Brett Poirier · Wednesday June 13, 2012
The driver who lost the most momentum in the past week in the Sprint Cup Series wasn’t at the track on Sunday at Pocono. Despite claiming at Darlington that he hated his job as a Sprint Cup Series driver, Kurt Busch apparently wasn’t planning on changing vocations any time soon. According to Associated Press writer Jenna Fryer, Busch was in talks with Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing about 2013.
If his latest suspension wasn’t enough to knock him out of the running at Gibbs, though, Joey Logano’s win on Sunday probably was. Logano, a free agent at the end of the season, had been feeling the pressure to perform this season and until two races ago, the results for the most part were underwhelming. His stellar runs in the Nationwide Series and breakthrough win in Sprint Cup on Sunday are silencing the doubters. He is also making it difficult for Joe Gibbs to show him the door, meaning Logano will most likely be in the No. 20 car for the foreseeable future, while if Busch continues in his current ways, he is more likely to be working at Home Depot than driving for Joe Gibbs.
But without further ado, here is who is hot and who is not after Pocono.
Jimmie Johnson was quoted as saying that if one of his three incidents on Sunday didn’t happen, he would have been in Victory Lane, and he was right. Johnson qualified a lowly 24th, received two speeding penalties and was shoved out of the groove on a restart late in the race by Marcos Ambrose. He still finished fourth.
While the cameras were focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson had the fastest Hendrick car on Sunday, but spent the first part of the race surging through the field after a poor qualifying effort and the rest of the race recovering from the speeding penalties and the late-race bobble. What the No. 48 team did at Dover with a dominant win was impressive, but in my eyes, what they did at Pocono was even better. This team is scary good.
Since Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrived at Hendrick in 2008, can you think of a race he deserved to win more than Sunday’s? I can’t. The win at Michigan came on fuel strategy; the Coca-Cola 600 near-miss last season came after the entire field wrecked in front of him on a restart and the good folks at NASCAR forgot to throw the yellow flag.
Earnhardt Jr. legitimately deserved to win at Pocono, but the strategy game didn’t play into his hands. After pitting late for more fuel, the No. 88 came back to finish eighth. On one hand, it was another discouraging result considering how strong Earnhardt Jr. was, but on the other hand, it was the first time in more than four years that Junior could say he deserved to be in Victory Lane when he climbed out of the car.
The Joey Logano experience has been a roller coaster ride at Gibbs. After finishing ninth and 10th at Daytona and Phoenix to start the season, it seemed Logano was finally reaching some of the potential we always heard about. Then, he finished 15th or worse for eight consecutive weeks and we were left scratching our heads.
Logano finally seems to be building some consistency once again with three top 10s in his last four starts, but just how long will it last? His win on Sunday was a big step in the right direction, but what would be more impressive would be if Logano could find a way to finish in the top 15 on a consistent basis and be a Chase contender. It is going to be very interesting to see what the young driver does on this summer stretch. If I were Joe Gibbs, I wouldn’t sign him to an extension quite yet.
Clint Bowyer has easily been the least talked about driver within Chase contention this season. In his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing, Bowyer hasn’t put himself in position to win races — except maybe Martinsville; however, the Kansas native has shown more consistency than Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, or Kyle Busch.
Bowyer sits ninth in the standings and is 20 points ahead of 11th. He finished fifth at Dover and sixth at Pocono and is quietly putting together a strong year, despite getting about as much TV time as David Ragan.
We’ve chronicled Johnson’s miraculous recovery to finish fourth on Sunday. Jeff Gordon was put in the exact same position, only with two fewer obstacles to overcome. While making a green-flag pit stop from a top-five running spot, Gordon was hit with one speeding penalty. The No. 24 never recovered.
Gordon did have to make a late pit stop for fuel, but so did Earnhardt Jr, who came back to finish eighth. Gordon placed 19th. All of the Hendrick cars are fast, but as we saw Sunday, each team handles adversity differently.
Brad Keselowski has a pair of wins already this year (Bristol and Talladega), so he should be a lock for the Chase. Lately, though, the No. 2 team has proven it still has a lot of work to do if it wants to make any noise in the playoffs.
Since his win at Talladega, Keselowski has only one top-10 finish. His return to the track he won at last fall was not a memorable experience. He qualified very poorly (31st) and didn’t run well either (18th). With the way A.J. Allmendinger has been performing, it has to be a lonely feeling for the No. 2 being the only competitive Dodge, and still looking for answers on how to get better.
In a season filled with lows, A.J. Allmendinger hit a new low on Sunday. While running in the top 20, it appeared Allmendinger just lost control and turned into the Tunnel Turn too quickly, catching some grass before shooting up there racetrack like he had blown a right-front tire. Allmendinger had reported damaged steering after an earlier tangle with a spinning Landon Cassill.
Allmendinger said it was one of the hardest hits he has ever taken. He laid his head down on the inside wall to catch his breath, but probably also to let out his frustration. After 14 races, Allmendinger has one top 10 and is 25th in the standings. He signed a one-year deal with Penske Racing to start the season, but at this point you have to wonder if the Dinger is going to be leaving before that contract is even up.
Rarely do top teams in the Sprint Cup Series blow engines. That’s what makes what has happened to Kyle Busch in the last two races surprising. Busch had more momentum than anyone in NASCAR (five straight top 5’s) heading into Dover. Something broke in his engine there, and one week later at Pocono, Busch was behind the wall again with another engine problem. I can’t remember the last time a top team had engine failures in back-to-back events.
Unfortunately for Busch, he was never given a chance at two tracks he performs well at. The No. 18 team also has dropped to 12th in the standings and would need a wild card spot to make The Chase right now.
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