By: Mitchell Breuer
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced NASCAR’s schedule into a suspension, the sport had to get creative when making up for lost time. This included scheduling midweek races.
On Wednesday, the NASCAR Cup Series took to the track and provided quite the show with Denny Hamlin grabbing his second victory of the season, and an accident created some bad blood between two of the sport’s most popular drivers.
Before we could get to racing, NASCAR’s old nemesis, Mother Nature, made another appearance, bringing rain to delay the start. With the forecast predicting this would happen, many came to the forgone conclusion that Wednesday’s event would suffer the same fate as Tuesday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race and be bumped to Thursday.
NASCAR had other plans, playing the waiting game and for once, winning the battle to start the race. The question then shifted to how far would they get? As the forecast still did not look promising.
Putting aside rain talk temporarily, when the green flagged dropped, the newly implemented inverted field system that NASCAR was testing with this race was put into play. Ryan Preece, who finished 20th in Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 was on the pole, while Kevin Harvick, who won, started 20th.
Track position was critical Sunday so it brought up the question, would the top drivers from the previous race be able to drive through the field?For some the answer was yes, as Martin Truex Jr and Alex Bowman were able to move up to second and fourth by the end of Stage 1. However, Harvick did not have the same luck, failing to score any stage points in the opening segment, only climbing to 15th.
It was not all bad news for Stewart-Haas Racing though, as Harvick’s teammate, Clint Bowyer would be the biggest beneficiary from the invert. The driver of the No. 14 took advantage of his fourth-place starting spot and moved into the lead on Lap 31, cruising to a Stage 1 win.
What was more impressive though was Bowyer’s second stage, where after falling back to tenth by pitting when others did not, he was able to drive back through the field and win the stage.
While it was all about Bowyer in the first two stages, the race’s biggest storylines would come in its final stage.
Rain strategy resumed at the start of the final stage; with weather on the radar, it forced teams to make pit calls on how they would handle the threat of oncoming weather. Despite many claims about rain drops on the track, the majority of the field pitted during a long run in the final stage. Brad Keselowski gambled and stayed out, with luck being on his side as a caution did come out; not for rain though, instead for a spin by Matt Kenseth.
By staying out Keselowski had lapped majority of the field, meaning he would have track position and fresh tires while others had to stay out and take the wave around. Denny Hamlin, who had already pitted during the green flag stretch, made a big move to get back on the lead lap during Keselowski’s stretch and then came in for his last set of tires.
After another caution for an accident with 28 laps to go, strategy play came into effect again the chatter of rain continued. Majority of the field pitted; Hamlin and Matt DiBenedetto did not.DiBenedetto fell back, but Hamlin held his ground and a caution came with 25 to go along with the rain, forcing NASCAR to prematurely end the race and hand the No. 11 the win.
This would not be the top storyline of this race, though.
Kyle Busch vs. Chase Elliott and his pit crew became the focus of everyone watching, as with 25 laps to go, Elliott on fresher tires would seem to pass by Busch and turn his attention to Hamlin and the lead. Before the driver of the No. 9 could get to first, he would be sent to the inside wall by Busch, who came up the track and hit Elliott, ending his day effectively.Elliott displeased, flipped off Busch as he drove past his wrecked racecar.
The No. 18 suffered damage as well, but did not pit as the rain became very apparent. NASCAR red flagged the race and brought the cars down pit road, where Busch had Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson and other members of Elliott’s crew waiting in his pit stall.
When Busch got out of the car, he went and had a conversation with Gustafson. The two did not fight in a physical sense, but you could tell there was both were still irritated when interviewed afterwards.
Busch apologized and said the incident was unintentional, however the audience is left wondering if Elliott will accept the apology or plot his revenge.
EMAIL MITCHELL AT Mitchell.Breuer@popularspeed.com
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