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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: NASCAR Questions Answered After Drydene 311 Race II

Who… should you be talking about after the Drydene 311?

On Saturday, Aug. 22, Denny Hamlin fired a shot across Kevin Harvick’s bow by winning the first Drydene 311 race at Dover International Speedway in commanding fashion. His first career NASCAR Cup Series victory at the Monster Mile gave him six wins on the year, matching Harvick.

But like he has all season, Harvick answered Sunday with his seventh win of 2020. He led 223 laps of the Drydene 311 and swept the first two stages as well as the race. This win also clinched the regular season points title for Harvick, adding 15 more playoff points to the 42 he’s already piled up. The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran’s not just eyeing a title run… he’s staring it down.

Further back, as his Hendrick Motorsports teammates battled it out for a playoff berth, Alex Bowman had an impressive run all his own. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet raced his way to a top-five finish after starting in the rear with a backup car after suffering damage in Saturday’s race. Bowman was in the top 10 by the end of stage two; from there, he charged to fifth, his best run in over three months. It was part of a strong day for Hendrick overall as three of their cars wound up inside the top five.

What… was the hidden gem in the Drydene 311?

For just a moment, Sunday looked a lot like the Dover races we were accustomed to for a decade. With 15 laps to go, Jimmie Johnson was in command of the field after a two-tire gamble on the final pit stop. He didn’t have the car to flat outrun Harvick, but had Johnson been able to clear him, the battle for the win might have proved far more difficult. Johnson slipped to third after Martin Truex Jr. loosened up the No. 48, sending him up the track and back toward traffic. But from there, Johnson put on a clinic on how to run to the finish at Dover, holding off William Byron, Bowman, and the rest of the field.

If Johnson does miss the playoffs this year, it won’t be like a year ago. This time, he’ll go down swinging and at a full two-race disadvantage to the competition to boot. Remember, the seven-time Cup champion missed a race due to COVID-19 and was disqualified after May’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The DQ came after a runner-up finish, costing him precious points at a track where he’s had great success.

But this week, Johnson was as good as he ever was at Dover. He overcame a speeding penalty to contend for the win, faster than the leader on long green-flag runs though the car wasn’t quite good enough in the end. Still, it was vintage Johnson, and the opportunities to see those NASCAR performances are dwindling.

Where… were the other key players at the end?

Pole-sitter Matt DiBenedetto started on the front row by virtue of finishing 20th on Saturday. However, he fell back into traffic early and struggled once again at the Monster Mile. DiBenedetto has put together a solid 2020 campaign, but with Daytona on the horizon and just nine points to play with for a playoff spot, he might not sleep very well this week after finishing 17th on Sunday.

Saturday winner Hamlin started 20th and had to work his way through the field to finish third in stage two. He looked strong, even with the changing racetrack, but then Lady Luck betrayed him. An unscheduled stop for a loose wheel in the final stage proved too much for Hamlin to overcome. While he did make his way back to the lead lap, using a wave-around on the final caution, the No. 11 Toyota driver finished a distant 19th.

Cup champ Kyle Busch had what can best be described as a quiet day. He finished 11th, recovering from early trouble after  Chase Elliott ran into him as part of the first caution flag. Busch didn’t earn any stage points but did earn something more important: a playoff berth. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver clinched a spot on points, giving him a big boost heading into an unpredictable regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway.

When… was the Drydene 311 moment of truth?

Harvick’s performance, coupled with Hamlin’s on Saturday, puts an exclamation point on their 2020 performances.  How good have they been?  In 25 races to date, there have been exactly two of them where neither Harvick nor Hamlin finished in the top 10: Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Raceway in June. There are just two more (Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway, both pre-COVID-19 suspension) where neither scored a top-five result.

At this point, barring a miracle playoff run by another driver, it would be a travesty if one of the pair didn’t win the title. They’re the top Cup drivers in points, victories and laps led this season, among other categories.

Expect this duo to make the playoffs a two-horse race for the first nine weeks.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

This week? I’m looking forward to next week. Once Daytona is in the rear-view mirror, the playoffs open at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend. If any good has come of 2020’s craziness, it’s that we’re treated to three Cup races at the Lady in Black. The setting is one of the most unique and special in NASCAR, a Southern 500 race that’s on every driver’s “most wanted” wins list.

But what’s really made this race worth watching is the throwback theme they’ve added since the race was returned to its rightful Labor Day weekend date. Paint schemes and even crew uniforms honor the past greats of the sport at a track where their ghosts are all around you.

Many teams have already unveiled this year’s NASCAR’s throwback gems and there will be more to come as the race gets closer.  There’s a paint scheme to capture every imagination and sense of nostalgia. Add in NASCAR’s playoff debut at the track and this Darlington Southern 500 should be one to remember.

How… likely are we to see a surprise winner in the cutoff race?

Well, it’s at Daytona, so…

It’s certainly possible that a driver outside the top 16 conversation thus far could steal a playoff spot at the last minute. It’s not uncommon to see underdogs who rarely get a taste of the top 10 or 15 running there at Daytona or Talladega Superspeedway, a trend you’d expect to continue Saturday night.

Winning, though, is a different matter altogether. While superspeedways represent a great opportunity for smaller teams to get their best finishes of the year, they rarely actually win. Those Cinderella upsets are different than top-10 airtime, occurring only two or three times a decade.

That doesn’t mean we won’t have a different winner at Daytona next weekend, though. 2020 winless drivers who have career Daytona victories to their credit include Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Johnson, Aric Almirola, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth. Newman and Kenseth are the only drivers on the list far outside the playoff picture, though the race is a last-gasp effort for Jones and Johnson.

A winner from this group is much more likely than one from outside the top 20. We’ll see if anyone can come through in the clutch.

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