NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead

What happened?

William Byron won the Dixie Vodka 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday (Feb. 28) after leading a race-high (and career-high) 102 laps.

Tyler Reddick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five finishers.

How did it happen?

Pole-sitter Denny Hamlin was forced to start at the rear after unapproved adjustments prior to the race. Joey Logano led the field to the green and retained the top spot for 12 laps until Brad Keselowski got by his teammate and led until the lap 25 competition caution. Early on, there was a lot of passing and movements with so many fast cars starting in the back.

The most impressive driver early in the race was Chris Buescher, who got to the lead on lap 54 after a great battle with Keselowski.

On lap 64, James Davison’s motor blew up and drew the field down pit road under caution. Buescher stayed in the lead through the pit stops but lost the lead to Keselowski on the restart with nine to go in the stage. With two laps left in the stage, the No. 17 retook the lead and held on to win the stage, his first of the season and second of his career.

On the stage two start, Chase Elliott briefly got the lead from Buescher before quickly relinquishing it back. Buescher held the top spot until green flag stops began midway through the stage until Truex got by him just before they made their stops.

With seven to go in the stage, Corey LaJoie’s engine blew up and caused another caution. Everyone hit pit road and set up a one-lap dash to the finish led by Truex and Hamlin. Starting in the second row, Byron made an impressive move on the final lap to steal the stage win from the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates.

Byron held the lead on the final stage restart, with Hamlin, Larson, Kurt Busch and Truex close behind. With 67 laps to go, Aric Almirola drifted up into Ryan Blaney and caused both of them to cut tires and lose a lap. A caution flag was thrown one lap later due to debris from their incident.

In what would be the final pit stop of the day (for most), Larson and Truex led the way off pit road with Byron exiting in sixth. Hamlin, who left pit road in third, was hit with a speeding penalty and forced to the rear.

Truex took the lead on the restart but was quickly double-teamed by the Hendrick duo of Byron and Larson. The No. 24 got inside the No. 19 and received a push to the lead from his teammate.

The race stayed green as Byron stretched his lead out to a comfortable margin. The biggest story of the final run was Reddick. The No. 8 was deep in the field seemingly all afternoon until his car came to life late. He was quickly gaining on the leader but was way too far back to challenge Byron. He got up to second in the final laps, but still finished 2.777 seconds back.

KRISTL: REDDICK MATCHES CAREER-BEST 2ND AT HOMESTEAD

Sunday marked the second win of Byron’s career (Daytona 2, 2020). It was the first Cup win for crew chief Rudy Fugle in just his third race.

Who stood out?

Byron’s second career win was no superspeedway fluke – he dominated the race in Miami. Sunday was by far the best run of Byron’s young career and should firmly solidify him among perennial winners. His win at Daytona last year was obviously impressive, but there’s something more special about winning at a non-superspeedway track.

Even better, this was exactly the day his team needed. Byron entered the race 29th in points after finishes of 26th and 33rd to start the season. Now, he can focus on racking up more victories and playoff points without having to worry about points.

HOMESTEAD RECAP: BYRON SCORES 2ND CAREER WIN

Reddick continues to make Homestead-Miami Speedway his personal playground. For most of the day, I had him penciled into the “Who fell flat” category. That all changed on the final green flag run to the finish. Reddick was mired back outside the top 20 most of the afternoon. Then, in the final stage, he charged up out of nowhere.

In his two career Cup starts at Homestead, Reddick has two top-fives and an average finish of 3.0. Add in two championship-clinching Xfinity Series victories and you have Reddick’s best track. He’ll need more performances like this throughout the season to make the playoffs in his sophomore campaign.

We keep waiting for Michael McDowell to come back to reality and he keeps proving us wrong. His Daytona 500 win was a surprise, though not a complete shock given his past success there. A solid run at a road course – where he is especially good – also wasn’t too surprising. But a top-10 finish at a 1.5-mile track with no strategy or late restart involved? Insanely impressive.

Through three weeks, McDowell is firmly inside the top 16 in points. So, even if he didn’t have that win, we’d still be talking about him as a surprise playoff contender. If the No. 34 can run like this on a superspeedway, road course and 1.5-mile track, he could be more than just a field-filler in the playoff field come September.

Who fell flat?

Team Penske struggled at a track where it is expected to thrive. The day started off strong, with Logano and Keselowski trading the lead in the early going. From that point on, it was all downhill. Blaney and de facto Penske driver Matt DiBenedetto continued their miserable start to the season. Keselowski and Logano decided to pit in the final stage and never really got back in the mix.

Still, it’s not quite time to panic yet. Logano and Keselowski are both top-10 in the standings. Blaney is 24th, 22 points out of 16th. DiBenedetto is 34th and already could be nearing a must-win situation if he can’t rattle off some good finishes. That all sounds bad, so when will it be time to panic? If they don’t perform next week, I’ll officially smash the panic button. All four drivers have had incredible success at Las Vegas and a poor day there could spell doom for 2021.

Christopher Bell didn’t follow up his first career win the way he wanted to and instead left with a 20th-place finish. He finished in the top 10 at Homestead last year with Leavine Family Racing, so it wasn’t out of the question that he’d contend for the win Sunday. Instead, he was mostly out of the picture and trudged home with a disappointing result.

Overall, it was a tough day for Joe Gibbs Racing cars outside of Truex. They all struggled at times, even if three of them ended up in the top 11. Bell has to make the best out of these days where his car isn’t perfect. That’s what his teammates have become so good at and it’s a skill he’ll have to learn this season. If you have a 20th-place car, find a way to finish 15th.

What did this race prove?

We might need to throw out the history books this year. Three races in and almost nothing has gone as expected. McDowell, Bell and now Byron? Sheesh. Three different teams, three different manufacturers, three completely unexpected drivers who combined for one career win before this season.

Similar to 2011 (when we got five first-time winners), this season could be chaotic. Three drivers are theoretically locked into the postseason and none of them were truly guaranteed to make it before the season.

Rudy Fugle should’ve been a Cup crew chief a long, long time ago. Seriously, how did Joe Gibbs Racing not poach him from Kyle Busch Motorsports? He won championships with Erik Jones (2015) and Bell (2017). He won seven races with Byron in 2016. Fugle clearly knows how to build a racecar and call the shots.

Now, Fugle’s jump to HMS looks like it could be the move of the offseason. Not Bubba Wallace to 23XI, not Chase Briscoe to Stewart-Haas, not even Larson to HMS. Fugle could change the course of Byron’s young career and this might just be the start of the next great driver-crew chief pairing at HMS.

I’m not ready to say it, but it’s worth asking the question: Is Hendrick Motorsports going to be the team to beat in 2021? I know, I know. They’ve won once in three tries. But let’s dig deeper. Throw out the Daytona 500 just because of the randomness at superspeedways. Plus, there are only three races left at that track type. At the road course, Elliott dominated and clearly was the best car before some misfortune in the end. Then, at Miami, Byron paced the field for most of the day with Larson close behind.

Again: I still think it’s too early to crown HMS. Gibbs, Penske and Harvick (not necessarily SHR) will have a lot to say about that. Hendrick is still extremely young, so seeing them run this well this early is certainly something to note.

Paint scheme of the race

I didn’t get a chance to give Jones’ Armor All Chevy the love it deserved at the Daytona 500, so here goes nothing. Oftentimes, the No. 43 is dominated by Petty blue. And rightfully so – it’s a gorgeous color that works with almost any sponsor. The Armor All scheme, though, is a pleasant change of pace for the historic car.

Better than last year?

Last year, there were two early delays for lightning that broke up some competitive racing early in the evening. Hamlin dominated most of the race, but there were some great stints of battles between Hamlin, Elliott, Blaney and Reddick. The race ended on a long green-flag run with pit stops cycling Elliott to the lead with Hamlin close behind. Ultimately, Logano (who was a lap down) made it difficult for Elliott to pass him and Hamlin cruised by for the victory.

This year’s race was similar to 2020 in a lot of ways. There weren’t a ton of accidents. The key difference: multiple unexpected drivers led throughout the race. The early racing this year was fantastic, and the end was still compelling with great battles deeper in the field. The great racing in the early stages and the lack of lightning delay make 2021 a superior product to 2020.

Playoff picture

Byron, Bell and McDowell are now the three drivers “locked” into the playoffs. Each week we continue to get unexpected winners, so I’ll keep using “locked” in quotes. Would anyone really be surprised if 14 more drivers won a race in the regular season? Three Gibbs cars, three Hendrick cars, three Penske cars and four Stewart-Haas cars are all winless. That’s 13. Then, there’s Chip Ganassi, Richard Childress, Wood Brothers, Roush Fenway (which was great at Homestead), 23XI with drivers who have playoff aspirations. Let’s wait a few weeks and see if the usual suspects start winning, but we’re officially taking note of what’s happening with these winners in regards to the playoff picture.

As I like to do every week this early in the season, here’s some fun, oddball things happening early in the season:

Currently in the playoffs: Ryan Preece (12th), Buescher (15th), Wallace (16th)

Currently out of the playoffs: Bowman (17th), Kyle Busch (18th), Blaney (24th), Almirola (26th), DiBenedetto (34th)

What’s next?

After spending the month of February down in Florida, the Cup Series is heading out for the annual West Coast Swing. It’s only a two-race swing this year, as Auto Club was replaced with the Daytona road course due to COVID-19 restrictions in California. The Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will go green next Sunday (March 7) at 3:30 p.m. on FOX.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: HOMESTEAD

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Tom B

Congratulations to William Byron, a well deserved victory.
What appears to be overlooked in the last part of this race is Kurt Busch’s fantastic run. When he pitted with a loose lug not he came out a lap down in 28th spot. Without any cautions he blew by the leaders to unlap himself and finished eighth. He was the fastest car on the track. Not one acknowledgement from the three stooges in the booth. How could they not see what was happening on the track or on their monitors. The coverage is pitiful. I guess it’s all about the bantering not racing.

Joseph

Great race. I don’t watch it on tv anymore. Just moved and just listen to MRN on the NASCAR APP. I’d have to tell you they were talking about Kurts run throughout the end of the race. If at all possible. Leave the race on tv and mute it. Listen to MRN. Better coverage and they talk about the race itself not filler or banter.

Bill B

Not a bad race for a 1.5 mile track. I think Homestead may be the best of the 1.5 milers. Cars moving forward and falling back, tire wear, differing stategies, etc., and another winner that no one would have expected so early in the season. Some teams with playoff aspirations must be worried.

I like both Almirola and Blaney. I have no idea what Almirola was thinking. He was not even close to being clear and came up like he didn’t even know Blaney was there and ruined both drivers’ day.

Overall, I enjoyed the race. The coverage was decent and I never had to mute the volume because I got annoyed with the babble. I don’t remember hearing Michael Waltrip all day, a guaranteed mute op (perhaps I just missed him when I was away from the TV). If there was one thing I can say negative it’s that clean air still means more than anything else. I would say there were several cars that may have won that race if they’d have gotten out front.

DoninAjax

It’s a 1.5 mile OVAL! Not a D. Big difference.

Dan

Looks as if Blaney’s bad luck from last year is carrying into this year, but it’s early. He seemed to linger around 15th most of the race until tangling with the 10 car. Nice to see the 24 in the winners circle. Good to see some of the usual suspects get out run by a youngster. Now a little off topic here. Why is it that some former drivers in the booth (ie J Burton on NBC and Motormouth Bowyer on FOX) can’t seem to pronounce Brad Keselowski’s last name properly? You would think they would take the hint from others on the pronunciation. If I were Keselowski I would sit those two down and give them lessons on how to. Oh and one other thing. We had to put up with DW’s Boogity,Boogity,Boogity in the past now we have to put up with the comedian Bowyer. Gordon and Joy play right into it. GIVE IT A REST ALREADY! Whew! There I got that off my chest.

Lauren

The commentators jabbing back and forth are fun, as now, most OLDER fans are either pushing daisies or complaining about coverage. I am young and will continue to invest money into tickets and a good race. Sometimes they seem gimmicky but it’s not pro wrestling gimmicky. I don’t like stage racing and would love to see a full race strategy instead of 80-80-107 crap. As for Byron, he has learned from his computer on how to maximize clean air–that said, Hamlin and Harvick, who learned from actual racing, are still on top in points. McDowell is another huge surprise as Front Row traditionally finishes 18th-30th except on superspeedways. His skill has been underrated because of his dearth of career lower funded teams. In conclusion, every driver racing has to have some skill to even handle the cars. We often forget how fast they travel and how close they get to each other and the aero effect of “suction.” Just remember that when you’re doing 65 mph on an interstate and feel the wind off an 18 wheeler….always puts it into perspective…add temperature and sound and you have real athletes, not a bunch over muscled freaks throwing a ball.

Bill W

Glad to see Buescher and Newman be more competitive than in the past. Reddick out drove Dillon again.

Jo

As I posted in another article, this race was another example of the failure of Toyota to keep talent it has developed in the lower series. KBM won many races with Byron and even more with Rudy Fugle, but with its 5-car policy, there was no place for either the driver or the crew chief at the Cup level. Add to that its devotion to Hamlin and Wallace, plus its aging stable at JGR. I guess long-term planning isn’t TRD’s strong suit.

DoninAjax

Bubba finished in the 20s AGAIN. MJ and Toy can’t be happy. The longer the run the lower he descends.

I see where the pace car was the 2021 Toyota Camry TuRD. I wonder what Toy is paying for that exposure?

janice

I guess we need to keep track of how many times “slide job” is said. Seems like everytime I flipped to the race that was being said.

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