Attrition-Filled Talladega Race Goes to Denny Hamlin
Sunday was a day for the history books at Talladega Superspeedway. A race that saw the track’s record number of cautions and also a record race-distance ended in controversy. At the end of a third overtime, Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Fedex Toyota took the checkered flag. Hamlin utilized a conservative strategy for much of the day, hanging out behind the main pack to avoid carnage. As a result, the Joe Gibbs Racing team now has seven victories in 2020.
Rookies Run into Trouble Early
One lap was not even complete before a few drivers found themselves with damage. Going into turn three, Christopher Bell lost a tire. In the ensuing slide, the 95 would clip fellow rookie Tyler Reddick. Reddick would be able to continue, while Bell was not so lucky. the 95 would retire for the day after this very-early incident. Amazingly, Reddick would recover to finish inside the top 10.
Slow Start to Race
Two more brief cautions would come out before the lap 25 competition caution. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. would be sent to the inside wall at the start/finish line by John Hunter Nemechek, and Corey Lajoie would also stall in turn one. With so many cautions in succession, polesitter Denny Hamlin led the opening laps. The 11 led all but two laps prior to the competition yellow.
The race off pit road under the competition caution would go to the 10 of Aric Almirola. The former Talladega winner was in desperate need of a strong day, after a dismal Las Vegas result. Almirola would restart as the leader just past halfway in Stage 1 and remained up front fighting for position. Almirola tried to fend off the Penske cars, as him and Ryan Blaney went back and forth leading. Further back meanwhile, both Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin bailed out of the pack, sensing that danger was brewing. Neither driver would finish Stage 1 in the top 20.
Crash Ends Stage 1
The Penske quartet of drivers persisted, as Joey Logano was the most aggressive pusher, trying to move forward. Almirola would not lay over though, as the 10 was out for max points by winning Stage 1. Jostling at the head of the pack intensified, and it eventually reached its boiling point. With just three laps left in Stage 1, Alex Bowman ran behind Almirola going down the backstretch. The 88 tried pulling out of line and the 10 blocked him too late, sending Almirola around.
The leaders wreck with only two laps remaining in Stage 1! pic.twitter.com/TtzOjz1Dng
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) October 4, 2020
Also involved in this crash would be contenders Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, and Kyle Busch. Even though the 18 of Busch briefly went airborne, all three of these drivers were able to continue on. Bowman would also race on, albeit with heavy damage to the No. 88. Almirola was not as fortunate though, as his wreck from the lead was his last moment on-track. After just 57 laps, the 10 would be scored 37th. This leaves Almirola at the bottom of the Playoff standings, facing a must-win next week at the Charlotte Roval.
Lost in all of the craziness was the end of Stage 1. By virtue of dodging the carnage, Chris Buescher picked up the Stage win. Six Playoff drivers populated the top 10 for Stage 1, including Logano, Dillon, Elliott, and Keselowski in the top five.
Stage 2 Starts Off with Issues for Contender
Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski would restart as the front row for Stage 2. Much like earlier, an almost-immediate caution came out for debris from Kyle Busch. Keselowski would be shuffled out of line, leaving the lead to be decided amongst Erik Jones, Chris Buescher, and Matt DiBenedetto.
Lap 84 would see the Chevrolet contingent of drivers make green flag pit stops, while a caution came out on lap 88. Ryan Blaney pounded the outside wall after losing a right front tire, triggering this seventh caution. The big winners here would be the Chevrolets, who would restart as the leaders. Another big winner would be Kyle Busch, who got saved from going a lap down by this yellow.
Airborne Incident Leaves Many Stunned
As the race went back under green, Elliott took off as the leader. Several Chevrolets were up front battling for the lead, as Jimmie Johnson led the outside lane. The 48 did lead one lap before chaos ensued again.
Coming through the tri-oval, Johnson got a huge bump from Clint Bowyer. The 14’s push sent the 48 sideways, right into Kurt Busch. The 1 and 48 both turned back across the track and oncoming traffic. Contact from Cole Custer sent the 1 skyward for a few seconds. All were frozen in awe as Busch came down on his tires after pirouetting over the 41. Thankfully, Busch escaped with no major injuries. However, the race was over for himself, Bowyer, Custer, Daniel Suarez and Brendan Gaughan. For Gaughan, Talladega marked his final NASCAR start, and the 62 would finish a disappointing 35th.
A massive pileup on the frontstretch puts us under the red flag. pic.twitter.com/DYMvqiGu09
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) October 4, 2020
This massive accident led to a red flag lasting just over ten minutes. The race would resume with just eight laps to go in Stage 2, as Logano wrestled the lead from Elliott. Logano would incur a rough driving penalty though and be assessed a black flag. The 22 cut across multiple lanes and shoved the 21 of DiBenedetto out of line. NASCAR deemed Logano ineligible for Stage 2 points and ruled that the 22 would restart the final Stage from the rear.
After this call, Logano fell back and the lead was in the hands of Martin Truex, Jr. The man known for winning Stages picked up only his fifth of the year. Just behind MTJ at the line would be Brad Keselowski. Elliott in fourth would be the only other contender earning Stage points.
Final Stage Sees New Faces Up Front
The race would resume with just over 60 laps to go, far outside of anyone’s fuel window. However, many would save fuel here in an attempt for less time on pit road. Both Elliott and Truex bailed from the main pack, falling back to survive and save fuel. Up front meanwhile, the pack was three-wide for the lead with Keselowski, Buescher, and Bubba Wallace in the fray. Logano would work his way back to the point though with 50 laps left, and the field went single-file against the outside wall. This fuel-saving run would be cut short by a debris caution from Johnson.
With 39 laps left, Logano led everyone in for fuel. The 22 would restart as the leader. With one to go until the green though, Elliott, Hamlin, and a few others came in to top off on fuel, hedging their bets in case of Overtime. The green flag fell with 36 laps remaining, and Logano took off. The 22 held serve leading the outside lane, but the inside lane quickly formed up behind Elliott. Inside of 30 laps to go, it was a constant back-and-forth between the 22 and the 9. Bubba Wallace would also be in the mix here, as he tried to take the lead away.
With 10 laps left, the Penske duo of Logano and Keselowski were broken up, allowing the 43 of Wallace to storm to the lead. As Logano came back around Wallace, the 43 tried and failed at blocking him. This put the 43 out of line, and when trying to fall back in he was forced into the outside wall. With just five laps left in regulation, a Talladega record for cautions was tied at 11. Wallace would also set a career-record for laps led in one race, at 10 circuits pacing the field.
First Overtime Attempt
This late yellow set up an Overtime finish, with Logano leading DiBenedetto, Keselowski and Harvick. The 22 got the jump, but the 9 of Elliott charged forward, taking the lead away coming to the white flag. Mere feet before the 9 took the white though, another caution came out for a huge crash. The 18 of Busch was turned down across the 22, taking out both Harvick and Truex. Logano initially made it through the mess. However, he was busted for another blocking penalty.
Another Call on Logano, Elliott Running Dry
NASCAR ruled that Logano forced Elliott below the yellow line, sending him to the rear of the field for the restart. Meanwhile, leader Chase Elliott reported low fuel pressure under caution, and flipped his auxiliary fuel switch. The 9 was running on fumes, trying to get another Talladega win. Elliott did get the jump on the restart, but this run would not last a lap. In turn four, contact sent Wallace into the outside wall. This would set up an unprecedented third Overtime finish.
Hail Mary Call by 21
Under this caution, a few came to pit road to top off their fuel. However DiBenedetto, who had not come in since lap 151, opted to stay on track with the lead. The 21 was very uncertain on fuel, but hoped for a will power win.
Final Run to the Checkers
DiBenedetto got the break on the restart, and Chris Buescher began to tandem draft with the 21. These two Fords began to inch away, but at the white flag the 20 of Erik Jones was up to second. One car spun midway down the backstretch, but no yellow came out. Up front, it was DiBendetto, Jones, Buescher, William Byron and behind them Denny Hamlin. While the top four were aggressively blocking each other, Hamlin swooped by on the inside and passed everyone on the apron. In the drag race back to the line, the 11 led by a mere 0.023 seconds.
— #NASCARPlayoffs on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 4, 2020
Post-Race Rulings, Penalties
NASCAR immediately ruled that Denny Hamlin was in fact the winner, despite him making the winning pass below the yellow line. They did however penalize second-place Matt DiBendetto and fifth-place Chase Elliott for each forcing a car below the line. This penalty sent the 21 and 9 back to 21st and 22nd.
After a formal protest by Hendrick Motorsports though, NASCAR said that Buescher forced Elliott out of bounds. Elliott was rewarded fifth-place once again, while the 17 was relegated back to 22nd. However Hamlin’s win would stand, as the 11 did pass technical inspection.
Top 10 Results From Talladega
After the post-race rulings, second place after Hamlin went to his teammate Erik Jones. Jones, a lame duck at Joe Gibbs Racing, is still looking for a ride for 2021. Hopefully this strong finish from Talladega will help him in the silly season search.
The remainder of the top five were non-Playoff drivers Ty Dillon, William Byron, and then contender Chase Elliott. Dillon scores his best career finish in what is also a silly season hunt for him, as Germain Racing will cease to exist past November. Byron earns his fourth top five in the last seven races as well. Chase Elliott makes up the last Playoff driver to earn a top 10, as the 9 recovered from pitting late.
The rest of the top 10 were non-contenders Ryan Newman, Tyler Reddick, John Hunter Nemechek, Brennan Poole, and Ryan Preece. Newman earns his best finish since the Daytona 500. Reddick came back from the lap one contact to finish seventh. Nemechek also ties his career-best finish in eighth. Poole lastly earned the second-ever top 10 for Rick Ware Racing, and his best ever finish.
Other Notable Results
Finishing in 13th, rookie Quin Houff earned his best-ever result as well. This also marks the best finish in the brief history of StarCom Racing’s 00 team.
Coming up one spot shy of his best-career result was Timmy Hill in 15th. Hill’s best finish was 14th at the 2017 Brickyard 400, as Talladega marks the second top-15 for MBM Motorsports. Hill was running in the top 10 late but got shuffled back.
Lastly earning a career high in 17th was Joey Gase. Gase’s previous best result was 18th in the fall Talladega race in 2018.
Hamlin’s Winning Reaction
Talladega marks Hamlin’s 44th career win, tying childhood hero Bill Elliott for 18th-most all time wins. This is also Hamlin’s seventh win of 2020, one shy of his single-season record.
“The 11 car, I’ve been No. 11 my whole life,” Hamlin explained. “A lot of it is when I got into go-kart racing when I was a kid, Bill Elliott was running the Junior Johnson No. 11. I’ve always been No. 11, purple and white 11. Crazy it all worked out that way. Tying a guy that I considered the best, a guy I idolized, it’s very surreal for me.”
Focus Unchanged for Next Week
“These wins are great. Obviously this is icing on the cake for us. But we try to win each and every week. Obviously getting to Phoenix, that’s kind of what dictates a good year, a successful year versus a non-successful year for us. It’s not necessarily winning the championship, because anything can happen in one race. If you get there, that means you had a really good season.
Obviously we have had a really good season so far. To me, my focus won’t shift to the Round of 8. I’m still going to put in the same amount of work this week getting ready for the Roval as I would if I wasn’t locked in. But certainly the stress level will be less. Certainly we can be a little bit more aggressive with our strategy calls starting at the beginning of the race.”
How to Watch the Next Race
Next week, four more drivers will be eliminated from the Playoffs. The Round of 12 finale will be the third-annual Bank of America Roval 400 from Charlotte Motor Speedway. As if Talladega wasn’t crazy enough, the Roval could be an even bigger wildcard race. Coverage will be Sunday, October 11 at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90. Four drivers will likely need to win to advance on, will desperation end with a surprise winner?
Written by Peter Stratta
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