Can Chase Elliott make the most of his second chance at Charlotte?
Fresh off the longest race in NASCAR history, the Cup Series returns to Charlotte Motor Speedway Wednesday night for the Alsco Uniforms 500. It'll be the second Cup race in four days at the 1.5-mile oval doubling as the sport's hometown track. (Most race shops are located mere minutes from the speedway).
For Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson, it's also a much-needed second chance. Elliott was leading the Coca-Cola 600 until a late caution for William Byron's spin forced NASCAR Overtime. Gustafson decided to bring Elliott down pit road for fresh tires, hoping the rest of the field would follow behind them.
They didn't. Elliott dropped from first to 10th, an impossible task to get back to the front with only two laps remaining. He did make it up to third, then second when Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson was disqualified after the race. But Brad Keselowski, destined for second before that caution was instead handed a Memorial Day gift to remember. It was Keselowski's first victory in one of NASCAR's crown jewel races while Elliott was left in a state of shock.
"You just make the best decision you can based on the information you have," Elliott said afterwards. "When you are leading the race like that, people behind you are going to do the exact opposite of what you do. That was the situation we were put in.
"Al[an Gustafson] made the decision, we stuck with it, and it didn't work out."
It was a classy response by Elliott, refusing to throw his longtime crew chief under the bus. Even the winner felt the pain for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver dealt a 1-2 punch of bad luck since the sport's return from COVID-19 quarantine.
"I know we've lost it the way Chase lost it and that really stinks," Keselowski said. "And [Sunday night], we finally won it that way and I'm so happy for my team."
Elliott got a small consolation prize Tuesday night with a victory in the Gander & RV Outdoors Truck Series race. He had to beat Kyle Busch to do it, the man who shoved him into the wall in the closing moments of last Wednesday's race at Darlington.
But the wounds for Elliott may not fully heal until he makes a trip to Cup Series Victory Lane. In fact, you could say the same for all of Hendrick Motorsports, three-for-three in shooting themselves in the foot since NASCAR's return from COVID-19.
There was Johnson, armed with the fastest car in Darlington's 400-miler, wrecking out with a lapped car while leading. Elliott was turned by Busch in the Wednesday Darlington spring race just laps after losing the lead on pit road. Then came Gustafson's strategy mistake, costing his young driver the biggest win of his career to date in Sunday's 600.
Can HMS get their act together? And will this track do it with them? Charlotte's first 2020 Cup race was disappointing at its best and a snoozer at its worst. There was no on-track, green-flag pass for the lead in the race's first 200 laps; most of the 20 lead changes came during pit stops. It was easily the worst performance for the sport's intermediate package that had produced an outstanding competition here just a year ago.
We'll soon see if Sunday night's race was just an anomaly. And for Elliott, we'll see if his Cup team can bounce back after one of the most difficult weeks of his NASCAR career.
"We've had some tough losses in my career," he said. "It is what it is."
Alsco Uniforms 500
Time: 8 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, N.C.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Team Penske
It wasn't just Brad Keselowski who excelled at Charlotte in what may be the final Cup race for longtime primary sponsor Miller Lite. Ryan Blaney was a strong third, his best result since the season-opening Daytona 500. And Joey Logano led 26 laps and won a stage before fading to 13th at the finish.
In a weird quirk, each driver scored exactly 44 points. Their trio of drivers are now 2nd, 5th and 7th in the standings with Keselowski and Logano virtually locked into the 2020 playoffs already with their wins.
Who's at the Back: Clint Bowyer
A potential top-10 run for Bowyer was wiped out Sunday when a mechanical problem left him sailing into the turn 2 wall. He wound up 39th. It was his second straight wreck after a promising run at Darlington was derailed (71 laps led, two stage wins) and left him a disappointing 14th in the season standings.
"It knocked the wind out of me there," he said after the incident. "100 laps into a 400-lap race and to be out already, it's a helpless feeling."
Jimmie Johnson found himself disqualified Sunday when his No. 48 car failed post-race inspection. The car failed its rear alignment measurements, costing Johnson over 30 points as he dropped from second to last in the final results.
Crew chief Cliff Daniels claimed something broke on Johnson's Chevrolet. But NASCAR Cup Series Director Jay Fabian said certain allowances are already built in for those scenarios.
"If parts break, you know, the number is the number," Fabian said. "The 48 ran strong all night. I hate it for them."
Denny Hamlin’s crew chief Chris Gabehart has been suspended four races after a ballast issue in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. Hamlin's ballast dropped from the car during the pace laps, sending tungsten all over the racetrack and cutting Joey Gase's tire. The penalties were consistent with Safety Section 22.214.171.124.4.d of the NASCAR rule book. Hamlin's team, which chose not to appeal, has installed Sam McAulay as crew chief in Gabehart's absence.
Chase Elliott took a bow in a subtle jab at Kyle Busch after winning the Truck Race Tuesday night in Charlotte. Elliott also collected a Truck Series bounty of $50,000 apiece from Kevin Harvick and Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis for beating Busch; the amount will be donated to a charity of Elliott's choice. It snapped Busch's win streak of seven straight starts; he last failed to win a Truck race he was entered in at Charlotte over two years ago.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Miles in Sunday's Cup race at Charlotte after the race went into NASCAR Overtime. The extra distance made it the longest event contested in the sport's 71-year history.
Points scored in the Coca-Cola 600 by Martin Truex Jr., the most of any driver despite his sixth-place finish in the race. Truex was second in two stages and fourth in another, bonus points which put him over the top of anyone else.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Certainly, the drivers who did well on Sunday have an edge despite the fact they'll start near the back of the top 20 with the sport's inverted Wednesday lineup. If anything, that will lead to position differential points as Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch race their way back to the front.
If there's someone who should improve the second time around, it's Busch. He failed to lead a lap on Sunday, uncharacteristic for him at this track. But the reigning series champion followed up with a victory in Monday night's Xfinity Series race and a second-place finish in Trucks. The extra track time can only help him after a slower-than-expected start to 2020 for him over at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Don't forget about Kevin Harvick, too, who was a quiet fifth to maintain his top-10 streak. His worst finish during the entire 2020 season has been ninth (Auto Club Speedway).
Jimmie Johnson has to be your primary bet here as he'll be charging from the back of the field (40th place). Even if it just results in a top-10 finish, that's plenty of extra bonus points involved for daily fantasy. The No. 48 team has had the speed to win a race this season but needs to figure out how to minimize mistakes.
Chris Buescher produced one of the quietest top-10 finishes in history Sunday, his best run since the season-opening Daytona 500. It's his second straight top 10 at this track, a good omen for a team (Roush Fenway Racing) that has had its share of success here.
This year's crop of rookies was supposed to be the best in years and, thus far, they have not disappointed. Tyler Reddick was eighth for Richard Childress Racing after running as high as fourth in stage one. Right behind him was Christopher Bell who scored his first top-10 finish ever in the Cup Series.
Both drivers should be fast again Wednesday night. Even Cole Custer, 12th in the 600, could be a dark horse for a top-10 or even top-five result.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. leads the vegasinsider.com chart with 5/1 odds heading into Wednesday's race. Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott are tied right behind him at 6/1.
Austin Dillon, a past Charlotte winner, is a relatively decent longshot at 80/1.
What I Think
Chase Elliott redeemed himself with a truck win Tuesday night. But I think Kyle Busch is raring and ready to snag a win after an underwhelming start to 2020. I think the No. 18 finds its way to Victory Lane Wednesday night.