To the Point: Polesitter Denny Hamlin recovered from a flat tire and a spinout while leading the race to work his way back to the front and win Sunday’s Pocono 500, the rookie’s first win in the Nextel Cup Series in only his 21st career start. Taking the lead for the final time on lap 177, Hamlin easily outclassed Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart during the final restart with five laps remaining to cruise to the checkered flag. Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth rounded out the Top 5 finishers.
Who Should Have Won: Hamlin. It wasn’t easy, but this day clearly belonged to the 25-year-old from Midlothian, VA. Starting the race from the pole, Hamlin led 49 of the first 50 laps before his tire issue, with his flat left rear causing him to lose control and spin through the grass in Turn 2. That could have ended Hamlin’s day, but incredible car control kept the damage to a minimum, and the crew took advantage of every caution lap to make the necessary repairs to the left rear of the race car. The rest was up to Hamlin, and he and his Fed Ex Chevrolet delivered, despite dropping as low as 39th after lap 72.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Does Hamlin’s win give the team the momentum needed to make the Chase?
No rookie has made the Chase the first two years of its existence, but Hamlin’s dominating performance at Pocono moves him to 9th in the standings and leaves him knocking on the door. The problem for Hamlin lies in the fact there’s several veterans right behind him fighting for those final few spots, such as Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon, that know how to handle themselves in this type of pressure packed situation. Still, Hamlin’s done a great job of handling everything so far, reminding everyone of Carl Edward’s successful 2005 season, and if that attitude continues, the points will come.
2) Are the races at Pocono going to be shortened from 500 to 400 miles?
Besides the 600-miler at Lowe’s, the two races at Pocono easily prove to be Nextel Cup’s biggest endurance challenge. With cars running 500 miles at a much slower pace than any other track currently running that distance, Pocono’s always been an easy target for those critics looking to run shorter, quicker races in Nextel Cup. Traditionalists, among them track owner Joe Mattioli, have resisted the push to shorten the races from 500 to 400 miles, but with a new TV contract in the offing, Sunday will likely be the example NASCAR will use to force a cut in mileage beginning in 2007. Including the red flag for Jeff Gordon’s wreck, the Pocono 500 took over four hours to run, and the races just aren’t producing the TV ratings (like it or not) to justify the broadcast being that long.
3) Why were there so many problems speeding on pit road? Actually, why were there so many problems on pit road in the first place?
Making a pit stop was like blindly entering a minefield on Sunday—- if you didn’t have a problem, you were more lucky then good. Speeding violations from several cars were combined with a few failures to get the jack properly aligned underneath a car, a problem that ended up costing Carl Edwards nearly two laps in the pits. To be honest, it seems we might be seeing the backlash of no green flag pit stops, because when cars do pit under green, it’s a whole different animal; some of these crews simply haven’t been prepared for it because they almost never do it anymore. The same goes for the drivers; it’s a lot easier to maintain your speed on pit road if you’re pitting under yellow with 30 other cars on the lead lap, not under green where it’s just you and your tach reading.
4) Should NASCAR close off the pits before throwing the red flag?
When the red flag threw for a vicious crash by Jeff Gordon with less than 10 laps remaining, NASCAR didn’t decide what to do until after pit road had been opened under yellow, which meant several cars developed strategies to stay out on old tires, thinking there would be a long cleanup and only 2 or 3 laps to go on the restart. Instead, those plans were screwed up by the red flag"¦another reason why the sport needs to have consistent rules on when the flag will be utilized, especially with a green-white-checkered finish.
5) How will Brian Vickers and Casey Mears perform in "lame duck" rides?
Looks like the two drivers could head in opposite directions. In Vickers’ case, the pressure to win at Hendrick is now squarely off his shoulders, and that appears to make him more relaxed, turning in a strong fourth place finish at Pocono. As for Mears, it wasn’t his fault he didn’t get past the first lap on Sunday, but his 43rd place wreck did nothing to build momentum with a team he knows he won’t be with beyond this season. Now eleven races removed from his last Top 10 finish, the surprise of Mears leaving a Ganassi team now getting its third driver in three years for 2007 should be enough to kill any possible momentum they had towards making the Chase.
Kurt Busch: While much of the attention on Penske Racing’s struggles has gone to teammate Ryan Newman, Busch’s win at Bristol was his sole Top 5 finish this season entering Sunday at Pocono. To finish 2nd and lead 31 laps is the boost this team needed if they’re going to formulate a run at the Chase in the second half of the regular season.
Tony Stewart: Considering some critics (myself among them) thought Stewart wouldn’t even finish the race on Sunday, the third place run by the 20 car was easily the surprise of the day other than Hamlin. Stewart led six laps, experienced minimal discomfort inside the car with his injured right shoulder, and was laughing and joking following the race, a sure sign that the Tamer Tony is making a comeback for the summer.
Greg Biffle: Early on, it looked like another dismal day of bad luck for the Biff, as a brake fluid problem forced the 16 car to several extended stops on pit road whenever the caution flag came out. Finally, though, the brake problem resolved itself enough where Biffle could come back and race, and he actually charged into the lead at one point before a tire problem in the race’s final stages sent him tumbling to sixth in the final running order.
Scott Riggs: Riggs had finished no better than 16th in four previous Pocono starts, but joined Evernham teammate Kasey Kahne with a strong run near the front of the pack on Sunday despite being involved in a first lap crash with Casey Mears. Coming home 8th, Riggs is now up to a season high 21st in the standings"¦despite missing the Daytona 500.
Jeff Gordon: For Gordon, it’s the same old story every Sunday "" the car starts off great, but then gets progressively worse as the day goes on. Pocono was no different "" a car that was capable of running in the Top 5 early in the race was by the end of the event simply struggling to snatch a Top 10, before brake failure on Lap 190 led to a heavy crash that put the kibosh on Gordon’s day, causing a 34th place finish and dropping him out of the Top 10 in Nextel Cup points. To make matters worse, the crash was one of the hardest licks any driver had taken this year, with most of the sheet metal on the driver’s side torn off the race car due to the impact, but Gordon made it through the wreck OK.
Carl Edwards: The defending champion of this race, Cousin Carl had a car that could contend for the win once again, only to have his team let him down in the pits. Making a green flag stop while leading, the jackman failed to jack up the car correctly on the left side, causing the car to fall when the tires were off the car. By the time the crew had the situation corrected, it was 80 seconds later and Edwards was too far behind to be a factor. He finished one lap down in 25th.
Sterling Marlin: On the rare occasion Marlin has had a good car this season, he hasn’t been able to capitalize, and Sunday was another perfect example. Holding his own in the Top 20 early in the race, Marlin first scraped the wall, then lost an engine before even 20 laps were complete. Marlin finished 42nd, his seventh finish outside the Top 30 in 14 starts.
Casey Mears: Unfortunately for Mears, his Chase hopes faded considerably on Sunday with the help of the front bumper of Scott Riggs. On only the first lap of the race, Riggs’ ill-timed wobble forced Mears into the outside wall, destroying the rear end of his race car and sending him to a 43rd place finish.
Jimmie Johnson had a workmanlike 10th place finish on Sunday, but saw his point lead shrink from 74 to 48 after Matt Kenseth’s 5th place run. Mark Martin held onto third place, while Tony Stewart moved back up one spot to fourth. Kasey Kahne’s 7th place finish allowed him to snag the fifth in the standings.
In the second half of the Top 10, there were some major changes. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fell two spots from fourth to sixth, and while teammates Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick held their own in seventh and eighth, Denny Hamlin’s win moves him up two positions to ninth place. Kyle Busch remained in tenth, while his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon fell to eleventh place, 25 points behind Busch and currently out of the Chase.
"(During the red flag) I was thinking about what I was going to eat for dinner and how soon I was going to get home. I did not think about the race whatsoever. I knew that our car was that good." Denny Hamlin
"That was a group effort. Obviously we had a fast car and we had our tire issue. We just had to pace ourselves and evaluate the damage and knew that there was a lot of time left in the race. We did what we could with the time that we had." Mike Ford
"I’ve seen the jack slip out before, but it slipped out and nothing on the jack caught "" usually the jack will catch it a little bit and there was just no way. They couldn’t get anything underneath the car to jack it up. We were in rough shape there." Wally Brown, Carl Edwards’ crew chief
"I don’t know how, but yes, I am (OK). I’ve either got a really hard head or those guys at Hendrick Motorsports just build an awesome race car, because that was one of the hardest hits I’ve ever taken." Jeff Gordon, following his crash on Lap 190
The series moves from the challenging triangle of Pocono to the pure speed of 2-mile Michigan International Speedway for the first of two Cup races there this season. The 3M Performance 400 is scheduled to enter your TV set at 1:30 PM EST, Sunday, June 17th.
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