NASCAR isn’t truly back without rain in the forecast and anger in the drivers’ minds. The Cup Series‘ Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway, the second race since the season restarted on Sunday, saw scattered rain and drama in the later stages as Kyle Busch turned Chase Elliott, while Denny Hamlin stuck out in the lead when the weather struck again.
Under the new starting lineup procedure for qualifying-less races, the top twenty finishers in Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 were inverted, with twentieth-placed Ryan Preece and nineteenth Ty Dillon starting on the front row while winner Kevin Harvick was stuck in the middle of the pack. B.J. McLeod (failed inspection thrice), Corey LaJoie (failed twice), Erik Jones (unapproved parts, also lost crew chief for missing lug nuts after Sunday), J.J. Yeley (driver change), and Gray Gaulding (driver change) started at the rear. McLeod was also ordered to serve a pass-through penalty.
The green flag was delayed by over an hour due to rain. Wary of the weather, which forced Tuesday night’s Xfinity Series race to be moved to Thursday, the field ran numerous pace laps to observe the course. Despite reports on the radio of rain, NASCAR elected to start the race anyway.
Dillon took the early advantage for his first laps led of the year.
After four laps, John Hunter Nemechek, who impressed with a ninth-place run on Sunday, spun in turn four while racing Matt Kenseth and hit the outside wall. The race resumed on lap eight with Dillon leading Preece.
Joey Logano passed Dillon for the lead on lap ten. Two laps later, a damaged Nemechek spun again for the second caution of the day. Another green flag waved on lap 15.
As Logano pulled away, Dillon started to fall, with a fleet of Fords dropping him out of the top five after three laps. He fell out of the top ten entirely by the twenty-lap mark.
The competition caution came out on lap 25 with Fords occupying the top five (the Chevrolet of Alex Bowman was sixth). Unlike Sunday’s special competition yellow procedure, this pause was treated as a general caution.
Bowyer won the race off pit road ahead of Stewart-Haas Racing ally Aric Almirola, with the Team Penske duo of Blaney and Logano in tow. Brennan Poole and Timmy Hill were penalised for speeding. Almirola was initially given an uncontrolled tyre penalty before it was rescinded as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s car had inadvertently knocked the tyre away of Almirola’s tyre carrier.
Bubba Wallace stayed out to inherit the lead on lap 30, but Bowyer quickly took the position. He stormed off with little opposition en route to the stage win.
Martin Truex Jr., Blaney, Bowman, Logano, Almirola, Elliott, Hamlin, Kenseth, and Preece received stage points with their top-ten finishes.
Between stages, Cole Custer and Hill were penalised for uncontrolled tyre and speeding, respectively. After an additional lap under caution to remove a loose piece of tape from the track, Bowyer and Blaney led the field to the start of the second stage.
The green flag waved on lap 69 as the leaders ran side-by-side before Bowyer pulled ahead in turn four. Bowman, who restarted third, quickly moved up to second. A lap later, Preece retired with a blown engine.
On lap 72, Chris Buescher spun after being clipped by Michael McDowell, slightly grazing the turn two outside wall. The top fourteen elected not to pit, while Elliott was the highest-placed pitter for the lap 77 restart.
Bowyer held his lead on the green flag, while Truex took second from Bowman. On lap 83, the yellow came out for Stenhouse, which the leaders used to pit.
Harvick and Truex paced the field to the restart on lap 87, with the latter winning out. Five laps in, Blaney hit the turn four wall, damaging the right side of his car and forcing him to pit. Harvick took the lead on lap 100 with SHR team-mate Bowyer behind.
On lap 108, Custer hit the wall in turn two to produce a yellow. After stops, Bowyer was the first off pit road to stay in first. A strong stop by Busch’s crew propelled him into the top ten as the green waved on lap 113.
Bowyer took the second stage victory ahead of Elliott, Truex, Jones, Harvick, William Byron, Hamlin, Logano, and Matt DiBenedetto. It was the first time in 2020 that a driver won the first two stages in a Cup race.
From the first stall on pit road, Harvick edged out Bowyer to be the first out. Ryan Newman chose to stay out alongside Roush Fenway Racing partner Buescher to occupy the front row. The green flag waved on lap 132.
Three-wide racing was the flavour of the restart as Buescher was quickly squeezed out by Harvick and Jones for second. The latter, the reigning Southern 500 winner, completed the same maneuver on Newman to take the lead. Behind Jones, his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mates found life as all three entered the top ten.
As the race dropped below 70 laps to go, Elliott hunted down Jones. Jones, who brushed the wall at one point, lost the lead to Elliott on lap 163. Hamlin attempted to chase Elliott while Jones lost third to Bowyer.
With the fuel window being approximately 70 laps, various drivers began making green-flag pit stops in that range. On lap 174, Busch pitted with his JGR team-mates following. Elliott followed suit a lap later, which cycled the lead to Brad Keselowski. Keselowski has traditionally preferred to stay out later than other drivers before pitting in the event of a potential caution; said possibility became a reality when Kenseth spun after blowing a right-tear tyre on lap 179.
The caution resulted in only four cars on the lead lap: Keselowski, Poole, Elliott, and Hamlin. Poole and Keselowski had last pitted on lap 128; the duo finally hit pit road during the yellow. Many of the cars placed a lap down by the caution returned to the lead lap via wave around.
Elliott and Keselowski led the grid to the restart with 42 laps to go, while Poole restarted fourth. The latter, a rookie racing for the underpowered Premium Motorsports, quickly fell back as Elliott pounced to hold the lead. Poole also made contact with Blaney and Busch, though no significant damage was dealt to either car.
On newer tyres, Keselowski held off Hamlin for second and closed in on Elliott. On lap 190, Keselowski narrowed the margin and began their fight for the lead; Keselowski briefly took the spot before losing it back to Elliott.
Bowyer’s right-rear tyre went down in turn three, causing him to spin on lap 194. In the pits, Harvick beat Busch out, while Hamlin and DiBenedetto did not stop. Poole initially stayed out before pitting, which eventually led to a penalty for passing through too many boxes. By this point, numerous teams ran out of fresh tyres, resulting in teams switching to older tyres.
Hamlin and DiBenedetto comprised the front row for the restart on lap 199. After a lap, Busch swerved right and turned Elliott on the frontstretch, sending the latter into the inside wall. A livid Elliott gave him the middle finger after exiting his car, though he was not fined by NASCAR.
“That’s definitely better than throwing your helmet,” former driver Rick Mast remarked about the gesture.
Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson visited Busch after the race; the two had worked together during the latter’s tenure at Hendrick Motorsports.
“I made a mistake and just misjudged the gap,” Busch said in a post-race interview with Fox. “[…] I hate it for him and his guys. I got too many friends on that team to do anything bad.”
“I want to apologize again to Chase & his team,” Busch tweeted after the race. “I made a mistake & misjudged the gap. I really hate that it happened for those guys. I have too much respect for Chase and Alan to do that maliciously.”
The rain began falling shortly after, leading to a red flag with 20 laps to go. To further add to the race’s oddities, a fox showed up on the track shortly after the cars parked on pit road.
NASCAR eventually called the race, enabling Hamlin to win the first Wednesday Cup race since 1984. It is his second victory of 2020 and thirty-ninth of his career.
“I got my happy face on,” Hamlin quipped, referring to his unsettling face mask with his mouth printed. “Why wouldn’t you want this mug on the trophy again?”