The return to Pocono Raceway had it all: widespread pitting strategies, tire-care issues, a high-energy finish and even a Big One. It was the ideal ending to a two-week flat track endeavor.
NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series now shifts focus to Watkins Glen International Raceway, where road course specialists will be looking to sneak into the playoff picture with only five races remaining before the cutoff. Is it too little, too late for these drivers, or could someone outside the current Chase grid find their way in? That’s just one of many things touched on in this edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. crew chief Steve Letarte had all the cause to celebrate with more than 26 laps remaining in Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400. Long before Junior stood in Pocono’s Victory Lane for the second time this season, Letarte made the call for four tires, fuel and a chassis adjustment on a lap-94 stop, hence solving the Tricky Triangle. The result: the No. 88 Chevrolet stayed full throttle through a final, Sonoco-only stop and across the line, while alternative strategies left other leaders in fuel conservation mode down the stretch.
Owner Rick Hendrick wasn’t present for his organization’s latest testament of dominance, but he gave Junior an earful of praise over a cell phone before NASCAR’s most popular driver jumped from his car, greeted by cheers and a celebratory shower. Junior then acknowledged the genius of Letarte amidst a familiar flowery backdrop and creepy bowling pin mascot accompanied by a sidekick fox, calling his strategy “perfect”.
Earlier, when Junior cleared Greg Biffle for what proved to be the race-winning pass and proceeded back to the frontstretch to behold a throng of rambunctious fans, it became clear that the one factor that could improve struggling attendance numbers more than anything else is a continuation of high-caliber ‘Junior’ moments like that one. His third winner decal and prolonged summer hot streak leave a feeling that there’s indeed opportunity for more, but patience will be key in the short term.
The series’ next stop, Watkins Glen, has proven quite the challenge for Junior over the years, that meaning his worst active circuit. One top 10 over the last decade, paired with a 26th-place average finish since joining Hendrick Motorsports provides ample reason to expect tough times this weekend, but an ability to accomplish the rare Pocono sweep strengthens belief that maybe anything really is possible.
On a day when Earnhardt Jr. provided the moments to remember, HMS teammate Kasey Kahne chipped in with some Grade-A chatter. Kahne communicated his version of tunnel hearing (the auditory version of tunnel vision) with members of the No. 5 team in relation to his understanding of future adjustments prior to pitting. He admitted to being lost during stops because he’s so focused on driving beforehand while crew chief Kenny Francis announces what the No. 5 crew will be doing.
It’s understandable that the misunderstanding could happen, with the amount of concentration required to slow the car down in a timely manner on approach to pit road and then adhere to the speed limit. It’s also an interesting concept, and exploration could improve Kahne’s production moving forward – even if by just a fraction of a second.
The second bit of radio gold occurred shortly after this realization. With two fresh tires, Kahne was able to move through traffic quickly while other drivers made their scheduled stops, so quickly that Joe Nemechek didn’t see him coming. Nemechek and Kahne got together in a way similar to the Joey Logano-Morgan Shepherd run-in at New Hampshire, leaving Kahne with some choice words and an expletive for the driver of the No. 66 Toyota.
Nemechek would later DNF, but Kahne went on to finish 10th, keeping his comeback tour going. Still 14th in the standings, Kahne closed to within a point of Biffle, the final wildcard placeholder, and received some relief after a pileup of restrictor plate racing proportions took out several vying Chasers.
Kevin Harvick left the racing surface and paraded after Carl Edwards over a series of storm drains, collecting left-front damage along the way, just to avoid something worse in that 13-car wreck. A runner-up finish gives him back-to-back top 10s – the second longest such run of his season – and clinched a spot in the playoffs.
For drivers still without a victory, placing well consistently will be of the utmost importance over the last month-plus of the regular season. Of course, doing so would mean avoiding setbacks like the lap-116 Big One, and several of them couldn’t.
Matt Kenseth’s second DNF since Sonoma doesn’t do much to harm his spot on the Chase grid (although Ryan Newman was able to close the gap for the first wildcard spot to 26 points), but Paul Menard, Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers were left reeling after their involvement.
Of the three, Menard has been hurt the most in the shortest amount of time. It was little more than a month ago, that he was 10th in the standings and inside the cutoff heading into Loudon. He’s fallen six positions since and currently sits as the lowest ranking full-time Richard Childress Racing driver.
Stewart and Vickers, on the other hand, have been in limbo somewhere between 15th and 20th in the standings for the better part of the summer. Both have just one top 10 in recent memory, and Vickers’ second at Daytona was more the result of strange circumstances and Mother Nature than anything else.
At Watkins Glen, history favors Stewart, but it’s hard to trust the No. 14 team even with Smoke’s seven top 5s and five wins in 14 starts. However, even with slumping output across the board, he still has a good shot of beating out Menard (zero top 10s in 10 starts) and Vickers (24.1-place average finish in nine starts).
Think those guys have it bad? There’s another, even worse off group of drivers, which will likely need more than top 5s and top 10s to secure a late entry in the Chase. Winning is likely the only remaining option for AJ Allmendinger and Martin Truex, Jr. if either hopes to crash the party like Kurt Busch circa 2013. Both drive for single-car organizations in JTG Daugherty Racing and Furniture Row Racing, but neither has been able to accomplish much in their underdog roles.
An argument that Allmendinger is the best driver that’s ever occupied the No. 47 Chevrolet is viable. Between a rookie Marcos Ambrose and a version of Bobby Labonte years removed from his prime, Allmendinger should be able to put up the most competitive numbers given his stats from his last full season (one top 5, 10 top 10s, and a 16.1-place average finish), but the results simply aren’t there. Outside of a season-best fifth at Talladega, Allmendinger’s only shot of winning came at Sonoma, where he led 35 laps before spinning. Otherwise, he’s been a nonfactor for the better part of 2014, making the Glen his last foreseeable hope of breaking through the bubble.
Truex has to contend with the adjusted expectations that arose when Busch, the previous driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet, took the Denver-based team to new heights, expectations that Truex has failed to meet. Truex’s three top 10s pale in comparison to what Busch did, falling more on par with Regan Smith’s (currently a Nationwide Series regular) limited productivity.
Just a year ago at this time, Truex appeared poised to make a run at a Chase berth shortly after signing an extension with Michael Waltrip Racing. Now, he must win or pull off a Busch-level feat to impress prospective employers before time runs out on his contract with Furniture Row in 2015.