(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 GEICO 500 at Talladega

The Headline(s): It’s more than plausible that the best car won on Monday, as Ryan Blaney earned his first checkered flag of 2020, fourth of his career and second in a row at Talladega Superspeedway. The No. 12 Team Penske Ford led 63 of 191 laps, the most of anybody in the field, and edged Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to the finish line by a cool 0.007 seconds, A.K.A. a nose.

How ’bout dem apples?

Aric Almirola (who crossed the line backwards), Denny Hamlin (who rebounded from scraping the wall in stage one) and Erik Jones (who slammed the wall at the line) rounded out the top-five finishers. Kevin Harvick, who held the lead on the backstretch only to not hold off the armada that was hard-charging behind him, fell to 10th.

How It Happened: Six lead changes occurred in the first 25 laps before a competition caution slowed the field. Once the field went back green, Hamlin scraped his No. 11 on the wall, causing a flat tire under green. As the three-time winner this season was on pit road for repairs, the caution flag flew once again for weather, halting competition with three laps remaining in the stage.

The red flag was displayed for just under one hour, and the stage wound up finishing under caution. Tyler Reddick earned his first stage victory and the third ever for Richard Childress Racing.

As the second frame commenced, the first on-track yellow flag of the afternoon flew, as Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender John Hunter Nemechek‘s solo spin through the grass slowed the race on lap 95.

A wild end to the stage saw Stenhouse best Blaney for the playoff point. (Hint: this may look somewhat similar at the end of things. Stay tuned…)

The final stage began with Christopher Bell forcing his de facto teammate Jones below the yellow line on a restart, and subsequently being penalized for the move.

A push gone wrong from Brad Keselowski ended the day for Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon. Somehow, William Byron avoided his spinning Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

As you-know-whats were puckered for the heart-pounding, three-wide action to the finish, Jimmie Johnson and Harvick “ran out of room” which sent the No. 48 spinning, setting up NASCAR overtime.

While some drivers who were low on fuel opted to pit, some stayed out, giving us a finish that saw multiple lead changes, contact on the final lap and a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching photo finish.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Blaney finally got off the schneid in 2020 and joined his Team Penske counterparts in Logano and Keselowski in Victory Lane. He’d come close, finishing inside the top five six times before, including a runner-up in the last superspeedway race, the Daytona 500, by inches. The win also marks his fourth straight top-five finish and six in his last seven races. The only outlier, a 40th-place result at Bristol, saw him lead 60 laps before sustaining damage out of his control.

It’s fair to say that the High Point, North Carolina native is the hottest driver in the sport at the moment.

Stenhouse Jr. surprisingly (yeah, I said it) didn’t wreck anybody on his way to a more than respectable finish. There were a couple close calls, but none that resulted in an accident.

The runner-up result was the Olive Branch, Mississippi native’s best finish since his win at Daytona in 2017 and marks his third top five finish of the season, tied for the most from a JTG-Daugherty Racing wheelman since Marcos Ambrose scored five over a decade ago.

For the first time in his career, Almirola has scored back-to-back top-five results. The third-place run also marks his fifth career top five at the 2.66-mile venue, the most such finishes at any track for him.

Hamlin overcame the aforementioned tire issue and Jones, albeit beaten and battered crossing the line while wrecking, rounded out the top five.

Buescher earned his third top 10 of 2020, one short of tying his career high, while Front Row Motorsports’ Nemechek earned a career-best finish of eighth when the dust settled. Harvick led two laps (including the penultimate one) and earned his 10th top 10 of the season.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Finishing dead last, Matt Kenseth encountered a brake issue with 62 laps to go as he pulled from the pack with no real warning.

Due to damage sustained on the lap 135 incident, Austin Dillon and Elliott were forced to go behind the wall for the remainder of the afternoon.

Kyle Busch had one of the quickest cars as the pusher and as the “pushee” on Monday, but sustained a flat tire, which led to a small radio tirade and a 32nd-place finish for the reigning champion.

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

I had just wrapped up watching The Gumball Rally with my family to wrap up Father’s Day. It’s a fun, jovial, semi-racing film and I was in good spirits. But when I turned my phone on, I went numb.

The email NASCAR sent to notify the media of a despicable act, a noose being placed in the garage stall of the No. 43 team of Bubba Wallace, literally made me numb. I went through the stages of disbelief, hopped on Twitter and hoped the tweets I saw from Jeff Gluck, Bob Pockrass, Jenna Fryer and the like were parody accounts. They weren’t.

This was real.

I spent the remainder of the evening and early morning searching the internet for hate crime laws, federally and on the state level. Because that’s where I was at: this despicable human being who committed the “heinous act,” as NASCAR president Steve Phelps called it, needs to be prosecuted.

That’s what’ll happen. They will find the perpetrator and they will be punished accordingly. But what makes this specific instance so troubling and angering is that it came from within.

No fans were allowed in the garage area. Only NASCAR officials, Cup Series teams, track workers and safety workers. For lack of a better term, it was an “inside job.” Given the events from recent weeks, it’s no secret that there are racists in the garage. That’s the unfortunate reality of the climate we’re in.

But to take it to this level, man… legitimately unimaginable.

Fast forward to Monday morning. Johnson sends a message in the driver group chat saying he’ll be standing with Wallace for the national anthem, Harvick suggests drivers pushing the No. 43 to the front of the grid together, as one, and you have one hell of a moment.

It’s alright, I cried too. Everybody did.

Wallace’s car had three words written on the hood at Martinsville Speedway: compassion, love and understanding. That act personified those three words for all drivers, teams and officials involved.

Unity in the face of hatred.

I’ll likely have more coming this week for my Fire on Fridays column. But it also seems like a good time to remind you what I wrote after attending the Martinsville night race and witnessing the incredibly progressive week that NASCAR had.

SEGAL: Fire on Fridays: Change A Beautiful Thing For NASCAR

I’ll remember June 22, 2020 for the rest of my life. I’ll remember Blaney as the driver who won, but Bubba and the sport as a whole as winners, too.

He said it himself while greeting a group of fans, some donning “Black Lives Matter” shirts along the frontstretch fence, “all in all, we won today […] I’m proud to be a part of this sport.”

I’m proud to have you in the sport, Bubba. We’re all better for it.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to Corey LaJoie, who gets the “Good Deed of the Race” award. Under caution before overtime commenced, Wallace ran out of fuel and would likely have had to be pushed back to pit road by a wrecker. But the No. 32 hooked onto the No. 43’s bumper, pushed him around to pit road and saved Bubba’s race, for all intents and purposes.

Paint Scheme of the Race: It’s a stark contract from the usual bright purple, orange and white FedEx colors, but I’ll give Hamlin and his all black National Civil Rights Museum Toyota Camry this week’s honors.

A car that looked like it was outfitted for a test during one of the biggest races of the season is a statement. Denny made one by driving it to a top-five finish, coupled with his promise to listen and learn amid the current events unfolding across the United States.

Where It Rated: On track, there’s honestly not much more you could ask for in a superspeedway race. There wasn’t a single instance for an extended period of time that drivers ran single file. Drivers, without any prior laps of practice, took this tweaked package and rolled with it, putting on a show for the 5,000 fans in the stands and millions more watching in the stands.

You won’t be able to talk about the 2020 spring Talladega race without mentioning what happened pre-race, so it has to be addressed in grading the race. The show of support in solidarity with Bubba, the on-track product for 190+ laps, the finish, it really doesn’t get much better.

We’ll use “Big Ones” as our gauge, given we didn’t really have any on Monday, and give this race a whopping 9.5/10 “Big Ones.” No, I ain’t drinking the Kool-Aid. I just had a good time watching.

What’s The Point(s): With his trouble, Elliott falls from second to fourth in the standings, but Harvick retains the lead. Blaney, although he was pretty much ensured a playoff spot before Monday, is now planted in the postseason picture. Logano is sandwiched in between Harvick and Blaney in the standings in second with the third Penske pilot, Keselowski, rounding out the top five.

Up Next: The OG doubleheader for the Cup Series will take place at Pocono Raceway, with the first event going green on Saturday, June 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX and the second event beginning on Sunday afternoon, June 28 at 4 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.

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Davey joined the site prior to the 2017 season and currently serves as a multimedia editor and reporter. He authors the bi-weekly column "Fire on Fridays" and spearheads Frontstretchs video content. He's covered the ARCA Menards Series East and West extensively for NASCAR.com and currently serves as a production assistant for NBC Sports Washington.

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9 comments

  1. Avatar

    A very good superspeedway race. The best car won, but Blaney had to fight for it. I was glad to see the Penske Fords work together, something they haven’t done well in recent superspeedway races.

  2. Avatar

    It was nice having the majority of the field still running on the final lap of a plate race for a change. I would have preferred we got an exciting ending without the GWC but it was still a great ending. I will give it 4 cold ones.

    Glad the car that ran up front the most won the race for a change. Also glad that driver was Blaney. While I am not really a fan of any driver, he is one of the drivers I like more than others.

    Man, Kyle Busch must be ready to explode given the fact that we are this far into the season and he hasn’t won a race yet. He is without out a doubt the highest profile driver expected to win that hasn’t. The pressure mounts……

  3. Avatar

    what i saw of the race is was good for a plate race. no wipe out of the entire field. new the squirrels were getting anxious towards the end.

    when bubba ran out of gas and got push from lajoie, was that legit? i can’t remember if a driver is allowed to assist another to pit road.

    onto pocono, no fans and knowing pocono possbly weather issues.

    so as long as the cars aren’t wrecked in saturdays’ race, they’ll run the same car sunday? will the be able to swap out the engine for a fresher one?

    • Avatar

      The only rule I know about pushing a car is that a car has to cross the finish line at the end on its own. It can’t cross the line while being pushed by another car. It’s happened a few times.

    • Avatar

      Can’t push on the last lap, that’s the only rule I know of.

    • Avatar

      Same car – same engine to my understanding. Teams have to get a sign off to move to a back up car if they sustain damage.

      For the next gen car NASCAR wants to re-use the sealed engine for min of 2 races

    • Avatar

      thanks guys

  4. Avatar

    “Given the events from recent weeks, it’s no secret that there are racists in the garage.” What events? How do you know that there racists in the garage? Are you assuming all white southerners are racist?

    If you are referring to the noose, we should wait until the investigation is complete. It may or may not have been a racist act directed at Wallace.

  5. Avatar

    Are you still numb, Davey? Still looking up those hate crime laws?

    I’m not trying to be smart-ass. I’m sure there are still racists both in NASCAR and every other slice of the American pie. If the FBI had found there WAS a hate crime committed, I’d be the first one calling for racist heads to roll. I’m glad there was no noose, just a garage door pull rope with a loop handle. I’m glad to know no one acted with such disgusting malice and hate. What I’m not happy about is how everyone, especially those in the media, leapt up and screamed “Racist!” before the facts were known. As I said elsewhere on FS, when you’re virtue-signaling, everything looks like racism. Maybe, along with discussions about racism, we should be calling for cooler heads to prevail, especially now. Here’s hoping a lesson was learned today, but I have my doubts.