Who … should you be talking about after the race?
From learning the track via video games to becoming the winningest driver in track history, Denny Hamlin fought his way to the front on Sunday to claim his seventh Pocono Raceway victory in the HighPoint.com 400 (July 23).
Hamlin led twice for nine laps, but that was more than enough to take the checkered flag. It’s Hamlin’s 50th overall Cup Series win and second of 2023.
Hamlin started second on a late restart and made contact with leader Kyle Larson, who subsequently hit the outside wall, giving Hamlin the clean air he needed to hold off teammate Martin Truex Jr. The win wasn’t without controversy (more on that later) and the fans in attendance made their displeasure in Hamlin’s racing style known with a shower of boos.
And don’t forget Erik Jones. Jones, who has struggled in 2023, has been quietly showing improvement in recent weeks with four top-11 finishes in his last five races. And on Sunday, he reminded everyone that he’s excellent at getting around Pocono. Jones scored a top 10 in stage one and backed it up with a ninth-place finish on the day.
The overall struggles of Legacy Motor Club this year have been well-documented, but Jones has looked strong this summer. The playoffs might not be in the cards this year, but the team will be a factory-backed Toyota organization next year, and with Jones at the helm, 2024 could have a whole different look.
What … is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
The clock is ticking on the regular season and it’s getting louder by the week for Chase Elliott, whose playoff hopes now fall into the must-win category. Will Elliott score a last-minute victory to make the postseason?
He absolutely can win. At the five remaining tracks, he has wins at just one: Watkins Glen International. But he’s got a career top-10 average finish at Michigan International Speedway the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course along with an 11.1 average at Richmond Raceway. He could win at any of these tracks, and it wouldn’t be a surprise.
Daytona International Speedway, on the other hand, has proven a tough row to hoe for Elliott, who has a 22nd-place average and just four top fives in 15 starts. Sure, he could pull one off at the 11th hour, but his best chance is in the next four weeks. After that, it’s time up.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner William Byron had a great first 100 laps, leading three times for 60 laps – the most of any driver – with his team playing the pit game well to keep him in the game with a third-place run in stage two. However, he couldn’t get back to the front in the waning laps, and he the day in 14th.
Last week’s winner Truex probably had the best car for most of the day on Sunday, but the stars didn’t quite align for him. The No. 19 played a strong game, putting Truex in position to capitalize on the late restarts. He might have had a run at the win before the penultimate caution.
On what would be the final restart, Truex lined up at the front of the inside line in good position to challenge his teammate, but that line had struggled on restarts and the last one was no exception. Truex wound up third after getting passed by Tyler Reddick on the final lap.
Defending race winner Elliott ran in the top 10, but he didn’t show the speed to contend. And with the playoffs on the line, his team didn’t take any chances with gambles in the pits. Should they have? That’s a tough call. Two tires almost worked out for teammate Larson, but the risk was losing more positions than he gained with just two tires. Elliott finished 10th and heads into a string of his best tracks.
Defending Cup Series champ Joey Logano kicked off the day in fine fashion, leading laps and winning the first stage. But thanks to varying pit strategies, Logano restarted for stage two mid-pack … and that got him in trouble. Jockeying for position on the restart, Logano got tagged and turned into the wall. His team wasn’t able to beat the clock on repairs and Logano retired, finishing 35th.
When … was the moment of truth?
Did Hamlin pull a dirty move to win the race? The fans seemed to think so as the rained boos onto the winning driver after the race.
Hamlin got into race leader Larson on a restart with nine laps to go, sending Larson up the track where he brushed the wall. Hamlin denied contact but replays suggest otherwise. Larson, who ultimately finished 20th, was livid after the race.
Technically, Hamlin’s move could be considered an overaggressive bump-and-run, but what resonated with fans was the distance remaining in the race — it was far from the last lap — and the fact that Hamlin appeared to have a faster racecar and should have been able to pass Larson without running him up the track. A last-ditch effort on the final lap is one thing; an unnecessary move with 20 miles left in the race is another.
NBC analyst Kyle Petty didn’t mince words afterward.
It also isn’t the first time Hamlin has used a similar move, something both media and fans were quick to point out. He did it in the same race last year to Ross Chastain and has made similar moves this year as well, one of which resulted in Elliott retaliating, drawing a suspension, and the other resulted in a fine for Hamlin, who has admitted it was intentional. He’s not the only one; Larson himself has used a similar move, but the fans were not having it this time.
The thing is, it looked like Hamlin could have won the race easily without running Larson up the track. If a line was crossed, this is where that happened. It was hard to pass, sure. It’s supposed to be hard. But Hamlin was fast enough to make it happen. Even if it was just a bump-and-run, he didn’t need to do it.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
The Cup Series rolls on to Richmond Raceway this coming weekend, and there could be several teams eyeballing the race as a means to either secure a playoff berth or to gain a little momentum with just a handful of races left before the playoffs.
Richmond’s winningest active driver is Kyle Busch, who has three wins this season and a top playoff seed secured, but he’s also struggled the last couple of weeks. He could use a boost heading into the postseason, and Richmond could provide it.
Kevin Harvick would love to wrap up his career with at least one check in the win column this season, and with four previous wins at Richmond, he’s another looking to get on a roll, along with another multiple Richmond winner, Brad Keselowski, who hasn’t had a win in more than two seasons.
There’s also a lot riding on the last short-track race of the regular season when it comes to the racing itself. Last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway might have been the best flat-track race since the Next Gen car rolled out. Can Richmond keep it going?
How … crazy is this year’s playoff picture?
OK, so it’s not quite a crazy as 2022, at least on paper. Last year’s different winners nearly meant a race winner still missed the playoffs (that didn’t happen, though if Kurt Busch hadn’t been forced to bow out with an injury, nobody would have made the cut on points). That won’t happen this year, as with five races left, the most different winners we can see is 16.
So, what have we got? Two of last year’s contenders – Elliott and Alex Bowman – are in a must-win situation, while Truex, who missed out in 2022, is not only locked in but is also the hot favorite at the moment.
And as for the final points positions? That battle is heated, and it’s not necessarily all among drivers people expect. Just a handful of points separate 15th and 18th place in points. Currently above the cut line by the slimmest of margins are Bubba Wallace and Michael McDowell, with Daniel Suarez and AJ Allmendinger lurking on the outside.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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