Who… should you be talking about after the race?
In the nearly two years since he last won, Ryan Blaney admits he had some creeping doubts about finding victory lane again. He erased them on Monday (May 29) afternoon, leading 163 of 400 laps in the rain-delayed Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The longer the shadows got, the better Blaney’s No. 12 got. Blaney and William Byron fought for the lead on a handful of restarts, but Blaney got the upper hand on the last one, pulling away to win by .663 seconds.
Blaney was emotional after his victory, admitting that he had questioned his ability to win on occasion.
The race showed shades of the 600 milers of old when survival was a major piece of the puzzle. Equipment failures weren’t a factor but crashes and spins certainly were. Some drivers recovered for strong finishes, while others took their lumps in the garage after an early exit. Blaney’s No. 12 team kept up with the racetrack as the weather and daylight changed, and in the end, that along with his strong last restart, were the keys to his victory.
And don’t forget Zane Smith. In just his sixth Cup start, Smith, who runs a part-time schedule with Front Row Motorsports, carried his team to a 10th-place finish. It’s Smith’s first top 10, and he also led the first laps of his Cup career, leading once for three laps. That’s a great race for a young driver with a small team, and his performance should bolster the entire organization’s morale.
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
Following a lap 186 incident, everyone has to be asking whether NASCAR will penalize Chase Elliott for deliberately wrecking Denny Hamlin. Hamlin got loose and slid up into Elliott, causing Elliott to brush the wall. Elliott then immediately wrenched the wheel to the left, hooking Hamlin in the right rear and sending him hard into the wall. Hamlin took a brutal hit but was unhurt.
And he wasn’t wrong; the only purpose of a right-rear hook is to wreck the other driver, and Charlotte is a high-speed track where drivers have lost their lives hitting the wall. Some point to contact from Brad Keselowski, but both still photos of the incident and telemetry from Elliott’s car point to him turning left into Hamlin’s door of his own volition
This a test for NASCAR: the Golden Boy retaliated on the Whipping Boy and that puts the sanctioning body in a corner. Wallace’s suspension looms large, and if they don’t penalize Elliott, what good was making an example out of Wallace? Bottom line: Elliott did a dangerous, deliberate thing…and needs to pay the price.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Polesitter Byron started up front thanks to NASCAR’s metric after rain put the kibosh on qualifying, and he had one of the fastest cars in the field to go along with a stellar performance from his pit crew. Unfortunately for Byron, it wasn’t fast enough to handle Blaney’s No 12, and Byron was left to duke it out for second.
All-Star Race winner Larson didn’t look at all like a contender for the first half of the race, with his team making major adjustments to try and help the No. 5 handle better for its driver. Eventually, the car caught up with the track, and with fewer than 30 laps to go, Larson was in the top five…and the car got loose, snapping around in traffic, collecting Ty Gibbs and Joey Logano along with Aric Almirola and Christopher Bell. Larson wound up seeing his good finish slip away with just a 30th place to show for the day.
Defending race winner Hamlin might not have had the best car in the field, but he was working on a solid run, leading twice for a total of 20 laps when he got loose and got into Elliott on lap 187, Elliott retaliated, and Hamlin’s day was over. He officially finished 35th.
All-time Charlotte wins leader Jimmie Johnson has eight wins at CMS, five more than leading active drivers Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. However, Johnson had not competed at CMS since 2020. In his last Coca-Cola 600, Johnson finished second, only to be disqualified postrace, and in two previous Cup Series races in 2023, Johnson had yet to finish. Johnson started 37th after the qualifying rainout, and his struggles continued as a spin led to mechanical woes, and while Johnson cleared the damaged vehicle policy, he was forced to undergo lengthy repairs in the garage. Adding insult to injury, both of Johnson’s teammates, in cars he owns, Erik Jones and Noah Gragson, had radiator issues after hitting debris on the track and went multiple laps down making repairs…only for Gragson to get into Johnson, ending his day once and for all in 37th.
When… was the moment of truth?
For the second year in a row, NASCAR’s longest race was quite a show. It featured 31 lead changes among 13 drivers, and while it’s true that some came during pit cycles, it was still a good show. Drivers came and went as the track changed, and because of the 3 p.m. ET start time, it underwent a longer transition than it does with the 6 p.m. ET green flag, where once it gets dark, handling tends to level off.
Perhaps it’s time to take a good look at that start time; a 4:00 or 5:00 pm start would feature the same major track changes and have the added bonus of everyone in attendance seeing their beds before the wee hours of the next morning. The race would still extend into prime time for the television network, and would likely be a better race to boot.
Plus, it’s time to give the Next Gen car its due. While it needs drastic changes on tracks of a mile and under, it’s made the racing on the intermediates the best it’s been in years. Is every race an instant classic? No, and that’s fine. That has never been the case because races are won in many different ways, some more exciting than others. But this car has been good for the larger tracks. If NASCAR can come up with a short-track package to match, they’ll really have something.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
Charlotte kicked off the second half of the regular season, and for drivers who have not won a race and punched their playoff tickets, that means it’s crunch time (though hopefully maybe not as literally as this week’s race was).
Drivers who won in 2022 who have yet to find victory lane this year include Austin Cindric, Alex Bowman, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain, Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Harvick, Austin Dillon, Jones, Chris Buescher and Wallace. While it’s getting more and more unlikely that we’ll see as many winners as a year ago, there are plenty of contenders looking to make the playoffs on points and look for some battles to crop up this summer as the playoffs get closer.
The Cup Series heads west to World Wide Technology Raceway for just the second time, a flat 1.25-mile track that’s not much like any other track they visit. Last year, Logano took the win. A few other Cup drivers have wins there in NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series or NASCAR Xfinity Series races: Keselowski, Wallace, Chastain, Harvick, Bell and Justin Haley have all found victory lane. Whether or not that will translate into Cup success there remains to be seen.
How… is Ty Gibbs’ rookie season looking?
In today’s NASCAR, it’s easy to put unrealistic expectations on young drivers. When drivers like Tony Stewart, Johnson or Hamlin put up monster numbers in their rookie seasons, it’s easy to put those expectations on other young drivers as well, especially when they won left and right coming through the ranks as Gibbs did.
Truthfully, Gibbs is having a very good season. He’s learning to race with the best and along the way, he’s learning a little humility, a lesson which is just as important as learning the lines and grooves that work at different tracks in a Cup car.
He had a very respectable day on Monday, scoring stage points and running near the top 10 for much of the day before he was collected by Larson’s spin.
Gibbs is 19th in points after Charlotte, maybe not quite ready to be a playoff threat, but not too far away. He has four top-10 finishes to go along with some races that have been learning experiences for the youngster, who’s never been in nearly as deep a competition pool before. His 19th-place average finish is only one spot lower than Larson’s for the season. Gibbs is doing exactly what he should.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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