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The Midfielder – Austin Dillon Chooses the Cone

Austin Dillon leads teammate Tyler Reddick during the Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway on Wednesday night, May 20, 2020. (Richard Childress Racing/Twitter: @RCRracing)

DARLINGTON, South Carolina (May 21, 2020) – NASCAR continued its journey back to competition on Wednesday, providing a primetime showing of the NASCAR Cup Series at Darlington Raceway with the Toyota 500. 

With the field set partially by an invert, and partially by the previous race’s results, the starting lineup was a mix and jumble as the series began it’s sixth event of the year. In the end, Austin Dillon stuck himself smack in the middle of the fray, but getting there, 7-Time Champion Jimmie Johnson lingered for much of the day. Afterward, instead of lamenting the result, Dillon offered up a twist that would bring a short track feel to the big stage.

One of the perks for winning the race on Sunday for Kevin Harvick was the honor of being inverted to the middle of the pack as the top 20 were flipped for the Wednesday affair. Starting 20th didn’t really hinder Harvick, who found himself in the thick of the race for the win quickly, and was in contention late when mother nature decided that third would have to do for the veteran driver.

Crew members push the #48 Ally Chevrolet, driven by Jimmie Johnson through the garage area prior to the during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway on May 20, 2020 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“We had to start 20th, battled kind of an ill‑balanced car tonight,” Harvick said after the race. “The track conditions were just a lot different.  We made some adjustments going into the race.  Just couldn’t get the front of the car to turn. Every time we tried to adjust the back, it would just take the back out.  We never could get the front of the car to turn.  Had to use a lot more throttle tonight.  The things I could do with the car Sunday (when he won), I couldn’t do tonight. They kept clawing and fighting.  In the end we had a great pit stop on the last pit stop, were in position to have a chance to win the race there, and it rained.”

For much of the race, the 20th spot had a championship flare, as Jimmie Johnson stalled in the midfield early after charging up from a 37th starting spot. As the race progressed, Johnson found what he needed to move forward… longer runs. After finding his stride, Johnson worked his way up inside the top 15 in the late stages of the race, and at the time of the final, race ending caution, emerged inside the top 10, finishing in eighth place.

“It was a solid night for the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet,” said Johnson. “We had to start in the back because of the crash during the first race. Things were looking pretty good early, we were able to march up through there. But the competition caution, and just so many cautions honestly, affected our strategy and affected us being able to take advantage of our strong race car and move forward. Finally, in the middle of the race, we got some longer runs in and were able to move forward. We were in a nice position and then we were caught a lap down when the caution came out when (Matt Kenseth) spun from his flat tire. So, we had to start all over again. On that last restart, I think I was 14th and, fortunately, I was in the outside line, which was the place to be, and we worked our way up to 8th before the caution happened and the rain came.”

When the rains returned… remember this week in Darlington has been plagued with wet weather… Austin Dillon found himself in 20th, this week’s Midfielder.

Dillon started 10th, but fought an ill-handling car all race long. He stayed out of trouble, and by all accounts, ran a clean and quiet race as he and his team worked through the plethora of handling issues. In the end Dillon finished where he ran the majority of the race, in 20th after having an average running position of 18th. He got up as high as 8th, and a low as 31st at one point. All and all a rather quiet night for the Richard Childress Racing driver.

“We started off the race with a tight-handling Dow Keep America Beautiful Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and that proved to be our challenge all race long,” he said. “Handling issues plagued us in Stages 1, 2 and 3. I thought for sure that we were going to be able to get our Chevy freed up, but we never could. It wasn’t for lack of effort. The team never gave up and made adjustments all race long. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.The weather was much different than it was last Sunday. Cooler weather, rain and temperatures dropping didn’t play into our hands. We wanted a little more heat in the track. Even though it turned into a long race and we didn’t get the finish we were hoping for, I know we have it in us.”

Post race, Dillon made a little more noise when he proposed a way to entice new ways to find track position by resurrecting an idea that comes from the short track ranks; the choose cone.

On Twitter, Dillon suggested:

“It’s time for a choose cone. @TooToughToTame is the perfect place to try it. The bottom is at a disadvantage this will create drama and allow us to decide our fate. Paint something on the track before the start finish line. One to go we choose our destiny.”

The basic premise is that a cone is placed in the middle of the straightaway at the start finish line. Prior to the restart, cars pass the cone, choosing either high, or low. This could bring a driver in 20th place all the up to front, perhaps giving that driver the boost they need to become a contender.

In an era when “the dreaded aero push” has seen the evolution of multiple aerodynamic packages, none appease everyone… this is a throwback to many driver’s short track roots.

Is this another gimmick coming from a driver that is frustrated with a mid-pack finish, or is this another twist in the format that could spice up the drama and increase the level of competitive chaos in the waning laps of a race?

It’s a conversation starter, to say the least.

Denny Hamlin’s smiling face on his mask after winning the Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway on May 20, 2020. (Daniel Vining/PixelatedSPEED.com)

Up front, Denny Hamlin stayed out after a late caution for a controversial incident between Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch that saw Elliott being spun by Busch, who after the race said it was a mistake. After emerging from his wrecked car, Elliott gave Busch the famous “one finger salute”. Busch would finish in second place.

During the ensuing yellow flag, the rain once again began to fall, bringing the race to a premature end with 20 laps remaining. Hamlin climbed out of his car, victorious, and wearing a face mask that had a huge print of his smiling face emblazoned on it. This was Hamlin’s 39th win.

– Daniel Vining, Twitter: @danielvining

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PixelatedSPEED

PixelatedSPEED

PixelatedSPEED is a motorsports news and views website covering all things racing and has been “Bringing Pixels 2 Pavement Since 2018”.