JGR, Penske right there, Hendrick still shows force Saturday in Pocono

LONG POND, PA — I guess a tire is all it takes to derail Kyle Larson. He took over the lead with four laps remaining in Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series race from the Pocono Raceway but on the final lap in the final turn, a tire went down and sent Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet into the Turn 3 SAFER barrier.

His three race win streak comes to a crashing halt as he was going to be the first driver since 2007 to win four straight points paying races in NASCAR’s premiere series.

But, as luck may have it, another Hendrick Motorsports driver was right there for the taking. Alex Bowman, the guy who Larson passed, was right there to capitalize and take his third win of the season as a result of Larson’s misfortune.

Even when you take a way away from a Hendrick driver, another is there to gain. That’s how hard it is to beat this HMS group. The only path right now to beat them is going to be bad luck. A tire. A bad pit stop. A crash. That’s it.

HMS has now won six straight races on the season and in this span, they went 1-2-3-4 in Dover, 1-2-8-11 in COTA, 1-2-4-5 in the Coca-Cola 600, 1-2-9-35 in Sonoma, 1-3-14-39 in Nashville and had three of the top four drivers crossing the finish line to take the white flag on Saturday.

If Larson’s crash doesn’t happen, they finish 1-2-4 which would have been their fifth 1-2 finish in the last six races. That’s how dominant they’ve been.

Bowman though now has 15 playoff points which is third behind only Larson’s 32 and Martin Truex Jr’s 18. The next best has eight.

Now, who’s next best in class? Joe Gibbs Racing has shown more times than not it’s going to be them, but they’ve also cooled off lately too. Is that part of HMS’ rise, are they experimenting or did they really lose something?

The last driver to beat HMS was Martin Truex Jr. back on May 9 in Darlington. Kyle Busch won a week prior on May 2 in Kansas. Both have been on different trajectories since.

Truex, finished 18th on Saturday. He’s had two top five finishes in his last nine starts overall. Five of his last six have been 18th or worse. He’s joined towards the back by teammate Christopher Bell. He won the second race of the season on the Daytona road course but has finishes of 17th, 28th, 14th, 21st, 38th, 24th, 24th, ninth and 17th respectively in his last nine starts.

Both are going backwards.

So is Denny Hamlin. He started the year off with eight top five finishes in the first nine races. He’s since had two in the last nine. One of which was Saturday though. I wonder how much of his slight backslide, and I use the word slight here because he’s only fallen barely back, has been due to HMS’ rise. Take HMS out of the equation and Hamlin is back in the top five again.

“(Needed) track position. We had the fastest car,” he said. “Just that restart – I had the chance to start on the inside, but we just couldn’t accelerate on the restarts. I thought the smart move was to start on the outside in the third lane, so we could go, and it turns out we should have gone to the bottom.

“Our FedEx Camry wasn’t good on the restarts coming through the gears, so I don’t know that we would have got past the 18 (Kyle Busch) like the 48 (Alex Bowman) did, but I thought we had the fastest car, but we just could never really show it. We were running down that front pack big time, but it was a little bit too little, too late.”

Busch though is starting to come alive. He did win in Kansas. He was third in Darlington. He was 27th in Dover, but 10th in COTA, third in Charlotte for the World 600, fifth at Sonoma, 11th in Nashville and now second in Pocono.

“Just (needed) more front turn,” Busch said following his runner-up on Saturday in Pocono. “Our cars kind of die tight in traffic, and just wasn’t able to turn as well as I needed too late in the going in order to get a run on them. I couldn’t even get any closer than I was. I was trying like hell to get there and get into that mix, but I couldn’t even get there. I was just hindered by traffic and dirty air, stuff like that.

“Ben (Beshore, crew chief) and the guys gave me a great piece. It was fast early on. We made minimal changes to it all day long, so when you are well-balanced, and your car is good – that’s as much as we have for them right now. Last week we saw that we were off just a little bit, and we got our ass kicked. We certainly have some work forward, and trying to find some more.”

Is this the team to dethrone HMS as the season goes on? What about Team Penske? They had all three cars in the top 10 on Sunday but none of them fared better than fifth.

Ryan Blaney scored his first top five of the season since his win in Atlanta back in March. Joey Logano was seventh in his No. 22 Ford while Brad Keselowski rebounded to finish 10th in his No. 2 Ford.

“Starting a long way back was challenging and trying to get on some certain strategies that might help us out,” said Blaney. “I thought our strategy was really good. We were really fast for that last caution. I got really tight after that. We needed a good day in our Menards Ford Mustang after last week for sure. This is definitely something to learn about for tomorrow and make some changes and hopefully have a really good run.”

Logano said that they were just “okay.” He felt like they were probably only a fifth place car on Saturday.

“We ran about fifth most of the race. The car was pretty good the last run, I just lost too much track position on the final restart. We were able to get some decent stage points. I think we were fourth and third in the two stages and then we finished seventh. Not what we want but it is a gain on our 550 package if you look at where we have been. We were able to run towards the front and see the front and actually pass some cars. That is a good sign. Progress is being made.”

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