NASCAR’s first Cup Series race held on a Wednesday night in decades had no shortage of drama as the highly competitive event boiled down to a controversial late race incident and an early stoppage due to the weather.
Denny Hamlin left Darlington Raceway at the end of the Toyota 500 as the winner when rain began to fall and NASCAR officials were forced to call the race with 20 laps still remaining. It was the second victory of the season for the driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota. But the real story of the race actually occurred just behind the eventual race winner and centered around Hamlin’s teammate.
With the laps clicking away and rain closing in, Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch raced side-by-side on the front straightaway of the historic track in arrears of Hamlin’s leading car. As Elliott’s momentum began to pull him ahead of Busch, the No. 18 JGR Toyota suddenly veered right and tagged the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in the left rear quarter panel. The contact resulted in Elliott spinning and ultimately hitting the inside retaining wall. The damage knocked the driver who looked like a contender for the win out of the race.
Once out of his car, Elliott angrily took a few steps toward the track and waiting for the field to circulate back around the track under caution. As Busch drove by, Elliott showed his displeasure by giving Busch the middle finger gesture for a prolonged period of time.
Shortly afterwards, the field was brought down pit road as the rain picked up. Busch’s car stopped directly in front of Elliott’s pit stall where No. 9 crew chief Alan Gustafson sat for several minutes staring down the No. 18 machine. Those two, who were once driver and crew chief when Busch competed for Hendrick Motorsports, had a conversation that appeared to remain civil after the race was called and Busch climbed from his car.
Afterwards, Busch explained that he had intended to fall in behind Elliott but misjudged the maneuver and unintentionally caused the contact. He also pointed out in his post-race television interview that he knew he would almost certainly have to deal with the consequences of the incident later with retaliation from Elliott being a possibility. He even took to Twitter later to further explain and apologize.
I want to apologize again to Chase & his team. I made a mistake & misjudged the gap. I really hate that it happened for those guys. I have too much respect for Chase and Alan to do that maliciously.
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) May 21, 2020
So is retaliation from Elliott a real possibility? History says that it is not as much a possibility as it is a certainty.
In November of 2017, Elliott appeared to be closing in on his first NASCAR Cup Series win as the laps wound down at Martinsville Speedway. While leading the ‘Round of 8’ NASCAR Playoffs event, Hamlin closed in and gave Elliott’s car a tap, sending the HMS Chevrolet into the outside wall and ending his day.
Two weeks later, as Hamlin appeared poised to move into the Championship 4 NASCAR Playoffs finale, the two combatants found themselves battling side-by-side at Phoenix Raceway. With Hamlin on the outside, Elliott allowed his car to move further and further up the racing groove until Hamlin’s machine was pushed into the outside wall.
The contact eventually resulted in flat tire that caused Hamlin to crash. The No. 11 ultimately finished 35th and missed out on a chance to go to Homestead-Miami Speedway with a shot at winning the title.
Subtle but deadly.
It didn’t take long following NASCAR’s return from the coronavirus shutdown for things to get interesting. And if this event was any indication of the future, midweek races could become more of a fixture on the Cup Series schedule in 2021 and beyond.
If history serves as any sort of a guide, and it typically does, Kyle Busch is right to worry about retaliation from Chase Elliott.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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