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Thinkin’ Out Loud: GoBowling.com 400
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after winning the GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway. (Credit: CIA)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: GoBowling.com 400

Key MomentDale 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.

(Credit: CIA)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in victory lane(Credit: CIA)

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.

Paul Wolfe (L) and Brad Keselowski talk at Pocono Raceway for the GoBowling.com 400. (Credit: CIA)

Paul Wolfe (L) and Brad Keselowski talk at Pocono Raceway for the GoBowling.com 400. (Credit: CIA)

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.

Worth Noting

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.

Winners:
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.

About Mike Neff

Mike Neff
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Sprint Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Thursday with Tech Talk. Mike works as track announcer for Millbridge Speedway and East Lincoln Speedway, local bullrings based outside of Charlotte, and pops up everywhere from Athlon Sports to SIRIUS XM Radio.

21 comments

  1. Zetona, I wondered why they didn’t redflag the race as well, but I figured it was because NASCAR and ESPN wanted to get it in during the scheduled time AND because of the potential for weather, but I think it needed to have been done anyway with a wreck that size.

    Bill, you and I share the disappointment in Gordon’s finish at Pocono just because he again had a car capable of winning. Of course that last caution wasn’t his friend either since they had a long run car & might have had a better chance w/o the caution and ugly restart.

    Mike, I agree that it is silly that the majority of passing now comes only on restarts which results in total chaos. NASCAR is so stuck on the idea of having it all be “spec” that it doesn’t care how lousy the majority of the rac is to watch. It is one of the reasons why I don’t care whether or not we go to races in person any more. At least at home, if the racing is not all that hot, then I can do chores and relax.

    • GinaV24.
      As I’m sure you are aware, when you have the fastest car and the lead you have to play the strategy based on no more cautions. Guessing if and when they might come out and adjusting your strategy will burn you more times than not. Meanwhile everyone else is playing those angles because it’s their only chance.

      Obviously the best thing that could have happened for Jeff yesterday was green flag with no cautions for the last 60 laps. Things always look clear in hindsight but he and Alan played the best hand they could IMO. Funny how being the fastest car with the lead can sometimes paint you into a corner the same way as having some mishap can.

      I too thought it strange that they ran 9 laps (22.5 miles) under caution, especially since the race was way past the half-way point. It must be a coin flip as to whether they throw the yellow or red when there is a major wreck because I’ve seen it work both ways. Normally it doesn’t matter but when so many teams are playing fuel mileage strategies (because no on can pass on long green flag runs), the decision to red flag, or not, really determines the outcome. I’m not insinuating NASCAR was setting Jr up for the win, I’m just pointing out the reality of fuel mileage racing.

      • Yes, I agree, I knew they had the car setup for long runs and that as you said, they were just going to have to deal with getting stuck with the short runs if they got them at the end, I was just bummed. Jeff did a nice job with restarts all day (at least I thought so) but he said he was loose on that last one. Hey those are the breaks. It could have been worse, he could have been in that ugly pileup.

      • I agree with everything you two said about the long caution, and I’ll add that I don’t think NASCAR had any idea how it would affect the strategy. If a wreck forces a red flag, usually the red is thrown before pit road is open. Jr.’s decision to pit came after NASCAR had decided that a red flag wasn’t necessary. Pit road only opened three laps into the caution, so there’d already been a bit of cleanup. Not favoritism (though I have a hunch they could have cleaned up the final caution in a lap or so less, but that’s an issue for another day.)

  2. I don’t want to say ESPN is phoning it in but I noticed that with 25-30 laps to go, their graphic showed that Junior’s next scheduled pit stop was at lap 163 or 164… in a 160 lap race.

    • I wouldn’t call it phoning it in – if there was a GWC or two or three they could have been borderline (yes, they’d save some fuel under caution, but there were still be extra laps possibly even beyond 164.)

  3. Back-to-back Steely Dan shows meant I didn’t follow a lap of the top 3 series this weekend. Reading the columns and comments on this site proves I missed little of value.

  4. I notice that Pocono tends to have one forgettable race and one memorable race each year. Between the big wreck, the wild saves, and the close finish, yesterday’s was certainly the latter. But I’ll still be glad to see the back of these single-groove aero tracks until NASCAR truly sorts out the lingering aero issues with the Gen 6 car.

    On a separate note, was anyone else surprised that NASCAR didn’t red-flag the race after the Big One? The track wasn’t quite blocked, but there were still cars and emergency vehicles all across the racing surface, plus a ton of oil and debris. They ran under caution for nine laps, which allowed Jr. to pit under caution and then make the fuel-only stop under green that got him the lead and the win. Maybe I’m just a Jeff Gordon fan disappointed that the team didn’t have the same strategic foresight, but it still felt a bit like the Nationwide finale at Homestead last year. If the track needs serious cleanup late in the race, why not stop the cars instead of wasting laps under caution?

    • i wonder if the fact they didn’t red flag the race had anything to do with tv, cause the race was to be broadcasted til 4:30 pm eastern time and at 4:30 it went to sportscenter.

      just the fact that stewart was on top of another car waiting to be rescued (for lack of a better word) surprised me that they didn’t stop the race. i think they just wanted to burn laps to get race over with.

      • The TV time answer seems plausible, and there were also some pretty dark clouds around the track at times during the race. But I’m still surprised it didn’t warrant a red flag. NASCAR got lucky that no one cut a tire by driving through the crash scene.

  5. It is a sad state of affairs for this not-as-enthusiastic NASCAR fan when I actually had more enjoyment of tax-free shopping weekend than watching the race @ Pocono. That and the fact that the Steelers kick off the season in 5 weeks and the Penguins start play in 14 weeks.

    That being said, it is also hard to see Tony just marking laps and not even being competitive this year. I think Chad Johnston’s tenure as CC is going to be very brief. Firing Darien was a great plan, right Tony?

  6. Mike, Is there a possibility that Nascar will get the cars back up off the track to conteract the aero dependency that limits on track passing?

  7. snoozed through most of race as wasn’t feeling the best yesterday. woke up at interesting parts. couldn’t believe “the big one” at pocono. as ken says i too feel that the 48 is experimenting. we’ve seen this rodeo before. hopefully it won’t pan out the same.

    was surprised to see jr win. first time since 2004 he’s won 3 races in a season. unfortunately tired of seeing hendrick, or hendrick satellite drivers win.

    didn’t tv mention that it was a water bottle that was part of that last caution? honestly, i figured once jr had the lead, no caution would have come out. but i guess for france it was a good thing that harvick’s car had damage and couldn’t catch jr once he got out front and took off.

    next week will be a bad week for jr. wonder if a hendrick car will win on the road course. i know i’ll be doing something else next sunday.

    and sigh….princess started out in top 10 but sank like cement anchor.

  8. Sorry, another point. About the masses losing their heads over the 48 team’s sudden “struggles’. Yes, we have seen this same scenario playing out before. Once Team Sleaze, as I like to call Jimmie and Chad, have their joke, I mean chase, spot clinched, they begin their mind games with everyone and they begin experimenting. And, everyone gets sucked in! Then Brian’s circus rolls into Chicagoland, and suddenly, “A great light shines down from the heavens onto the chosen ones, Jimmie and Chad, and the 48 team’s struggles miraculously end”. These two are masters at mind games and rules manipulation, especially Chad. I’m not buying this “slump” garbage, and I don’t think anyone else is either. I’m just surprized that you seem to be buying it. The 48 team is fine!

  9. This race stunk! Being dominated by Felon Motorsports, and won by a team owned by that Felon, doesn’t get any beer rating. It gets a half a can of “New Coke” that has been left out in the sun since Coke dropped that garbage.

    As for Pocono itself, I would not shed a single tear if NASCAR took both dates way (along with taking the date away from the Brickyawn) and dropped it from the schedule all together. But, considering that The Felon’s teams has dominated there in recent years, Brian will make sure the track remains.

    Before, I had figured that when Mark Martin retired, he would take up a managerial position at Roush and eventually take over from Jack. then he left Roush. Now, he’s back. With the way things are at Roush, maybe it’s time John Henry and Ford stepped in and took over. I’ve been a fan of Jack since his drag racing days with Wayne Gapp, and the days his Mustangs ruled Trans-Am and IMSA. But, he is running Roush-Fenway into the ground. He needs to step aside and let someone else start calling the shots. I’m surprized that John Henry hasn’t stepped in, given his investment in Roush’s racing operation. Maybe that’s why Mark “came home”.

    • Wow! Talk about venting!

    • You again? I just read another frontstretch story and you were spewing this same garbage. I see why now. I love Martin, but Jack Roush is now officially a nobody in Sprint Cup. He wont spend the money to keep up or hire the best people. You cant run a race team on a shoestring budget. Penske is killin it with the same equipment, and they are as good as HMS this year. Letting Edwards get away was it for them. They wont be contenders for a few years. Hating on Hendrick is not going to make RFR any better. Just jump ship to Penske and you can still carry the Ford flag. You need to put those female feelings away and put your big boy pants on and suck it up. You sound like a whiner!

  10. My expectations for Pocono are always low. Once the flurry of early cautions ended, I thought the race was pretty entertaining. I’ll give it four cold ones. Surprisingly entertaining (with or without that “big one”) due to the strategies that played out.

    A bit let down that my boy led the most laps and arguably had the fastest car and only finished 6th but that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes.

    Hard to believe we’re in the home stretch of the regular season. I am surprised that there haven’t been any more winners to lock into the chase. We seem to be stuck at 11.

    It looked like the princess was dead set on running with the big boys this week whether she and her car were up to it or not. They weren’t.

    • Having a fast car ,leading the most laps, and only finishing 6th is exactly why Gordon will not win a 5th championship this year. Plus horrible restarts aren’t helping matters either.