NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Wins Rain-Shortened Toyota 500

NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Wins Rain-Shortened Toyota 500

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Denny Hamlin's decision to stay out under caution put him in position to pull away on the final restart Wednesday night at Darlington Raceway to score his second win of the season. Hamlin's car stuck on the restart and he pulled ahead in the lead as battles flared behind him. Ultimately, contact between his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott brought out the final yellow flag of the night as rain began to fall hard enough to end the proceedings. That stoppage allowed Hamlin to pull even with Joey Logano, who together are the only drivers to win multiple times so far this year.

Unlike Sunday's race, Wednesday did not see a single dominant driver. The lead was traded amongst a handful of quick competitors throughout the night. Clint Bowyer led the most laps with 71, but late contact with the wall meant he wasn't in contention for the win at the end. A big difference in competition compared to Sunday was the greater presence of the Gibbs Toyotas. The team finished first and second with Hamlin and Busch while Erik Jones also scored a top-five. Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, the two main contenders in Sunday's race, rounded out the top five.

This week, the competitors face two races in one week at the same circuit. First up is Sunday's traditional Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600, which will be followed on Wednesday by a 310-mile race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval. Toyota-powered drivers

Denny Hamlin's decision to stay out under caution put him in position to pull away on the final restart Wednesday night at Darlington Raceway to score his second win of the season. Hamlin's car stuck on the restart and he pulled ahead in the lead as battles flared behind him. Ultimately, contact between his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott brought out the final yellow flag of the night as rain began to fall hard enough to end the proceedings. That stoppage allowed Hamlin to pull even with Joey Logano, who together are the only drivers to win multiple times so far this year.

Unlike Sunday's race, Wednesday did not see a single dominant driver. The lead was traded amongst a handful of quick competitors throughout the night. Clint Bowyer led the most laps with 71, but late contact with the wall meant he wasn't in contention for the win at the end. A big difference in competition compared to Sunday was the greater presence of the Gibbs Toyotas. The team finished first and second with Hamlin and Busch while Erik Jones also scored a top-five. Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, the two main contenders in Sunday's race, rounded out the top five.

This week, the competitors face two races in one week at the same circuit. First up is Sunday's traditional Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600, which will be followed on Wednesday by a 310-mile race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval. Toyota-powered drivers have won the last three Charlotte oval races. Martin Truex Jr. took two of those with Kyle Busch winning in 2018. Those drivers were also contenders Wednesday night in Darlington.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – A late decision to not pit before what would be the final restart of Wednesday night's race put Hamlin in prime position to score his second win of the 2020 season. He coupled that decision with a good restart to consolidate his position in the lead until the final caution to capture the victory. He adds Wednesday night's win to his Daytona 500 win from February to extend his terrific start to the season and build his arsenal for a run through the playoffs and a potential battle for the title in Phoenix. Up next is Charlotte. Hamlin has not yet won a Cup series race there, but he does have 17 top-10 finishes from 27 career starts there.

Clint Bowyer – Bowyer took advantage of a starting position close to the front on Wednesday to get out front to score both stage wins of the race. In total, he led 71 laps from his second-row start. A late issue forced contact with the wall, however. His 22nd-place finish is not representative of what he was capable of Wednesday night. Bowyer does have a Charlotte win from 2012 when he won the fall race, but he hasn't scored a top-10 finish at the track since 2013's 600-mile race. He has the equipment to be a contender nearly every race but continues to struggle with consistency from week to week and within the races themselves. While he was a stage winner Wednesday, he likely makes a risky choice this weekend.

Erik Jones – Jones originally started from the rear on Wednesday due to unapproved adjustments to his car. That may have slowed him down initially, but by the time the final stage commenced, he was back at the front and forcefully grabbed the lead. The defending Southern 500 winner ended up leading a total of 27 laps en route to his fifth-place finish in the rain-shortened race. Fantasy owners know now that Jones should be high on their lists when racing at Darlington. Jones has been decent at Charlotte, too. He scored a seventh-place finish in his first Cup race at the track. He crashed out of last year's Memorial Day weekend race but could be a driver worth considering for lineups this weekend.

Kyle Busch – Busch recovered from a rough first outing at Darlington to snag a runner-up finish behind teammate Hamlin on Wednesday. The top result didn't come without controversy, though. On the final restart, Busch hooked the rear of Elliott and turned the Hendrick Motorsports driver into the inside wall. Following the race, Busch admitted the incident was his mistake and was not done intentionally, but that doesn't mean Elliott has accepted the situation. Despite the controversy, Busch remains one of the top drivers to beat each week. The same will be true this week in Charlotte where he won in 2018 and has scored four top-10s in his last five visits.

Jimmie Johnson – After a mistake ruined Johnson's near-certain stage win and a chance at victory on Sunday, he came back to be the driver with the biggest positive finish differential Wednesday. The veteran started Wednesday in 37th position but charged forward to finish eighth. That was Johnson's third top-10 of the season and could have been another shot at a race win had he not been forced to start so deep in the field. This is Johnson's last season in the series, and it looks like he could go out with a win. If he does, it would be his first victory in the series since 2017. That could happen this weekend at Charlotte where he has eight career wins and has finished in the top 10 in five of the last six races.

DOWNGRADE

John Hunter Nemechek – After a great race Sunday, Nemechek crashed early in Wednesday's run. He was running just outside of the top 10 with the race less than five laps old when he lost control and hit the outside wall. The team made repairs and sent him back out to pick up as many spots as possible before the finish and he was classified in 35th position. Nemechek has one Charlotte start in the Xfinity series where he started 12th and finished 14th. Sunday's 600-mile race will be an entirely new challenge for him. Fantasy owners brave enough to choose him could be rewarded with more top-10 finishes this season, but it may be safer to watch his practice and qualifying efforts before doing so.

Chase Elliott – Elliott had another strong showing building at Darlington Wednesday before late contact with Kyle Busch put him into the inside wall and effectively ended the entire race as rain fell. The pair were racing in the final restart, and Elliott had a strong run to pass Busch on the outside. Once onto the straight, Busch moved up and clipped Elliott's bumper, sending him out of the race. Elliott displayed his displeasure with Busch out of his car as the field rolled by under caution immediately afterward. It was a terrible ending to what could have been an impressive night for him. With two top-five finishes in the last four Charlotte oval races, he could be poised for a quick return to form.

Ryan Preece – Preece had an advantage in starting from pole for Wednesday's repeat at Darlington. He failed to get a jump from the green flag and wasn't able to turn that starting position into laps led, however. Matters only turned worse when he suffered an engine failure and dropped out less than 100 laps into the race. Preece only has one oval start in the Cup series at Charlotte, which came last season. He started that race in 24th and finished 31st after retiring with suspension issues. NASCAR's longest race increases the amount of attrition we normally see, and Preece was a victim of that last season. This year he will try to make it to the finish.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney started Wednesday's race at Darlington with good pace and was racing within the top five in the first stage. Things went south during the second stage, though. About halfway through that stage, he got loose and made heavy enough contact with the wall. He was forced to pit road for repair, leaving him with a wounded machine for the rest of the race. Blaney's luck has not been what he needs so far this season and he needs to start achieving the race results his car is capable of to stay relevant in the championship battle. The next two races at Charlotte could be tough on him, too. He has just one top-10 finish at the track from eight starts and an average finish of just 23.5.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Matt DiBenedetto – Wednesday's return trip to Darlington was another good outing for DiBenedetto. On Sunday the Wood Brothers Racing driver placed 14th and he did even better on Wednesday to score his second top-10 of the season. He sits ninth in the championship standings and looks like he will be a factor in the playoffs as the season progresses. The equipment he has at Wood Brothers could be some of the best he has had in his Cup career, and he is having his best start to a season yet. A true test of what he is able to do with his new surroundings will come this week at Charlotte. His best finish at the track was 23rd in 2017, but fantasy owners have reason to be optimistic this week.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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