LONG POND, PA — Kyle Busch looked good early on in Sunday’s Pocono Mountains 350. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver quickly moved up from his 19th place starting spot to find his way to the top 10 not too long after the drop of the green flag for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at the Pocono Raceway. But, four laps before the end of the opening stage, Busch hit pit road to go off sequence and position himself with track position for the second stage.
In that stage, Busch found the lead, but also ended up with a bad transmission too. His car was stuck in fourth gear. They’d have a slow stop naturally after. His car wouldn’t get into gear as he had to limp out of the track and up to speed since he couldn’t shift through the gears to get there quicker.
“The first thing that happened is I was rolling around under yellow, scrubbing my tires getting ready for the restart and it popped out of gear,” said Busch. “I was like, okay, that was weird.
At the stage break, they elected to try and fix his No. 18 Toyota. That nearly lost a lap in doing so. Still, Busch was almost ready to just call it a day and get an early exit out of the track and head back home to North Carolina.
Good thing they didn’t.
Pit strategy was the name of the game in the final stage as a debris caution on Lap 92 shaped how this race would play out. William Byron came down and took four tires. Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace and others came down for fuel only. They did so on Lap 93.
Busch’s winning move came a lap later when they pit to top off on Lap 94. That one extra lap propelled him to victory in Sunday’s race, his 59th of his Cup career, four of which coming on the Tricky Triangle. That moves him into a tie for third most ever on the Pennsylvania race track with Tim Richmond, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip. Only Jeff Gordon (6), Denny Hamlin (6) and Bill Elliott (5) have more.
For Busch though, the extra lap of fuel plus the help of fuel saving on that final stint allowed him to win for a second time this season.
Brad Keselowski tried to stretch his fuel out but obviously it wasn’t going to work. He last pit on Lap 86 and there would be no way he’d make it that far to the end. He peeled off from the lead on Lap 131. He took fuel only so it put him only to seventh.
Byron, took over the lead while Hamlin and Busch ran second and third respectively. For Byron though, he didn’t save enough fuel and he came to pit road on Lap 137 as a result. Byron, would finish 12th.
Hamlin and Busch were heading towards a battle for the win among the JGR teammates but Hamlin was one lap short too. He hit pit lane coming to the white flag. That handed the lead to Busch. Did he have 2.5-miles left in the tank?
From a bad transmission to the win on Sunday for his third top five finish in his last four Pocono starts and sixth top three in the last nine overall.
“No, absolutely. We would never have been in that position if we didn’t have the trans stuck,” he said. “When we came down for the green flag stop, I tried to exit pit road, it was really luggy obviously. I lost tons of time doing that. Then when we came down that last time to top off, that was it. Like, the clutch was gone when I left. It was smoking, it was burned up, there was no more left in that.
Larson, ended up coming to second in his No. 5 Chevrolet for his seventh top two result in his last eight races on the season. On Saturday, he had the lead on the final lap in the final turn but cut a tire and would limp home ninth.
“I don’t know. It’s surprising finish for us,” Larson said after not leading a single lap on Sunday afternoon. “Our HendrickCars.com Chevy was really loose for a majority of the race, then we got a lot of nose damage there on one of the restarts. Was off on speed. I felt like after that.
“Cliff and everybody did a really, really good job managing the race, coached me through saving fuel there at the end. Was hoping that the 18 was going to run out. I saw the 11 running out. I was, Okay, they’re teammates, they got to be close to running out.
“The 18 did pit a lap after us under caution. That actually probably won them the race. But, yeah, second-place finish, I thought we would be outside of the top 20. A lot of points throughout the race today; we’ll take it. Happy about the effort for sure all weekend.”
Keselowski, was third in his No. 2 Ford for just his second top five in the last eight Pocono races as well as his first top five in the last eight races on the season too.
Kevin Harvick scored his 15th career top five finish at Pocono in a fourth place effort out of his No. 4 Ford. Only Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin’s 20 top fives rank higher. It was also his eighth top 10 in his last 10 starts on the season as well.
Bubba Wallace rounded out the top five in his No. 23 Toyota for his first top 10 of the year.
HMS’ Streak Comes To An End
We all knew that Hendrick Motorsports’ streak would eventually come to an end. Having won six straight races in dominating fashion would eventually stop. But, I don’t think many expected it to be on Sunday though.
On Saturday, they had three cars in the top four coming to the checkered flag. Then, Kyle Larson cut a tire while leading in the final turn which allowed another HMS driver in Alex Bowman to win. Still, they should have went 1-2-4 that day. In Nashville, they went 1-3, in Sonoma it was 1-2. In the Month of May it was a runner-up in Darlington, a 1-2-3-4 sweep in Dover, a 1-2 in COTA and a 1-2-4-5 in the Coca-Cola 600.
HMS came one spot short on Sunday of extending this streak to seven though.
Larson, saved just enough fuel from his last stop on Lap 93 to come away with a runner-up. His seventh in the last eight races. William Byron, a day after a third place result on Saturday, didn’t save enough fuel and went from the lead to 12th.
Bowman had a quiet day in his seventh place finish while Chase Elliott had damage to his car both days in finishing 12th and 27th respectively.
JGR/Penske Closing The Gap?
I guess a tire and fuel strategy was all it takes to derail Kyle Larson and Hendrick Motorsports. On Saturday, Larson took over the lead with four laps remaining in the 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 came 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. He’d rebound a day later for a runner-up for his seventh top two result in the last eight races on the season.
As luck may have it though, 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 entered Sunday having 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.
Now, who’s next best in class? This weekend showed who.
Joe Gibbs Racing has shown more times than not it’s going to be them, but they’ve also cooled off lately too. Was that part of HMS’ rise, are they experimenting or did they really lose something?
Coming into Sunday’s second part of the doubleheader weekend, 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.
Busch, capitalized on William Byron and Denny Hamlin not being able to stretch fuel to score his 59th career Cup Series win on Sunday. He’s starting to come alive now. Busch, won 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 and first respectively in Pocono.
The driver to break up the HMS party in the ‘600? Busch.
The driver to break up the HMS party in Race 1 at Pocono? Busch.
The driver to break their streak in Race 2 at Pocono? Busch.
He could be their main rival as the season goes down to the wire.
“Well, this is a really, really good place for us,” Busch said. “We’ve been fortunate to be fast here since probably since 2014, ’15 time frame. We’ve carried that on through to today. We have a really good baseline package of what we know how to work off of. As the aero packages change, the tires change, all that changes, you have to change a little bit, as well, too. Our guys did a really good job of coming here with fast stuff. Same thing this weekend. We were fast.
“Fortunately if you look at the metrics, I think we had the fastest car. We did have that over them at least where we had the fastest car. It was just a matter of being in the right position at the right time.
“I don’t know that the Hendrick guys can say the same thing like that. They haven’t been fast here in a while. Obviously they were better, they were faster this time around. But this was a good chance for us to stack up as good as we can be and as good as they are, and see what happened.
“We still had a little bit of an issue this week that I kind of feel like we always have. We don’t — I don’t know how to say this without giving it all away. We don’t use all four tires as good as we should. Denny and I have talked about that for a couple years, kind of complained about that. I feel like the Hendrick guys have always had the mechanical grip, but now they’ve also gotten the aero grip, engine, mechanical. They’ve got all three parts. I feel like we’re still just a tick off on the mechanical.”
Truex meanwhile, finished 18th on Saturday and just 11th on Sunday. He’s had two top five finishes in his last 10 starts overall. Five of his last seven 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, 17th and 32nd respectively in his last nine starts.
Both are going backwards.
For Hamlin, he had a chance to win Sunday’s race. He was there. He was just one lap shy of being able to do so. He started the year off with eight top five finishes in the first nine races. He’s since had two now in the last 10. One of which was Saturday in a fourth place run. 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.
Is this the team to dethrone HMS as the season goes on? Since the race at Martinsville this past spring (12 races ago), Hendrick Motorsports has won seven times. JGR has won four times in that span, two of which being by Busch. The other?
Team Penske at Talladega.
What about Team Penske though? They had all three cars in the top 10 on both Saturday and Sunday. Are they starting to come around?
Ryan Blaney scored his first top five of the season since his win in Atlanta back in March on Saturday with a fifth place run in his No. 12 Ford. He was sixth on Sunday.
Joey Logano was seventh in his No. 22 Ford on Saturday and 10th on Sunday in a relatively quiet weekend for him.
Brad Keselowski rebounded to finish 10th in his No. 2 Ford on Saturday but used a brilliant pit call to finish third on Sunday. For Keselowski, his slide lately was a lot like Blaney’s. This was his first top 10 result in the last eight races on the season.
Could Pocono be the turning point?
Thrilling End Of Race Battles This Weekend In Pocono
Pocono has gotten a bad rap lately. I mean, most of it was rightfully so too. The action around the Tricky Triangle has left more to be desired as they got wise and shortened the race from 500 miles to 400 miles. Then, they cut back from going there twice, to just once. In that one weekend, they shortened the race again to have a doubleheader.
This format proves that it’s working.
Both races were thrilling if you are into strategy plays. I felt both were very compelling in that nature. They also provided fantastic finishes.
From Kyle Larson vs. Alex Bowman and their lengthy battle for the win at the end of Saturday’s race to which Larson passed Bowman with four to go and then cut a tire in the final corner on the final lap allowing Bowman to wind up in victory lane after all.
On Sunday, it was the fuel battle. When would Brad Keselowski pit? Where would he come out? Could William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace and the Busch brothers stretch their fuel?
Byron, Hamlin and Kurt Busch couldn’t.
Byron pit on Lap 137. Hamlin pit coming to the white flag. Busch and Larson went 1-2. Keselowski wound up third.
What an ending to cap a great weekend in the Pocono Mountains.
Hamlin/Harvick Still Winless
Last year, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick split wins in the doubleheader weekend at Pocono. In fact, they went 1-2 in both races. This year, we get to the 18th and 19th races of the season. Both leave winless still.
Combined, they won 16 races in 2020. We’re 19 races into 2021 and neither have won a race this year. The question now comes up, will they ever?
Harvick hasn’t won since the Bristol night race last Fall. That’s a 26 race winless drought. Hamlin’s last win came in Talladega last October. He’s up to 24 races without a win himself.
If I told you this time last year that only one of the two would make the Championship 4 and neither would hoist the championship trophy at Phoenix and they’d follow that up with going 0-19 in 2021, you’d have said that I was crazy.
What even crazier is that Hamlin finished fourth on Saturday and Harvick there on Sunday. Harvick was also eighth on Saturday with Hamlin having had the lead coming to the white flag a day later but running out of gas and having to pit instead of getting the win.
The luck just hasn’t been there for Hamlin. The speed hasn’t been there for Harvick.
Hamlin, had eight top five finishes in the first nine races of the season. He could have won multiple times in that span but bad breaks or untimely cautions cost him victories. Over the last 10 races, he’s had just two top fives. Sunday was a prime example of what could go wrong for him.
“Just do what I’m told: Don’t run when I’m not supposed to run, run when I’m supposed to run. The result is we pitted on the last lap for three weeks in a row,” Hamlin said. “That’s tough. I mean, I hate seeing the white coming to pit road. It’s just so frustrating. Fuel mileage has got us the last two weeks. Lug nuts the week before. We’re running fast. We’re getting a little better. I think overall we had a little bit more speed this weekend than what we’ve had the past few weeks. Yeah, can’t see the checkered right now.”
Harvick meanwhile, has 13 top 10’s in 19 tries this season. Its just that he’s not dominating up front like he was last year. Among those 13 top 10’s are only six top fives with just one finish better than fourth all year.
“I thought our car was better yesterday than it was today,” said Harvick. “We just kind of over adjusted from what we had yesterday to where we started today. They did a good job keeping us in the game and made some good adjustments in the car. We had some good restarts and good track position and were able to pick up the pace.
“Just still we just lose the handling of the car more than I would like to behind cars. Other than that, we just keep clawing along.”
As we head to Road America, will either get a win before the Olympic break at the end of July? We have Road America, Atlanta and Loudon as the only races in that month.
Playoff Standings Shake Up In Pocono, Kurt Busch, Wallace, Suarez Gain, Buescher, DiBenedetto Lose
Heading into this weekend, Austin Dillon (+108), Tyler Reddick (+49) and Chris Buescher (+24) held onto the final three playoff spots. Leaving Pocono, two of the three remain the same but Dillon’s lead dropped to +91 after finishes of 21st and 13th respectively. Reddick only lost one point to +48 (11th and 9th) while Kurt Busch leap frogged Buescher to gain 27 points to go from -24 to +3.
Reddick, maintained by scoring four stage points too, three of which coming on Sunday. Busch, didn’t score any stage points on Sunday but he had 14 on Sunday including a second straight race with a stage win. He’s had 35 stage points in the last four races including three top eight results in his last four tries.
Meanwhile, Buescher scored no stage points on Sunday, nor in the last four races and has finished 16th, 36th, 20th and 19th respectively.
That’s how Busch went from -83 to +3 in four races.
Another big mover is Daniel Suarez. He went from -102 four races ago to -48 in making up 54 points in that span. He’s finished ninth, 33rd, 15th, 12th, seventh, 13th and 15th respectively in his last seven races.
Bubba Wallace also made a leap in going from -95 to -54 following a fifth place run on Sunday. He’s had three 14th place finishes and a top five in his last five races run on the season.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had a mechanical issue towards the end of Sunday’s race and finished last in 38th. That’s a disappointment for him after being sixth in Nashville and 15th in Race 1. Stenhouse, was -62 four races ago to -82 back to -42 then up to -54 again leaving Pocono.
Matt DiBenedetto is also slumping with finishes of 19th, 24th, 23rd, 18th, 23rd, 24th, 32nd and 18th respectively in his last eight races.
With seven races left now in the regular season, the chase for the final few playoff spots may be actually heating up. The RCR duo have to hope they still can maintain while no one behind them wins with Busch, Buescher, Suarez and Wallace there battling for that final wildcard spot.
They Said It
“Doubleheaders? My personal opinion with as much as the schedule has kind of changed over the last couple years, what all has been going on with different racetracks and such, fans’ reception to coming and supporting some of those racetracks, we don’t need to go to any racetrack more than once,” Kyle Busch said. “You know what I mean? Spread the wealth. That’s my opinion.