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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Xfinity 500 at Martinsville

What happened?

Chase Elliott won the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville on Sunday (Nov. 1) to clinch a spot in the Championship 4. Elliott pulled away during the final stretch after his main rival most of the day, Martin Truex Jr., had to pit for a loose wheel.

Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

The race was rowdy from the beginning. Denny Hamlin started it off by moving Keselowski out of the way for second place behind Martin Truex Jr. But the No. 11 couldn’t match the speed of the No. 19. Up front, it felt like Truex was back on the pace he set last year in his win at Martinsville. Truex and Elliott both drove to the front quickly and it was clear that a driver outside the top 4 in points might steal a victory.

Elliott caught Truex just before the lap 60 competition caution but was unable to complete the pass before the yellow was thrown. Soon after the next restart, Clint Bowyer was turned by his teammate Aric Almirola deeper in the field.

 

Elliott took his first lead at lap 89. On a caution with 25 to go in the first stage, Elliott and Truex stayed out while most other frontrunners pitted. Quickly, Hamlin zoomed to the lead on fresh tires and won the first stage.

Some cars again stayed out under that caution, with the Busch brothers leading the way. Elliott, on new tires of his own, powered his way to the lead and pulled away from Hamlin and Kurt Busch. Under green, Kevin Harvick, who was already unhappy with his car, pitted due to a loose wheel and went two laps down.

Harvick took the wave-around after another quick caution to get one of his two laps back. Up front, Elliott maintained the lead on the next green-flag run until Ryan Preece spun with just over 40 to go in stage two. This time, Elliott and Truex pitted for fresh tires and worked their way through traffic. In just 20 laps, Elliott went from 16th to the lead and cruised to a stage win.

During the stage break pit stops, Hamlin came down twice to fix a loose wheel. Elliott had no such trouble, sticking in the lead on a long green-flag run, which lasted 85 laps.

However, pit stops with 148 to go nearly ruined Elliott’s day, as the jackman went over the wall too soon. Elliott was initially penalized, but upon further review, it became clear that the crew member went back and negated any advantage. NASCAR rescinded the penalty and cited the rule.

Credit to the jackman for having the presence of mind in that moment to go back. Even the NBC broadcast team was unaware of the rule, but these crews clearly know what they’re doing.

With Elliott now back in traffic, Penske teammates Logano and Blaney fought for the lead as the No. 9 was stuck in third. Blaney took the lead and paced the field for 36 laps until another yellow, this time for James Davison losing power. Once again on pit road, two title contenders had issues. First, there was Elliott with a slow stop that dropped him from third to 10th. Even bigger was Keselowski, who was nabbed for speeding. 

On the ensuing restart with 92 laps to go, Truex powered to the lead on the outside line – the first time all day the outside prevailed on row one.

The 12th and final caution of the race came on lap 442 when William Byron had heavy damage from a single-car incident. Everyone on the lead lap pitted and used their last set of fresh tires, save for Corey LaJoie. LaJoie started first on the restart, with Truex to his outside and Elliott and Logano on row two.

Truex easily got by LaJoie, even after LaJoie jumped the restart and was penalized. Soon, though, it was clear that Elliott still had the car to beat. He got by Truex with 43 to go and started pulling away. Truex was forced to pit 18 laps later due to a loose wheel, a problem which ended his title hopes.

Elliott cruised to the victory and was never pressed down the stretch. The real drama was between Harvick, Hamlin and Keselowski, who were within one point of each other for the final two Championship 4 spots late in the race. Harvick gave it a last-lap effort to spin Kyle Busch and get himself the final point he needed, but it didn’t work. He wrecked himself in the process and ended all hopes of a title.

The win was Elliott’s fourth of the season, 10th of his career and first at Martinsville.

Who stood out?

Elliott had the race of his life at the perfect time. We’ve been waiting for this moment from the sport’s perennial most popular driver. Finally, after three years of Round of 8 heartbreak, Elliott changed the narrative.

Leading a career-high 236 laps, the No. 9 was the best car from the get-go. Between the near-penalty on pit road and the painfully slow stop the next time down, for a moment it looked like Elliott would crumble again in 2020. Instead, this win, overcoming all the issues, is now the defining moment of his young career. Elliott clearly understood the magnitude of the moment, as he was more fired up than we’ve ever seen the usually even-keeled Georgia boy.

Elliott will turn 25 later this month and he already has 10 career wins plus a shot at his first title. If he wins the championship – which is obviously getting way ahead of ourselves – Elliott would be the third-youngest titleholder in series history (Bill Rexford, 1950; Jeff Gordon, 1995).

Keselowski overcame all sorts of adversity and finally made it back to the Championship 4. He had a strong, albeit non-race winning car all day. It looked like the No. 2 would secure a solid top-five result and move on to Phoenix. Then, a late speeding penalty on pit road nearly destroyed his season. Over the final 100 laps, Keselowski was a man on a mission, weaving through traffic and sending Harvick home.

Ever since his win at Richmond in September, BK has said how big of a threat he would be if they made it to Phoenix. Now, he’s there, armed with a chance to prove himself right.

You have to feel for Bowman, a driver who was more consistent than any playoff driver in the Round of 8. His average finish of 4.7 in the Round of 8 was best among playoff drivers. So, why didn’t Bowman advance to Phoenix? Playoff points. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet didn’t accumulate enough bonus points in the regular season and it showed in the Round of 8.

On finishes alone, Bowman was one of the best drivers in this round. He never had winning speed but no one was more consistent. Overall, 2020 has absolutely been the best season of his career and he’ll only get better moving forward. In the famed No. 48 next season, Bowman will look to get one step further and make that first Championship 4 appearance.

Who fell flat?

Where do I begin with Harvick? From the jump, it was clear the No. 4 didn’t have its best stuff at Martinsville. He fell way back early and a loose wheel put him two laps down midway through the race. After countless near-misses, he finally got the free pass and actually improved a lot over the final portion of the event. In the end, the last-corner spin was unsuccessful and his masterful season ended without a title race appearance.

Harvick still has a few years left, but at 44, you have to wonder how many dominant years he has left. Around this time is when drivers start to fall off. Harvick fought off Father Time in 2020 better than anyone in recent memory, so there’s still hope for a second championship. Every missed opportunity stings a little more at this stage of your career, though.

Once again, Hamlin struggled to put together a full race and barely snuck into the Championship 4. The result is all that matters – and the results say he’s competing for his first title next Sunday. Still, I have the same concerns that I’ve had all playoffs about Hamlin.

Early on, he looked like one of the only cars that could challenge Elliott out front. The No. 11 Toyota picked up a race-high 18 stage points, and Hamlin’s lucky he did because he would’ve been eliminated without them. After stage two, he pit twice under caution for a loose wheel and never could get back to the front. It was strange he couldn’t fight back though considering there were still over 200 laps left at the time.

The bottom line is, at any moment, Hamlin can dominate a race. The problem comes with too many costly mistakes that rob him of precious track position. If the last nine races are any indication, Phoenix might not go so smoothly for him.

What did this race prove?

Elliott has the killer instinct. Many – including myself – have questioned his aggressiveness. Is he capable of going out and winning a must-win race? Does he have the desire to go win a championship against heavyweights like Hamlin, Harvick, etc.?

Well, we got some answers at Martinsville. In the past, Elliott’s faltered at this stage of the season. Eliminated in the Round of 8 in each of the last three years, it looked like more of the same in 2020. Now, Elliott will have a shot to compete for his first championship in just his fifth season. Coincidentally, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson also won his first title in year five (2006).

The current playoff system isn’t fair – and that’s OK. Hamlin put it best after the race when he said there’s no one that would say Harvick wasn’t a top four team this year. That much is obvious. Nine wins, 20 top fives, 26 top 10s, 1,531 laps led and a 7.3 average finish all lead the Cup Series. When it mattered most, the simple fact was that the No. 4 team wasn’t at its best. Of his nine finishes outside the top 10 this season, four have come in the last nine races.

Similar to any other sport, if the best team isn’t at its best in the playoffs, that team won’t win the title. Now, the same can be said about NASCAR. Harvick’s 2020 season should be remembered as pure greatness, regardless of how it ended. He had a great shot to win at Kansas and couldn’t get by Logano. If Harvick was a bit more aggressive and used the bumper, he might still have a shot at his second title.

Logano can’t stay out of his own way. Entering Martinsville, Logano was the only playoff driver breathing calmly. All he had to do was ride it out, keep it clean and get ready for Phoenix. Instead, he made a few enemies on his way to a third-place run.

I understand a racecar driver isn’t going to ever take it easy. But at some point, you have to be smart and understand the bigger picture. It would’ve been a good move to make some friends, though Logano will often tell you he isn’t racing to make friends. It’ll definitely be a championship well-earned if he can overcome all those foes at Phoenix.

Paint scheme of the weekend

Bubba Wallace’s brand new No. 23 Toyota for 2021 wasn’t the only paint scheme that stood out for him this week. At Martinsville, the No. 43 DoorDash Chevy was uniquely designed to encourage voting. Election Day in the United States is Tuesday and nothing is more patriotic than exercising your right to vote.

Props to Wallace, DoorDash and RPM for coming together to make this scheme happen.

Better than last year?

Last year, Truex put on a dominating performance in the first race of the Round of 8. He led 464 of 500 laps and his victory was never really in question. The biggest drama of the race was when Hamlin and Logano made contact. The incident led to a melee on pit road between the drivers and crews.

While Elliott led the most laps Sunday by a wide margin, the race never seemed like a sure thing. He had multiple issues on pit road and there were plenty of times when other drivers looked capable of winning. In addition, the insane points battle late among Harvick, Keselowski and Hamlin was riveting. With one mistake, any of them could’ve lost their shot, while Harvick’s last-ditch spin at the end was a moment that we haven’t had in this year’s playoffs.

Add all that up and 2020 definitely was a better show than 2019.

Playoff picture

The Championship 4 is finally set: Logano, Elliott, Keselowski and Hamlin will compete for the title. The Penske duo will each be going for their second championship while Hamlin and Elliott race for their first.

Harvick was the first driver to miss the Championship 4, as he ended up eight points behind Keselowski and nine behind Hamlin. Had he been able to get by Kyle Busch on the last corner, he would’ve been tied with Keselowski and advanced via the tiebreaker.

What’s next?

NASCAR heads to Phoenix for its final race weekend of the 2020 season. Miraculously, each of the top three series made it through their entire schedules despite the massive hiatus due to the pandemic. The NASCAR Cup championship race will be Sunday (Nov. 8) at 3 p.m. ET. This weekend marks the first time the season finale will be held at Phoenix in NASCAR history. Homestead-Miami Speedway had hosted the finale every year since 2002.

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10 thoughts on “Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Xfinity 500 at Martinsville”

  1. Yawn! Logano bad, rest of the field good. Rest of the field races their race (as they should). Logano races his, bad!! Good Lort to heaven above. Help us!

    What a genius this author is, talented and seasoned race car driver too! Oh wait, never mind. Blah, blah, blah…it never flucking ends.

  2. Thank God. The NASCAR Rube Goldberg playoff format has finally gotten us down to 4 contenders for the championship. As much as I’d rather see the championship decided by a year long points format and not some contrived chase/playoff format, I’ve got to admit that this current format probably comes closest to being “fair” (if there is such a thing). If someone like Harvick can’t make it to the final round with the benefit of a mulligan (with all the playoff points he had), then I can’t feel bad for him.

    I will also say I loved Martinsville being the final race to determine the “Arbitrary 4. It definitely provided a payoff (in excitement) for the convoluted playoff format that would be much less dramatic at a 1.5 mile track. Of course to underscore the stupidity of such an arbitrary process, had there been a late caution with 10 laps to go at a track like Martinsville, everything could be very different and I still have a problem with that randomness when determining a champion.

    As I mentioned in the previous article, Harvick is one terrible role model for how to conduct oneself in the heat of competition. He has no class and no sportsmanship. Purposely wrecking someone on the last lap to gain a position would be like wrecking half the field at Talladega to keep from being eliminated. I’ve never liked Harvick for that reason, he always has been and always will be a punk, but I was pulling for him to win the title this year just because he had such a stellar season. In the end, he got what he deserved for years of being a prick.

    Of the 4 guys left my hierarchy of who I’d like to see win are: 9, 2, 22, 11. My gut feeling of who has the best chance of winning based on performance over the last 9 weeks and momentum are: 22, 2, 11, 9.

    • One could say the same about Denny Hamnlin being a punk; what, with him constantly pushing people out of the groove, bumping them into the wall, and causing wreck upon wreck. In fact, I think there ought to be a NASCAR rule that anybody who causes a wreck has to re-start at the rear of the field for the next.

      • I have no love for Hamlin. Of the final 4 I’d rather see anyone but Hamlin win. However with respect to causing wrecks, the two I pointed out with Harvick were blatant and were not intended to move someone out of the way while going for the win but to wreck them because he was about to be eliminated from the playoffs/chase. Hamlin is more of a “rat-boy” (Eddy Haskel if you are old enough to know what that means) than a punk IMO.

        • Yes, I know Eddie Haskell and that would be a better attribute than my “punk”. however, I was referring to the whole season and not just this one race. I don’t call him ‘Dirty Denny’ without reason. He’s always pushing other cars into walls and other cars, or call it “moving them out of the way” if you like, but he’s not a clean racer, at all.

    • Remember when Ryan Newman moved someone out of the way at the second-to-last race at Phoenix a few years ago to make the Final Four?

  3. Well, I was shell-shocked yesterday by Harvick’s elimination, but today… “meh”. If it had happened to a driver I like, it would probably be a different story, but Harvick has always been too much of a jerk for me to feel sorry for now. Yes, the fact that he was eliminated seems unfair, but the truth is this…. the champion doesn’t always have the best season. That’s true in other sports as well as racing. That’s the nature of a playoff format.. One bad race, one bad football game, one bad game of basketball can eliminate the best team before the final event. Personally, I prefer the old points system before the stupid idea of a playoff/chase was ever implemented, and if a driver clinched the title before the final race, so be it… he deserves the trophy. However, this is what we have. That probably isn’t going to change. At least the final race in Phoenix is looking like it should be exciting. Go Brad!

  4. Such a stupid way to crown a champion in a motorsports series. If NASCAR generated huge buzz from the sports media and huge ratings I’d at least say I understand why they do it this way – but that simply isn’t the case. And why do I get the awful feeling we’ll be looking at Joey’s goofy mug celebrating next week? SMH

  5. I realized, why is the season ending early this year? Usually the last race is the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Now we have three weeks left til then!

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