NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 YellaWood 500 at Talladega

What happened? 

Denny Hamlin won Sunday’s (Oct. 4) YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway after three overtime restarts and a controversial last-lap pass. 

Erik Jones, Ty Dillon, William Byron and Chase Elliott rounded out the top five after Matt DiBenedetto (originally second) and Chris Buescher (originally eighth) were penalized for their final moves coming through turns 3 and 4.

How did it happen?

Early and often, the YellaWood 500 was just the Yella 500. There were three cautions in the first 12 laps as the race was wild from the second the green flag dropped.

On the first lap, Christopher Bell cut a tire and collected Tyler Reddick; Bell went straight to the garage. A few laps after the restart, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was spun by John Hunter Nemechek, ending the day for the No. 47. Next, Corey LaJoie was stopped on the track due to a fuel pickup issue. Remarkably, all of these incidents involved two cars or less.

After the third yellow flag, the race was still 12 laps from the competition caution. Over those 12 laps, drivers ran three-wide and it felt like the end of a stage. The intense racing continued after the competition yellow; the Ford and Toyota camps swapped control of the lead. 

As stage one wound down, there was a wreck with heavy playoff implications on lap 58 involving Aric Almriola, Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch. Ryan Blaney was also involved.

Busch, Bowman and Blaney all managed to stay on the lead lap after repairs, but Almirola’s day immediately ended. Busch’s patch job was notable considering all four wheels of his car lifted off the ground.

The first stage finished under that caution and Buescher, out front when Almirola wrecked, picked up his first stage win of the season.

The second stage produced more intensity. Buescher remained near the front, controlling the draft for a bit and swapping the lead with Erik Jones at certain points. Behind them, the Chevy contingent hit pit road under green and caught a yellow on the following lap after debris came off Blaney’s car. That put Elliott, Byron and Kurt Busch in front for a lap 92 restart. Elliott went on to lead the majority of his 41 laps in that span.

With 12 laps to go in stage two, the second big wreck hit Talladega. Jimmie Johnson, who was in front with his teammates, fell back and was slightly out of shape when Clint Bowyer gave him a shove. Johnson spun and a handful of others were collected, including Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Ryan Preece, Daniel Suarez and Brendan Gaughan (making his final career Cup start). 

On the restart with seven to go in the stage, Logano rocketed to the front with DiBenedetto pushing. However, he forced the No. 21 below the double yellow line and was penalized, so he dropped to the back.

That opened the door for Martin Truex Jr. With a push from Brad Keselowski, Truex made his way to the front and won his fifth stage of 2020.

Like the first two stages, stage three was hectic early. Bubba Wallace, pushed by Bowman’s taped-up nose, led for a bit before Logano took over and the field lined up single-file. Debris flew off Johnson’s car to bring out another caution on lap 148 – just around the fuel window.

After the restart, drivers positioned themselves for the end. Two lines took shape: the outside was led by Logano and Keselowski while the inside was led by Wallace, Elliott and Byron.

In the final 10 laps, Wallace surged back into the lead before Preece got into him. The No. 43 car hit the wall before a caution for James Davison on lap 184 set up an overtime finish.

In the first OT, Elliott rocketed past Logano to take control of the race. But just before Elliott took the white flag, Reddick, Kyle Busch and Logano crashed, setting up another overtime. (To add insult to injury for Logano, he was penalized for pushing Elliott below the double yellow line). 

Elliott and DiBenedetto led the field for double OT, staying out despite being dangerously low on fuel. On the ensuing restart, there was another accident, this time in turn 3 with Wallace, Austin Dillon and Blaney. This time, Elliott decided to pit while DiBenedetto took the risk.

That set up the third and final OT restart, where chaos ensued. Watch it unfold here. In the end, it was Hamlin edging DiBenedetto to the line by the length of his front bumper.

The win was Hamlin’s seventh of the season and second of his career at Talladega.

Who stood out?

Even though the official results have DiBenedetto finishing 21st, that wasn’t indicative of his performance all day. The No. 21 led 10 laps on the day, including seven of the final eight. It’s the one Matty D didn’t lead, though that will haunt him until he can get that first career win.

The penalty at the end of the race was likely warranted, and it’s improbable enough that he didn’t run out of fuel in the third overtime. Still, it’s heartbreaking to see how dejected DiBenedetto was after another painful loss to Hamlin.

DiBenedetto currently does not have a ride for next year and we’re still waiting to hear if he will return to the Wood Brothers. Securing win No. 100 for the legendary organization would’ve been a great bargaining chip.

Man, Hamlin has these superspeedway tracks figured out. The title contender just lurked in the back of the pack all day, knowing that he was secure to advance on points. Then, the inevitable war of attrition took out key contenders and the driver of the No. 11 found himself in position late. We’ll debate the call to not penalize Hamlin later in this column, but it’s still impressive that he’s always in the right drafting spot in crunch time.

Win No. 44 ties Hamlin with his childhood idol Bill Elliott for 18th all-time in Cup Series history. Despite not having a championship (yet), Hamlin is quickly climbing up the ladder among NASCAR’s greatest drivers.

Speaking of guys who always are in position late on superspeedways, how about Ryan Newman’s run on Sunday? He rode around in the back with Hamlin most of the day and took home just his second top-10 finish of the season (sixth). We really don’t know how many years Newman has left to run, so performances like this one are always noteworthy.

I mentioned above that it was only the No. 6 Ford driver’s second top 10 of the season. The other? That was in the Daytona 500 when we all feared for Newman’s safety as he tumbled over the line in ninth. Tip of the cap to him for a great run on a day where so many other wild things happened.

Who fell flat?

Kyle Busch’s championship defense has hit its most critical moment. Busch was collected in an early incident and limped around for the rest of the afternoon. He appeared to be salvaging a somewhat decent run despite his car’s condition until Tyler Reddick turned him and ended his day on the second overtime attempt.

Looking at the big picture, Busch is 21 points out of the playoffs and might need to win next weekend in a year where he’s miraculously still winless. But would anyone be surprised to see Busch pull it off next weekend at the Charlotte ROVAL? I sure wouldn’t. Busch has to know that his season is on the line, and I believe he’ll race like it.

Talladega couldn’t have played out any worse for Bowyer. At first, he took the Hamlin strategy of sitting back and waiting for wrecks to happen. It was a bold play considering Bowyer entered the race below the cutoff. He grabbed no points in stage one and then, in stage two he decided to start making moves – moves that ended with him in the garage and Johnson mad over bump-drafting gone wrong.

So, to recap Bowyer’s day: he punted on the first stage, decided that was the wrong move and went for it in the second stage, then wrecked out before getting anything. Definitely not how they drew it up. It’s just so tough to ride the fence of both strategies. At some point, you have to either commit to running for stage points or use the Hamlin strategy the whole way.

Unlike his teammate Bowyer, Almirola was actually going for it. He had a really fast car and appeared poised to run up front all day. However, he got collected while leading the pack and was unable to get any stage points. I respect the strategy to go all out and try to maximize your points day rather than playing it safe – it’s a noble move that the team shouldn’t second guess.

The real killer for Almirola is that Talladega is clearly his best track and chance for a win. Entering Sunday, he had eight straight top 10s at the 2.66-mile facility and definitely had the speed to make that nine straight. Luck just didn’t fall his way.

What did this race prove?

It’ll be written in plenty of great columns on Frontstretch, but it’s still worth mentioning how bad NASCAR’s officiating was on Sunday. Logano’s two penalties for forcing below the yellow line seemed fair. On the final straightaway, though, I had issues. Buescher did force Hamlin below the line, but Hamlin stayed there and took a shortcut to get to the lead. He had plenty of time to get back up on track and he chose not to.

DiBenedetto’s penalty made sense. But if he was penalized, why wasn’t Buescher for forcing Hamlin down? Buescher was later penalized for forcing Elliott below after it was initially assessed to Elliott. That change wasn’t made until over an hour after the race ended, sowing more confusion.

Overall, the whole experience was a black eye for NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it best when he said that the double yellow line rule needs to go. The out-of-bounds line in NASCAR just creates judgment calls that always leave people frustrated. Hopefully, eliminating it is something that’s changed in time for next year’s Daytona 500.

Speaking of Dale Jr., I need to give him a shoutout for how great he was on the NBC broadcast. It’s always fun to hear him call superspeedway races because he just knows so much about the way the draft works. There’s something in Earnhardt’s genes that allows him to know who’s coming and going; it’s great to have his perspective telling us what’s happening.

NBC also made a great move to have Steve Letarte at the track because it unclogged the four-man booth. The network has had some strange moments this year, for sure, and switching the race from NBC to NBCSN for the final laps will rightfully be criticized. But overall, this race was one of their better broadcasts of the year.

Talladega is so unpredictable that sometimes it’s actually better to be involved in wrecks early. Of course, that statement isn’t true if you are too damaged to continue. The cases I’m referencing, though, are drivers like Bowman, Austin Dillon, Preece and Reddick.

Each of these cars were beat up and all of them came home in the top 15. The damage early obviously hurts the speed of the car, but it forces the driver to ride closer to the back and out of trouble. 

Paint scheme of the weekend

Byron’s HendrickCars.com No. 24 machine was a gorgeous tribute to the late Ricky Hendrick. Seeing a throwback scheme on a track other than Darlington was odd, yet satisfying. If a Hendrick car is ever unsponsored in the future, this car is the one that needs to be used.

Better than last year?

Last year, Talladega’s stage one took place on Sunday and the conclusion was rain-delayed until Monday. The threat of rain made for some intense racing on both days. There were three big wrecks and it ended with Blaney’s last lap pass on Newman.

Sunday’s race might’ve felt like it took two days to complete just because of a record-setting 13 caution flags. But there was great racing all afternoon and guys were mixing it up in the front constantly with only a few single-file stretches.

However, the ending will be one of the most controversial in recent memory, keeping 2020 a notch below 2019. I can’t put it over another last-lap pass with a photo finish that didn’t have judgment penalties in the end.

Playoff picture

Hamlin joins Kurt Busch in the Round of 8. We were already certain Hamlin would get there; now, he’s just assured of it. Adding five more playoff points makes another trip to the finale nearly inevitable, too.

The story of Talladega will be more about the drivers on the outside looking in. Kyle Busch, Dillon, Bowyer and Almirola were all involved in incidents and each are 20 or more points out. Bowyer and Almirola are effectively in must-win situations. Busch and Dillon, meanwhile, could climb out of their hole without winning (stage points, ROVAL madness, etc.). Still, the only sure bet is to go win the damn thing.

What’s next?

The wildest round of the playoffs concludes at Charlotte Motor Speedway next Sunday (Oct. 11) at 2:30 p.m. ET for the Bank of America ROVAL 400. This is the final chance for drivers to lock themselves into the Round of 8, the penultimate round of the Cup playoffs.

The Charlotte ROVAL has been more unpredictable than any road course since it joined the schedule in 2018, so pull those belts tight one more time….

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About Logan Reardon

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11 comments

  1. Avatar

    I agree that Junior shines at the plate tracks. He seems to anticipate what drivers need to do, and makes it even more interesting for me. I also agree that the yellow line rule is ridiculous. The cars manage to wreck plenty with the rule, so why even have it?

    • Avatar

      Junior’s voice is so high-pitched and nasal, I can’t even bear to listen to him. If, in the unlikely event, he says something intelligent, I don’t hear it since I mute the broadcast after about 5 minutes of listening to his cornpone.

  2. Avatar

    How would like to live where I do. My local NBC station shut the race off at 11PM for the local news. They just suck.

    • Avatar

      When NBC cut to NBCSN, I went back to TSN which was televising the event. I prefer the NBC version because the side-by-side view shows the running order at the top and TSN doesn’t but there is about a five second lag time at NBC. If NBC is going to cut away it should be for something worthwhile like a Chinese Checkers tournament.

  3. Avatar

    That race was a joke but, like a train wreck, you couldn’t stop watching. I think the bump drafting has gotten ridiculous. Sometimes it doesn’t look like they are trying to push someone forward, it looks more like they are trying to push them out of the way. Which pretty much means wrecking them given the proximity of other cars in the pack.

    Then the finish was a joke as well. I think it’s time to get rid of that yellow line rule. The RP races pretty much end with a wreck every year so getting rid of the yellow line rule will just take NASCAR’s poor judgement calls and ability to play god with the finishing order out of the equation. As far as I am concerned DiBenedeto got totally screwed by NASCAR. I would have rather seen almost anyone win but Hamlin after riding around at the back all day. He was lucky that the attrition rate was so high and the cautions numerous. Otherwise he would have never been in a position to win because there would have been more good cars left.

    I was impressed that there were only a handful of laps where there was just one single line of cars. It seemed like the cars were able to make runs throughout the race and that no one could hold the lead for long. That didn’t stop them from trying though, there was a lot of dangerous blocking all day.

    Oh well, that’s the last time we have to deal with that mess until February,

  4. Avatar

    Technically, if NASCAR really went by the rule book, the caution should have been thrown when they started wrecking on the backstretch, the field frozen and Matty D would have been the winner.

  5. Avatar

    I realize that the race is a crap-shoot to begin with, but crappy officiating ruined an exciting finish. It was just horrible, horrible, horrible. The yellow line rule has GOT to go.

    Poor Matty D… it was like someone ran over his dog. He was so dejected. I felt bad for him.

    Fortunately, Even though I recorded the race, I was at real time by the time the GWC’s started, so I didn’t miss the end of the race. Others weren’t so fortunate. Imagine watching this whole race only to miss the finish. That’s a huge black eye for NBC. Totally unacceptable.

    At least we got this exchange…
    Jeff Burton on Kurt Busch’s wrecked car: “It doesn’t look all that bad.”
    Rick Allen (I think): “It was upside down, Jeff”

    • Avatar

      That’s why I record the post-race show on NBCSN, as well.

      And I agree with everyone else above, NASCAR made a favoritism call here.

  6. Avatar

    Set the DVR for the race on the local NBC station and added an hour just in case it went long. Started watching the recording from the beginning at about 4 eastern time. Took a break at about 5 for some supper. Started watching again at 5:30 or so. Got to the 2nd GWC and that was all she wrote. NBC just had to switch to the local news, so now I’m watching the news. WTF! Switched to NBCSN but race was already history. Watched the finish on You Tube this morning. Can’t tell you how many times NBC has run into even the national news on Sundays and not cut away from golf overruns. Guess this tells us where NASCAR stands. I would just prefer that they just broadcast all the races on NBCSN. This reminded me of the “Heidi “fiasco many many years ago with the football game. I think it was Oakland playing, don’t remember the other team, but the network broke away for the start of the movie and the team that was losing ended up scoring touchdowns in a matter of a few minutes to win the game. Anyone else remember that. I think that may have been NBC.

    • Avatar

      The Heidi Game or Heidi Bowl is the name given to a 1968 American Football League (AFL) game between the Oakland Raiders and the visiting New York Jets. The contest, held on November 17, 1968, was notable for its exciting finish, in which Oakland scored two touchdowns in the final minute to win the game 43–32.

    • Avatar

      Same with me. Set the DVR to NBC, added an hour for red flags, started watching it about 5:30, get to the second OT and it’s time of time for the local news. There may have been a few “F” bombs dropped at that point :-(