday night, second to only Hamlin. A third-place finish is nothing to sneeze about for the lone Team Penske driver still shut out of victory lane in 2020.

Almirola had his best finish of the year, coming home fifth. He had a seventh-place effort at the second Darlington race, but otherwise hasn’t finished in the top 10 since before the pandemic stoppage. His quietly solid run could forecast good things ahead for the No. 10 team, who haven’t been much of a factor this year. It was a key turnaround for a team that had two DNFs in the past three events, squandering three straight front-row starting spots.

A few other names also stood out. Austin Dillon, on the heels of flying down after the birth of his first child (and a scary moment of exhaustion at Martinsville on Wednesday) ran well and came home seventh. Rookie Christopher Bell finished eighth, his third top-10 of the year and a career best driving the No. 95 for Leaving Family Racing. William Byron (ninth) and Clint Bowyer (11th) scored much-needed solid finishes to help their midseason playoff push. And #BlackLivesMatter NASCAR leader Bubba Wallace followed up a week of publicity and a strong Martinsville run with a 13th-place finish in Miami.

Last but not least, don’t forget Michael McDowell, who ran a respectable 15th. It’s the first time he’s posted back-to-back top-15 performances since joining up with Front Row Motorsports in 2018.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

It’s the second Sunday in a row that a Quin Houff mistake impacted other drivers. Houff swerved on pit road to get into his stall and the ensuing stack-up caused damage to Logano, Kevin Harvick and Matt DiBenedetto.

Harvick initially recovered, but faded late in the race after hitting the wall for his worst finish of the year (26th). while Logano’s Dixie Vodka 400 was also ruined. (DiBenedetto bounced back for a 14th-place finish.)

Logano’s race, in particular, turned sour as he was left to ride around with a hole in his front bumper. It was a situation only made worse by contact with Newman late in the 400-mile event.

Do you remember Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman? All three finished in the top 10 at Martinsville four days prior to Homestead. Busch had a streak of five straight finishes inside the top 10; Johnson had three. But the trio of Chevrolet drivers all finished outside the top 15 at Homestead (16th through 18th, in fact) and were never a factor. I don’t think I saw any of them on my TV screen all race long.

I’ll also add Chris Buescher into this category. Buescher ran quite well early in the race, climbing into the top 10 for a spell before falling back. But a late stop for tire problems left Buescher sitting 23rd, the highest finisher for Roush Fenway Racing on a rough night for the Ford stable.

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

Sunday marked the first time that fans were allowed back at the track amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 1,000 South Florida service members were allowed in, with mask-wearing, social distancing and temperature-checking in effect before they were allowed to enter.

Fans wound up having to move around a lot due to the lightning in the area, limiting their noise and overall impact. Still, it’s great to see fans in the stands again. The caveat is, of course, potential spread of the COVID-19 virus. I personally haven’t ventured out much for that very reason, and hopefully, the precautions NASCAR has taken continue to keep things under control. While I worry it’s a ticking time bomb, I must applaud the sport’s success in taking some steps toward getting back to normal. It’s better than what baseball and some of the other stick-and-ball sports have been doing as they sit on the sidelines.

The past week has seen an influx of fans into the sport, as well as a departure of them. In the span of a week, NASCAR had three major events outside of racing after Atlanta. Its Twitter account put out a statement in support of Pride Month and its LGBTQ+ fanbase, the sport banned the Confederate flag from races and Bubba Wallace ran a Black Lives Matter paint scheme at Martinsville.

Of note, two other major sports stars announced their intention to watch NASCAR after former NFL safety Bernard Pollard engaged with fans on Twitter last week during Martinsville. New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara was in attendance for the race on Sunday, decked out in Bubba Wallace gear. Additionally, WNBA point guard Renee Montgomery interacted with a section of the Twitterverse during Homestead. Similar to Pollard, the WNBA champion and current Atlanta Dream player asked questions of fans and received many replies regarding the race and its proceedings.

Sunday provided a bookend to a week of change for NASCAR. Judging by Twitter and Facebook metrics, the sport’s accounts both gained and lost a chunk of fans. However, over the long-term it’s a week that should be a net positive for the sport. The influx of new support and strong opinions showed just how impactful those changes can be.

The real winner of Sunday night’s race was more or less the weather. Three lightning delays, a pair of them extended quite a while due to additional strikes in the eight-mile radius of the track, pushed back the start time nearly five hours to 8:30 p.m. ET. That was the time the race really got underway without any more interruptions.

So, did Logano hold up Elliott intentionally in the closing laps? Elliott appeared irritated by how the race ended up, knowing his clean air advantage got wiped away by Logano’s aggression. But when asked, twice, after the race about Logano, he would only say he “needed to get by lapped traffic better.”

Rain has impacted all but three tracks so far this year: Phoenix, Atlanta and Martinsville are the trio of outliers. Those back-t0-back races at Atlanta and Martinsville without stuff falling from the sky was a good run, folks. Now, we’re back to what’s apparently the norm for this season… and this time, there was a waterspout of all things on the horizon. A metaphor for 2020, no?

On a weekend where he accomplished very little, Jimmie Johnson did receive honors from the speedway itself. In honor of his last year of full-time racing and the seven championships Johnson secured at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the track decided to rename its Turn 3 tunnel in his honor. That’s a point of pride for Johnson as it is the southernmost tunnel in the continental United States.

They renamed it “Jimmie Johnson’s Southernmost Tunnel,” a rather unfortunate wording that led to immediate memes and ridicule around the NASCAR internet community. A very nice gesture, indeed, but the innuendo-esque and rather, ahem, carnal insinuation elicited a chuckle from many, including myself. Johnson’s christening of the new tunnel, as mentioned earlier, didn’t go too well either.

Finally, how did the early-season debut of Homestead-Miami fare?

After 21 years at or near the end of the NASCAR schedule, Homestead-Miami’s track date was moved up, originally to March, and Phoenix Raceway inherited the season finale venue title. The pandemic pushed things back, but Homestead still happened early in the season, albeit in the blazing June weather of south Florida.

The Xfinity Series’ race on Saturday afternoon was arguably the best of the four-race weekend. You had incredible racing, frequent passing and some absolutely phenomenal battles for the lead. Saturday night’s Truck Series race was predictably won by Kyle Busch, while Sunday afternoon’s Xfinity event had late-race drama ending with a Chase Briscoe win. And Sunday night’s race – which would’ve been a Sunday afternoon race if weather didn’t hate NASCAR – was relatively uneventful. Any potential late-race drama was snuffed out when Elliott smacked the wall in the closing laps.

Some tweaking to the package might be needed. But overall, it was certainly a successful weekend on the heels of major 2020 schedule changes.

If I were cheating, I’d say that the paint scheme of the race would go to either Corey LaJoie’s awesome helmet or Chase Briscoe‘s Carroll Shelby tribute scheme. But, to stay with tradition, I’ll stick with Cup. That gives the award to Chase Elliott.

The Hooters “Night Owl” scheme was easily my favorite of the four-scheme vote the company had last fall (the Daytona Beach Sunrise was a close second, admittedly). The black base with the orange logo, door numbers and trim lines just absolutely pops. Couldn’t miss it on track.

Quick special mention for the schemes of Corey LaJoie (teal and orange always look fantastic), Brad Keselowski (the new Money Lion scheme’s first time in Cup and, for my – pun intended – money, looks better with the single-digit ‘2’ than ’22’), and Ty Dillon‘s GEICO “For Your Boat” insurance livery. All three schemes debuted at Homestead. I also still really like the overall look of Kyle Busch‘s M&M’s Fudge Brownie car, but that fudge on the hood looks like, uh, something else.

Where it Rated: I’ll award the Dixie Vodka 400 either four lightning bolts out of ten, one waterspout out of three or three vodkas out of five – pick your witty reference poison. A race that had comers and goers made for entertainment, but on the long runs, it turned into an occasional snoozer. Mother Nature’s impact on the race gets a big thumbs-down emoji.

What’s the Point(s)? Hamlin’s third win doesn’t change much up front, since he’s already locked into the playoffs. Reddick leapfrogged Erik Jones for 17th in the standings, while Buescher and Wallace retained their top-20 berths. Almirola and DiBenedetto swapped 13th and 14th – the former up one, the latter down one – while the playoff cutline saw two big changes. Austin Dillon’s top-10 run bumped him into the final playoff berth, while Jones fell off a cliff, down two spots and out of the postseason picture.

Up Next: After a tame few races, chaos awaits for the drivers next weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. The Xfinity Series will go first, taking on the 2.66-mile oval in the Unhinged 300 – a race sponsored by a Russell Crowe movie even this film buff has somehow barely heard anything about – on Saturday, June 20 at 5:30 p.m. That race follows an ARCA Menards Series event at 2 p.m., meaning NASCAR’s second-tier series will be racing more or less into twilight.

Sunday, June 21 will feature the Cup Series’ 500-mile event, which blessedly looks to be a day devoid of rain. NASCAR’s premier division has had two consecutive races featuring cars flipping over at ‘Dega, so the Cup Series looks to end that streak next Sunday. While the ARCA race is airing on FOX Sports 1, both Xfinity and Cup will be featured on FOX’s flagship channel for the weekend.

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Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Entercom Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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7 comments

  1. Avatar

    Joey was subtle in front of Clyde, wasn’t he? There’s more than one way to get back at another driver. It could be a long year for Clyde dealing with Joey.

    The first caution for Newman was blatantly obvious.

    • Avatar

      Wouldn’t that make it an equally long year for Logano? …or are you expecting him to just take it without being a richard-head back?

  2. Avatar

    RE “I don’t think I saw any of them on my TV screen all race long.”

    Now I am wondering if you actually watched the race on TV. I agree that Kurt was kind of invisible but Johnson and Bowman definitely got their screen time. Bowman actually was running in the top ten during the first two stages and got mentioned and shown several times (he did have a weird paint scheme so maybe that’s why you missed it). Johnson ran like shit all night but he’s got seven championships and is retiring so he still gets air time regardless.

  3. Avatar

    “on Saturday, June 20 at 5:30 p.m. That race follows an ARCA Menards Series event at 2 p.m., meaning NASCAR’s second-tier series will be racing more or less into twilight.”

    No kidding! Sunset is around 8pm so they expect to get the whole race in ~2-2.5 hours? Good luck!

  4. Avatar

    Isn’t it about time, NASCAR allows the supposed best drivers in the world to race with rain tires on a damp ( no standing water ) track? Those who can will go forward and those that can’t go back. Plus it will add a whole new level of entertainment. Especially when it’s time to gamble and go from wets to dries.

  5. Avatar

    Drives me nuts that Nascar continues to start these races in the late afternoons. Especially the ones in Florida. We can complain all we want, but until they decide to change this practice, more races are going to be delayed/postponed unnecessarily. You would think getting the race in at the scheduled time trumps network desires for ratings. Prime time ratings aren’t great either if people are waiting 3 hours for a rain delay?