One can always count on Talladega Superspeedway to bring drama and chaos, even moreso when it’s hosting a NASCAR Cup Series playoff race. Sunday’s YellaWood 500 produced wrecks galore, including two red flags and multiple overtimes, but in the end, Denny Hamlin was able to survive the turmoil in a dramatic but also controversial win.
Hamlin started on the pole ahead of last week’s winner Kurt Busch, while Brendan Gaughan, running his final NASCAR race, started last. Brennan Poole and Timmy Hill failed inspection multiple times and were sent to the rear, as was Cody Ware for replacing J.J. Yeley; it was the reigning Asian Le Mans Series LMP2 Am champion’s first NASCAR start of 2020.
Entering the race, Kyle Busch (nine points back), Clint Bowyer (–20), Aric Almirola (–27), and Austin Dillon (–32) were below the cut-off line.
It only took three corners before the chaos began when Christopher Bell went around in turn three and clipped fellow rookie Tyler Reddick, ending the former’s day. Eight laps later, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun while being pushed by John Hunter Nemechek through the tri-oval and pancaked the inside wall for another caution. Corey LaJoie‘s car lost power coming to the restart on lap 13.
When the race resumed on lap 16, Hamlin led until Joey Logano entered the picture. The two battled it out before Hamlin cleared him on lap 20, with the outside line proving superior. Hamlin stayed ahead of Logano until the competition yellow on lap 25.
Almirola was the first off pit road, while Hamlin lost four spots and Chase Elliott was slapped with a speeding penalty. LaJoie returned to the race during the caution.
A quartet of Fords occupied much of the first three rows for the lap 30 restart as Almirola and Logano held the top two, followed by Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto, and Ryan Blaney with Hamlin. Almirola and DiBenedetto pulled ahead on the inside, while Hamlin and Kevin Harvick dropped onto the apron and to the back of the pack to avoid the scramble at the front.
After the Fords traded the lead, they assembled on the inside line as a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota contingent led by Erik Jones appeared on the outside. Strategy and manufacturer teamwork became the key of the game as the JGR trio of Jones, Martin Truex Jr., and Busch took the podium positions by lap 40. Toyota driver Daniel Suárez led the outside with a duo of Blue Ovals in Team Penske‘s Brad Keselowski and Logano tailing before the third Penske driver Blaney moved up from the inside.
As the Fords once again moved ahead, Suárez joined his Toyota peers on the inside. A Ford top four of Blaney, Keselowski, Logano, and Roush Fenway Racing‘s Chris Buescher cut off the Toyota line, and Suárez eventually went back outside with Bubba Wallace. The two worked together to reach the front before falling back, with Elliott making a move that broke up the outside and middle lanes.
Elliott eventually worked his way to the front on the outside with fellow Chevrolet behind him, though the latter fell back as another group of Chevys in Kurt Busch, Ryan Preece, and Ty Dillon joined the picture. Almirola, Keselowski, and Buescher broke up the Bowtie party with six laps remaining as Busch sank like a rock in the middle.
Alex Bowman joined the fight with three laps left, but as he ran second behind Almirola exiting turn two, he received too strong of a push from Logano that sent him into Almirola’s rear and turned him. As Almirola caught air, Kyle Busch got sideways and went airbourne himself as he impacted Blaney.
In addition to the playoff implications that left him needing to win next week at the Charlotte Roval to advance, the wreck snapped an eight-race top-ten streak at Talladega for Almirola dating back to the 2016 fall race.
As a result of the carnage, Buescher slipped by for his first career stage win. Logano, Austin Dillon, Keselowski, Elliott, Jones, Truex, Reddick, Kurt Busch, and Wallace also received stage points. Bowyer (nineteenth), Hamlin (twenty-second), Harvick (twenty-third), Bowman (thirtieth), Kyle Busch (thirty-first), and Almirola (thirty-fifth) were the six playoff drivers to finish outside the top ten.
“Hamlin and Harvick made a smart decision in Stage 1 by falling to the back,” The Athletic‘s Jeff Gluck tweeted. “That said, they could afford to do so. They didn’t need stage points. You could argue other playoff drivers would be better off avoiding trouble and giving up stage points as well, but it’s too tempting.”
Elliott won the race off pit road between stages, while Logano returned for additional repairs.
Busch’s woes continued when he brought out the sixth caution of the day on lap 69. Another restart took place on lap 74 with Buescher in front. By lap 80, only two playoff drivers (Keselowski and Elliott) were in the top ten.
Green-flag stops began on lap 87, but they did not last long as a debris caution came out a lap later. Those who did not pit under green did so under yellow, with Harvick being the first out. Joey Gase received a penalty for having too many crewmen over the wall.
Hendrick Motorsports’ Elliott and William Byron comprised the front row for the lap 93 restart. The two were joined by Chevys in the top five on the inside before the pack caught up.
On lap 109, Jimmie Johnson had an especially strong bump from Bowyer that turned him in the tri-oval. Kurt Busch hit the outside wall and flew over Bowyer and Cole Custer. Gaughan, Keselowski, and Suárez were also involved. For Gaughan, he closed out his NASCAR career of over two decades with a thirty-third-place finish.
“Not the way we wanted to end the day but we’re so proud of @Brendan62 and the Beard Oil/@SouthPointLV team,” tweeted his Beard Motorsports team.
The red flag came out to oversee cleanup, with a welding truck being summoned to facilitate wall repair.
The race resumed on lap 114 with Elliott and Byron leading, though Logano took first after a lap. After Logano forced DiBenedetto below the double-yellow line, he was penalised with a pass-through and Truex claimed the lead.
Keselowski, Buescher, Elliott, Nemechek, Byron, Blaney, Preece, Ty Dillon, and Wallace rounded out the top ten. Logano, who would not have received stage points even with a top ten, dropped back to finish the stage in sixteenth. Other playoff finishers outside the range were Austin Dillon (eighteenth), Bowman (twenty-first), Harvick (twenty-second), Kyle Busch (twenty-fourth), Hamlin (twenty-eighth), Kurt Busch (thirtieth, out), Bowyer (thirty-first, out), and Almirola (thirty-sixth, out).
Truex led the field on and off pit road between stages, while Austin Dillon went to the garage for more repairs.
The final stage began on lap 126 with Truex still in front. Two laps later, Reddick received a push from Bowman to the front before the field partitioned into three lanes. Wallace, running the outside, pulled into first with his Chevrolet peers Bowman and Matt Kenseth right behind.
Keselowski and Logano spent time in front while Johnson briefly went to the garage before returning. On lap 147, debris from Johnson’s car came off and resulted in a caution.
The restart came with 36 laps to go as Logano and Harvick led. The former would battle with Byron and Preece as the event crossed the 155-lap mark.
The three manufacturers split into three lines: Wallace and Elliott represented the Chevrolets on the inside, Logano and Keselowski for Ford in the middle, and Toyota’s Truex and Jones on the outside. Logano committed to the high line and pushed ahead with a massive advantage, but Elliott caught up with 20 laps to go.
On lap 177, Wallace and a pushing Elliott charged to the front. Momentum crept onto the Bowtie’s side when Chevy driver Preece broke up the Penske tandem on the outside, shuffling Keselowski to the middle. Wallace eventually cleared Logano and came up to block.
However, Wallace’s hopes of a victory were dashed when a push from Preece caused him to brush the outside wall. James Davison eventually brought out the caution for a downed right-front tyre.
Davison’s incident led to overtime and a Logano/DiBenedetto front row. Behind were Ford allies Logano and Keselowski.
As they went onto the backstretch, Logano cleared DiBenedetto and moved up to block. Elliott suddenly appeared with a massive run that saw him dip his left-side tyres below the double-yellow line, but Logano was penalised as he had forced him down, his second such infraction of the race. Byron subsequently joined the fight.
Before the leaders could take the white flag, Kyle Busch was turned by Reddick and collected Logano, Harvick, and Truex. The wreck resulted in the second red flag of the day. After switching back to yellow-flag conditions, various drivers came to pit road for two-tyre or a splash of fuel.
Elliott and DiBenedetto held the front row as the second overtime began. A hard-charging Wallace produced another caution when his move on the high line led to him making contact with Preece as he came down, collecting his best friend Blaney; Kenseth and Austin Dillon also spun.
DiBenedetto elected to stay out during the yellow, and he and Hamlin paced the grid to the third overtime. Running the inside with Buescher, DiBenedetto was propelled ahead and led the white flag.
Jones passed Buescher for second and took up the slot as DiBenedetto’s drafting partner through the first two turns, while Buescher committed outside with Byron behind. On the backstretch, Ware spun but the race continued. More wrecks continued as Hamlin and Byron showed up, the former on the inside of Byron and DiBenedetto.
Hamlin went below the double-yellow line as he edged out DiBenedetto for the victory by just .023 seconds. Although going under the line constitutes a penalty, DiBenedetto and Byron were instead penalised for forcing him below, a ruling the sparked controversy among fans and media.
Many drew comparisons to the 2018 Daytona Xfinity race, where Saturday’s NXS winner Justin Haley appeared to have won before being penalised for going below the line. Others looked to Regan Smith losing the 2008 Talladega fall Cup race after winning but being below, resulting in his own penalty.
NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after the race, “I got a great idea for everybody: how about we just get rid of the yellow-line rule? Nobody really wants to see the races come down to these types of decisions, and I don’t think it’s gonna crash more cars than we crashed today.”
For DiBenedetto, it feels like déjà vu. In a repeat of the 2019 Bristol Night Race, he found himself in prime position to win his maiden Cup race before being defeated by Hamlin. Like that race, which happened days after losing his ride at Leavine Family Racing for the following season, DiBenedetto’s future with Wood Brothers Racing is uncertain.
“I just really want to get this thing in Victory Lane,” an emotional DiBenedetto said in his post-race interview with NBCSN. The penalty dropped him from second to twenty-first. “[…] I feel like it’s the same story. A lot of times, it’s just heartbreak.”