NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas

What happened?

Austin Dillon won the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday (July 19) after surviving a trio of late restarts. Dillon led 22 of the final 23 laps, defeating teammate Tyler Reddick, who finished a career-best second place.

Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick followed the Richard Childress Racing duo to round out the top five.

How did it happen?

The first two stages of this race had little action.

Early on, Aric Almirola led the first 25 laps despite having brake issues. At the competition caution, Almirola, Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. stayed out while the rest of the field pitted.

The move appeared to pay off, as they paced the field until green-flag stops. The Stewart-Haas Racing teammates pitted on the same lap, but Almirola was nabbed for a blend-line violation as he rejoined the track. Almirola ended up two laps down after serving a pass-through penalty.

Justin Allgaier, who was tagged with the same issue in the Xfinity race, commented on Twitter after seeing Almirola fall victim to the rule.

After Almirola’s penalty, Truex ran his car out of fuel and had to coast down the backstretch before finally pitting. Ryan Blaney took the lead after Truex’s mishap; he went on to win stage one.

Just seven laps after stage two began, Jimmie Johnson slapped the wall coming out of turn 4.

Johnson showed speed early in the race, moving into the top 10 after starting 20th, but another incident of his own doing cost him valuable points. The rest of stage two was caution free, with Blaney again securing the stage win. At this point, passing was at such a premium. Tire fall off was non-existent and track position was king.

But after a lackluster first two stages, chaos erupted in stage three.

It started three laps after the initial restart when Blaney got loose on the outside of the first row and stacked up the field. Cars were three-wide for two rows going through the tri-oval, which doesn’t work so well at Texas. Kyle Busch clipped Truex after contact from his rear; 12 cars were involved in the melee that ensued.

Blaney took the lead after the restart and retained it through two caution periods. Leading a race-high 150 laps, he appeared to be the driver to beat down the stretch.

But during the final green-flag stops of the day, Quin Houff misjudged getting on pit road and took himself out. Blaney, Denny Hamlin and many of the other leaders were caught a lap down, with Harvick and Logano leading the race at the time of yellow.

On pit road for the final stop, Reddick took fuel only and Austin Dillon took two tires, while the other 12 cars on the lead lap took four. Dillon prevailed on the bottom lane on the restart, but Hamlin spun in the pack and collected Alex Bowman.

Dillon took the inside again and appeared to be cruising to a win when Hamlin spun again with six laps to go.

On the race’s final restart, Dillon used the inside for a third time to seal his third career win in the No. 3 car.

Who stood out?

Richard Childress Racing has clearly improved in 2020, but Sunday’s results were still unexpected. In 2019, Dillon and teammate Daniel Hemric combined for one top five and eight top 10s. This season, Dillon and Reddick have already combined for four top fives, 11 top 10s and the all-important victory. Sunday’s race was the first time RCR teammates have finished 1-2 since Talladega in 2011 (Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton). Now, Dillon is locked into the playoffs and Reddick is just outside it in 18th. It’s amazing how much difference one driver has made for RCR as Reddick appears to have shifted the entire culture of the Cup Series program.

It was another “coulda, woulda, shoulda” for Blaney. That’s been the story of his 2020 season and that’s been the story of his Cup Series career at Texas. Blaney has 196 total stage points this season, which leads the series. He’s been running well throughout most races, but has just one win at Talladega Superspeedway to show for it. Leading laps and running well leads to wins, so it’s not all bad for the No. 12 team. After finishing seventh on Sunday, Blaney has now finished in the top 10 in five of his last six Texas starts. With another Texas race set for the playoffs, Blaney is getting hot in Fort Worth at the right time.

It wasn’t Harvick’s best race of the season, but it was one that proved he’s still the championship favorite. It’s unrealistic to expect a team to bring a race-winning car every week. Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers certainly didn’t have their best stuff on Sunday, but they led 40 laps, kept the car clean and left with a top-five result. Harvick continues to extend his points lead (+91 after Texas) as he inches closer toward the regular-season title, which awards 15 extra playoff points.

Who fell flat?

After a hot start to the season, Hendrick Motorsports is clearly playing from behind right now.

Chase Elliott and Bowman have wins but Johnson and William Byron sit squarely on the playoff bubble. Johnson’s once-promising farewell season continues to disappoint. While his average finish is better than last season, the No. 48 team has squandered countless opportunities. Johnson cost himself a stage win at Darlington. He failed inspection after finishing second in the Coca-Cola 600. There are countless examples. Time after time, the seven-time champion has left points on the table.

GABLE: JIMMIE JOHNSON NEEDS TO STEP UP

Meanwhile, after being taken out by a loose Ty Dillon, Byron is just behind Johnson for the final playoff spot. The duo just might both need victories now as the playoff bubble continues to burst with new winners.

Almirola, Harvick and Truex proved after the competition caution early in the day that tires didn’t matter.

Despite that, the RCR teammates were the only two cars not to take four tires on the final pit stop. Logano felt good about his new tires compared to the RCR duo, but he couldn’t get by either of them after three restart chances.

Clean air was the key to victory at Texas, and it’s baffling that only two crew chiefs realized that.

Finally, this section could be a weekly spot for Houff, but Sunday stood out as the lowlight of his troubling rookie season. Houff was trying to get to pit road from the middle of the track, which obviously didn’t work out.

The race essentially eliminated all the drivers who had already pit (Blaney, Hamlin, etc.), as they were caught a lap down late in the race. Fellow drivers expressed their thoughts on Houff’s abilities after the race.

Houff is 34th in points after running 18 races, still 33 points behind Kyle Larson, who was fired after the year’s first four Cup events.

What did this race prove?

No one is safe until they win. Three weeks ago, the playoff picture seemed pretty clear. Here’s what has happened since then:

  • Jimmie Johnson was diagnosed with COVID-19 and missed a race.
  • Rookie Cole Custer stole a win at Kentucky.
  • Bubble driver Austin Dillon secured his playoff berth at Texas.

There are still eight races until the playoffs begin, but just six spots available to winless drivers. Upcoming races at Daytona – both the road course and the superspeedway – could shake things up even more. The message is clear: no one is safe.

Only crown jewel races should be 500 miles. They say everything is bigger in Texas, but does the race really have to be this long? Outside of the crown jewel events, no race should run 500 miles. NASCAR already cut 500-mile races at Pocono, Auto Club and Dover to 400 miles. Texas should be next. Sunday’s race lasted three hours and 38 minutes, which is about an hour longer than it should be. Chop off 100 miles, with lap times just over 30 seconds, and the race would’ve been around three hours. That’s the sweet spot that NASCAR should strive for.

No, a Penske Ford didn’t win. But the quartet – including the Wood Brothers’ Matt DiBenedetto – indisputably had some of the fastest cars. Team Penske is still the standard right now. Logano topped the group in third overall, finished second in stage two and led 22 laps. Blaney led those race-high 150 laps, won both stages and finished seventh. Keselowski led 15 laps and wound up ninth. DiBenedetto came on strong late, a top-five contender until collected in Houff’s mess, and settled for 17th. The three Penske drivers are second, third and fourth in the standings, while DiBenedetto is 12th with a 51-point cushion for the playoffs.

Paint scheme of the race

After a unique number change at the All-Star Race, paint schemes returned to normal at Texas. One scheme that stood out was Reddick’s Cat Oil & Gas Chevrolet.

That would’ve made a great first win diecast for Reddick fans.

The gold honeycomb on the front of the car looked sharp with the mainly black car. It was a big improvement from the standard Cat scheme. The special Cat schemes generally overshadow the regular ones (past schemes from Daniel Hemric and Ryan Newman come to mind). That trend continued Sunday.

Better than last year?

To put it lightly, Texas hasn’t produced great racing since its repave in 2017. Last year’s first Texas race was held in March, so weather conditions made it a much different race. Hamlin won it after overcoming a pair of pit road penalties. If you don’t remember, it was a decent race considering the track. The cooler temperatures suit this package well.

Similar to last year, this year’s race had virtually no tire falloff. After the first two stages, it seemed like we were headed for a complete dud.

Considering the madness in the final stage and the unlikely victor, I’d say this year’s race was slightly better than 2019. A few cautions saved the day and gave fans a great show for the last 120 laps.

Playoff picture

Another week, another playoff shake-up.

Dillon joins nine other drivers who are locked in after winning races. That means 10 of 16 spots are already filled with just eight races remaining, so there remains an outside chance that more than 16 drivers win a race. It’s still highly unlikely, but drivers like Custer and Dillon aren’t totally safe just yet.

Almirola (+109 above the cutoff line) remains the highest winless driver, with Kurt Busch (+108), Kyle Busch (+95) and DiBenedetto (+51) close behind. The bubble tightens for Bowyer (+36), while Johnson (+2) is in tough shape after his latest wreck.

Byron (-2), who entered the race 30 points to the good, took the biggest hit at Texas. Reddick (-14), currently 18th, made up 27 points after his career day. Erik Jones, who entered 42 points out, is now just 24 back after his sixth-place run.

What’s next?

Next race weekend might feel like it’s in reverse, with the Cup Series kicking things off on Thursday night at Kansas Speedway.

The Super Start Batteries 400 is the first and only scheduled Thursday night Cup Series race of the year, with the green flag set for 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. It will be the first of two races at Kansas this season, with the second coming during the playoffs.

The Truck Series will race Friday night and Saturday afternoon in its first doubleheader of the season, while the sport’s Xfinity Series will conclude the weekend on Saturday evening.

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About Logan Reardon

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15 comments

  1. Avatar

    Dillon thinks he outraced everyone. Ace lol good Lord.

  2. Avatar

    I don’t understand. Kyle Busch gets his Xfinity victory taken away for because the left rear quarter panel in a hair too low after the race, but Aric Almirola passes pre-race inspection without having brakes! How does NASCAR pass a car without brakes???

    • Avatar

      I doubt they check for that. Not having brakes does not create a competitive advantage. Although, it could make you faster in the really, really short run. You know,,,, to that first corner.

      • Avatar

        Thanks Bill, I understand the process, but do you see how this looks. It’s ok to have cars without brakes, but not competitive advantage cars. No advantage if your window net isn’t up, but you can’t race. Just pointing out the irony of the safety rules.

  3. Avatar

    Thanks to the train wreck ending, I can’t say the race was boring. Still, clean air dictating who was “fastest” and no tire wear is not my definition of a good race.

    Not sure how I feel about Dillon winning. I usually root against him but seeing him f-up the cut line for the stupid chase almost makes it worth it.

    I have liked Blaney from the start but he has finally turned the corner and is a contender week in and week out. Given how many laps he lead, I wanted him to win. However, he was the cause of that big wreck because he is the one that stacked up the field on that restart when he got loose. It didn’t help that Kyle Busch was so quick to try and take advantage of it by making it three wide.

  4. Avatar

    “It’s still highly unlikely, but drivers like Custer and Dillon aren’t totally safe just yet.” How exactly is that?

    • Avatar

      Because if there are more than 16 different winners, someone with a win is going to be left out

  5. Avatar

    Quin Houff should get a really expensive Christmans present from Austin.

  6. Avatar

    Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn, now and then. I’m tired of Aero racing: I’d like to see NASCAR get rid of the skirts and allow teams to tinker with the spoiler/splitter to try and gain mechanical advantage, like the old days. Let teams adjust shocks spoiler, splitters, etc. and explore ideas.

    • Avatar

      That would make the cars close to real “race” cars and the brain trust can’t do that because it would be admitting to Emperor Brian’s mistakes.

      • Avatar

        Really screws up the concept of “parity”. That being the Holy Grail of stock car racing for the past decade or so its not about to change.
        I’ve always been curious was it to keep the manufacturers on board or giving all the top teams a lottery chance?

        • Avatar

          I think striving for parity is just common sense. What incentive would a manufacturer, or a team/sponsor for that matter, have to plop down millions of dollars if they knew they were going to be at a disadvantage? Ford would have to pretty dumb to keep ponying up money every year if they thought Chevy had a significant advantage. I know fans always think that way but I don’t buy it. The only way to keep everyone willing to spend that kind of money is to strive for parity (or at least make everyone think you are).

        • Avatar

          What if every team in the NFL finished 8-8? What if every MLB team finished 81-81 (or 30-30)? There has to be a New England Patriot equivalent or New York Yankee team to get fans interested. Besides, nothing is ever a secret for long in any kind of real racing.