Key Moment – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Clint Bowyer pitted when the pits opened after the Big One with 39 laps to go. That decision by Steve Letarte put Earnhardt in position to take a splash of gas to make it to the finish of the race. Earnhardt made that final stop to top off with fuel on lap 132 and that move put him out in front of all of the teams who waited to pit after that caution.
In a Nutshell – Similar to Indianapolis a week ago, pit strategies at Pocono began developing early and often. Drivers at the back of the pack pitted early to get off sequence. Other drivers took two tires on stops to move up on the track due to track position being so valuable. In the end, it was pit strategy that put Earnhardt in position to lead as the laps ticked off. A huge wreck with 45 laps to go took six or seven serious contenders for the win out of contention and set the table for the final pit strategies.
Dramatic Moment – A caution for a flat tire by AJ Allmendinger put Earnhardt on Greg Biffle’s bumper for a restart with 17 laps to go. Earnhardt made the pass for the lead three laps later and was headed to score the win when Kurt Busch blew a tire with six laps to go. The restart with three to go had Kevin Harvick to Earnhardt’s inside and the race to the first corner determined the winner. Earnhardt was able to clear Harvick on the exit of turn one and held on for the final two-and-a-half circuits to claim the win.
What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler
-Cup Series drivers are unquestionably talented. During races they make amazing saves routinely to a point that they don’t usually remember them after the event. Many of those saves are not caught on camera, but Sunday the save at the beginning of the race by Brad Keselowski on the exit of the Tunnel Turn was one that many people will remember.
Keselowski was under Kurt Busch in the corner when the back of the car broke loose. The No. 2 was at least 30 degrees out of shape with smoke rolling off of the right rear tire, but Keselowski saved the car and continued on his way.
Just past halfway Denny Hamlin had his own big moment when his car broke loose off of turn three and did the death wobble three times on the front straight. Hamlin regained control and continued the battle unfazed.
-We’ve seen the video before, but the masses will still lose their minds. Jimmie Johnson hit the wall early in the event after he lost a right rear tire due to previous wall contact. He then lost a right front or had another failure that put him hard into the wall to end his day. The result was his third finish of 39th or worse in the last four races. Last year, the four races before the Chase saw Johnson finish 40th, 36th, 28th and 40th before he went on to win the championship. The defending champ is not firing on all cylinders right now – but there are still five races left before the Chase starts.
-A Big One at Pocono. With just over 40 laps to go Denny Hamlin got loose on a restart near the front of the pack. As he corrected, Brian Vickers turned to miss him and caught Matt Kenseth. As they bounced off of the wall they slid down in front of the pack and cars piled into them until they came to a rest on the apron of the backstretch. While most of the contenders from the day were clear of the incident, it did chop the lead lap car count from 30 to 17.
Speaking of the Big One, it happened on a restart as the laps were winding down. Sadly the sport has devolved to the point where the vast majority of passes that take place during races, on any track longer than a mile, occur within three laps of a restart. Due to that urgency the competitors are taking risks they didn’t take in the recent past and the incidents that happen are getting bigger. The aero dependency of the cars continues to get worse instead of better as the teams massage on the new car and make more downforce. The bottom line remains that these cars have to get off of the ground if the racing is going to get better. If you watched the replays of the Brickyard races from the ’90s last week before Indianapolis, you saw quite a few passes on the track – and it was because the front of the car was four to six inches off of the ground. We need to get back to that point.
-The debris caution at the end of the race flew when Kurt Busch got a flat tire. In the replays you do not see any debris come off of the car. The television cameras never showed the debris on the track. Once again, the sport needs to have transparency on those caution calls and showing the debris on the track will go a long way in explaining why the yellow flew.
-Mark Martin is headed back to Roush Fenway Racing. Martin is going to be the driver development coach for RFR and says he has no desire to get back behind the wheel in competition.
The interesting angle that hasn’t been mentioned about this move yet is that Jack Roush is getting up in years and will probably be out of the sport in the not-too-distant future. Is the a preemptive move to have a succession plan in place for the management of RFR when Roush steps aside?
-Juan Pablo Montoya made a comment at Mid-Ohio that he’d do the double between the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 if Roger Penske was interested – but doesn’t want to force his boss into a decision, of course. Montoya said the physical demands are not that bad, with the race at Charlotte being on a mile-and-a-half track.
-Some poor guy or girl down at the unemployment office drew the short straw and had to dress up as a giant bowling pin for the weekend at Pocono. All of the different mascot outfits available and they had to draw an inflatable bowling pin.
The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune
Kyle Busch has never won at Pocono. He has finished second twice in the Pocono Mountains but has never been able to seal the deal. Early on Sunday his engine lost a cylinder and he was forced to the garage, ending another chance to tick Pocono off of the list of tracks where he has won a Cup race.
Take your pick for the majority of the cars in the big one – Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers, Matt Kenseth and all the rest. Hamlin, Harvick and Biffle made the most of their involvement in the wreck. The rest of the drivers saw their day go up in smoke and sparks.
Kurt Busch had another one of those days that has defined his 2014 season. Busch led the race three times for 30 laps, tied for second most led in the race. However, his handling went away at the end of the event and he had a flat tire with under 10 laps to go that resulted in 13th place finish after starting fourth. If this team can start putting together complete races they’re going to contend for the title and cause a huge uproar by winning it all from somewhere in the twenties as far as point position before the Chase starts.
The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune
Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle were both part of the huge melee that happened on the Long Pond Straight with 45 laps to go in Sunday’s race. As a result, they were at the back of the lead lap and chose to pit when the field was coming to green with 36 laps to go. The additional caution laps for the debris from Kurt Busch’s tire bought them enough mileage to make it to the end of the race. As a result Harvick finished second and Biffle came home fifth. Harvick had a car capable of winning the race but, with the amount of damage he suffered, it was very fine fortune that he wrangled a second-place finish from it.
Denny Hamlin was the car that started the Big One by getting out of shape off of turn two. It was at least the second time during the day that he was all but wrecked in the No. 11. Hamlin’s crew continued to work on his car to the very end. As a result, with a substitute crew chief and car chief, Hamlin came home in ninth place.
Casey Mears, like most everyone in the field, was all over the map in the running order during the event on Sunday. As the race drew toward lap 120 he was in the mid 20s – and that was where most of the carnage took place during the huge wreck. Mears managed to weave his way through the mayhem and came out in 12th place when the smoke had cleared. Mears has scratched and clawed his way to 24th in points. While it would be a miracle for him to make the Chase on points, he’s in the mix in points enough that a win at Watkins Glen would secure his place in the Chase without any worry of falling out of the top 30 in points.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s win was his second career victory at Pocono and second this season.
Earnhardt is the seventh driver to sweep the season races at Pocono in series history.
This is the first time since 2002 that Earnhardt has swept the races at a track during a season. The last track where he accomplished that feat was Talladega.
Earnhardt is tied for 33rd on the all-time win list with Terry Labonte.
Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson are tied for the lead in wins in the series in 2014 with three each.
Kevin Harvick’s runner-up finish is his first career second place at Pocono
This is Harvick’s sixth top-2 finish of the season.
Joey Logano’s third-place finish is his second career top 3 at Pocono Raceway.
Logano’s third-place run is his third podium finish of the 2014 season.
Jeff Gordon led the most laps at Pocono on Sunday. His 63 laps led pushed him over 24,000 laps led for his career and 1,000 career laps led at the raceway in the Pocono Mountains.
Gordon is sixth on the all-time list for laps led. He is 1,282 laps behind David Pearson for the fifth spot on the list.
Kyle Larson was the top finishing rookie at Pocono, coming home in 11th position.
Larson is the first Drive for Diversity driver to win a pole in the Cup Series.
Earnhardt won $193, 265 for his win at Pocono. Kevin Harvick, who came home second, scored $206,058. The Cup series prize money never fails to confound and amaze. Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson finished 38th and 39th and landed over $117,000. Ryan Newman came home in eighth and took home over $103,000. Somebody needs to make sense of this, please.
Hendrick Motorsports has won the last five races at Pocono Raceway
What’s the Points
Points don’t matter as much as wins. The 11 race winners are listed below along with the five drivers who would make the Chase on points at this juncture of the season.
Daytona Pocono and Pocono (2) – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Phoenix and Darlington – Kevin Harvick
Las Vegas, Kentucky and New Hampshire – Brad Keselowski
Bristol and Sonoma – Carl Edwards
California – Kyle Busch
Martinsville – Kurt Busch
Texas and Richmond – Joey Logano
Talladega – Denny Hamlin
Kansas and Indianapolis– Jeff Gordon
Charlotte, Dover and Michigan – Jimmie Johnson
Daytona (2) – Aric Almirola
Drivers making the Chase on points who do not have wins:
4) Matt Kenseth
5) Ryan Newman
9) Clint Bowyer
12) Kyle Larson
13) Greg Biffle
Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson were all locked in the Chase heading into Pocono. Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards joined them this week. They are all more than 241 points ahead of 31st place David Gilliland, so they cannot fall out of the top 30 before Richmond even if they finish last in each race. All four of the drivers have wins which make them Chase eligible. With 11 race winners and only five races left, they will all make the Chase unless the point leader does not have a win and Kyle Busch falls to the lowest point total of all race winners. While it is a possibility it is so improbable that chances are Busch is locked.
Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) – Pocono is always about compromises and strategies. The racing, similar to Indianapolis, was less than stellar but the myriad of pit strategies and the drama at the end of the race added some intrigue. An unexpected Big One was another interesting twist. All in all, it was an average race for Pocono and about average for this season. Therefore we’ll give the race three frosty Very Special Old Pale Ales from Shawnee Craft Brewery.
Next Up – For the second and final time this season the circuit heads to a road course as the teams stick around the Northeast and go to Watkins Glen International Raceway. The last wildcard race before the Chase could punch the ticket of someone who is not eligible by points to run for the title. The action can be caught on ESPN at 1 p.m. Eastern, noon Central, 11 a.m. Mountain, 10 a.m. Pacific, 9 a.m. Alaskan and 7 a.m. Hawaiian. The race can also be heard on MRN and NASCAR Sirius XM Satellite radio.