To the Point: After collecting his first career Nextel Cup victory at Pocono in June, there was only one way Denny Hamlin could top that moment at the track; complete a season sweep. Well, you can check that off his "To Do" list.
Hamlin put on a second impressive performance at the triangular shaped oval on Sunday, leading 151 of 200 laps to take the win in the Pennsylvania 500. In a carbon copy of the race here one month ago, Kurt Busch came home second, the only other driver within the same zip code as Hamlin when things were all said and done. Jeff Gordon wound up third, with Brian Vickers, and Kevin Harvick rounding out the Top 5.
Who Should Have Won: Hamlin. Unlike the June race, where polesitter Hamlin had to battle back from a flat tire and resulting spin that put him back in the pack, the driver of the Fed Ex Chevrolet made sure this one was never in doubt. After winning the pole for a second time heading into Sunday, Hamlin was dominant both early and late, leading the first 33 laps as well as 100 of the final 107. High, low, in traffic, by himself, Hamlin clearly had the best car all over at Pocono, routinely beating the rest of the field by up to three tenths of a second a lap.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) What does this win do for Hamlin's Chase chances?
Hard to say. Clearly, Hamlin has Pocono figured out, and the win provided a much needed points boost for the rookie that left him 8th, 52 ahead of 11th place Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Still, the next two tracks on the circuit - Indianapolis and Watkins Glen - are places Hamlin has never been in a Cup car before, which makes it difficult to predict exactly how he'll fare (although he did pretty good at Pocono without seeing that track before). The next three - Michigan, Bristol, and California - produced pedestrian finishes of 12th, 14th, and 12th for Hamlin in the No. 11 car this Spring. So, the jury's definitely out on this one. If this team has any advantage, though, it's that Richmond is Hamlin's hometown track, a place where he finished 2nd in May to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - so he's guaranteed to finish the "regular season" with a bang.
2) Should Tony Stewart have been penalized for his incident with Clint Bowyer?
Um, yeah. It's hard to get around a penalty when you blatantly wreck someone on a straightaway, even when the driver you wreck ran you up to the wall the turn before. That's exactly what happened on lap 31. While Bowyer ran Stewart up the track in turn three, forcing the back of Stewart's car into the wall, what Bowyer got in return was far worse, as his car was bodyslammed by an angry Stewart, sending him to the inside of the frontstretch and basically ruining his day. While Bowyer was wrong, Stewart's reaction was downright uncalled forâ€¦TV cameras proved Stewart's move was deliberate, with Stewart's shaking fist shown coming out of the car as he's knocking Bowyer aside. Unfortunately for the rest of the field, Stewart was able to earn that lap back the hard way, and then work his way through the field to end the day in 7th.
Not only was this one lap penalty justified, but it also caused the next questionâ€¦
3) Did Carl Edwards' chances for the Chase end with his crash on the frontstretch? And have you ever seen Edwards so mad?
The innocent victim in the Stewart-Bowyer fiasco was Carl Edwards, who was minding his own business behind the two drivers only to get caught up in the wreck. It was a situation eerily reminiscent of last August at Bristol, where a brouhaha between Ryan Newman and Dale Jarrett inadvertently collected the 29 car and eliminated it from Chase contention. With Edwards now 235 out of 10th place with six races to go, it's safe to say this did the same for the 99 team. Edwards certainly thought so, taking out his frustration by intentionally spinning Stewart out on pit road on lap 69, inciting a one lap penalty by NASCAR that put Edwards two laps down and fully out of contention. Edwards then shed the Leave It to Beaver label by calling Stewart out in a postrace interview and claiming he'd leave him bleeding outside the track if it wasn't for the respect he had for NASCAR. Umâ€¦where is the real Carl, and what did you do with him, Tony? For more on this incident, click here.
4) Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Dave Blaney getting into it? What theâ€¦?
Well, if Brian France makes changes to the Chase in the offseason, you all officially know who to thank. In the middle of the straightaway, for no apparent reason, Blaney punted the 8 car of Earnhardt, Jr. into the wall, bumping him far too hard for the Budweiser Chevrolet to keep itself straight. As a result, Earnhardt, Jr. is down to 11th in points after back-to-back 43rd place finishes, heading to a track at Indy where he's finished no better than 10th his entire career. Can you say panic button? Who would have ever thought that would be pressedâ€¦just goes to show you no one is ever "locked in" to the Chase until it's mathematically impossible for you to be kicked out. Surprising that Blaney wasn't penalized for his transgressionâ€¦and all the money he may have cost NASCAR by his actions.
5) How will Stephen Leicht fit into the future of Robert Yates Racing?
We'll know after Indy. With Elliott Sadler now officially gone from the 38 ride, two spots are open in the RYR stable, and Ward Burton looks to have landed one. That leaves Stephen Leicht and David Gilliland in contention for the other, although Leicht had a very unimpressive Cup debut this weekend, qualifying 36th and finishing 33rd, one lap down. With a second start planned at Indy, Leicht still has a chance to prove himselfâ€¦but with Gilliland waiting in the wings, he better hurry it up a bit.
Kurt Busch: With his marriage a weekend away, Busch made sure to race himself towards an early wedding present, duplicating his June performance at Pocono to come home second to Hamlin once again. Solid all weekend, Busch now has moved up to 13th in points, 166 out of 10th, keeping his Chase hopes faintly alive.
Brian Vickers: In yet another carbon copy of June, Vickers started 4th and finished 4th on Sunday, earning him his third Top 5 finish in his last four Pocono starts. Since announcing his departure from Hendrick, Vickers has now gone seven straight races with finishes of 18th or betterâ€¦quietly vaulting him up to just outside the Top 15 in points.
Kevin Harvick: Coming off a Busch Series win at Martinsville, Harvick was pumped up at Pocono, and responded accordingly with a Sunday drive that saw him in the Top 5 for most of the race. To tell you how far this team has come, Harvick's 5th place at Pocono was his third Top 5 finish in a row; that's the first time that's happened for this team since 2003. Ironically, that was also the last time Harvick challenged for the championship; he better start getting ready for another go round.
Bobby Labonte: Labonte's awful 2006 luck might have undergone a dramatic turnaround Sunday. The 43 car was running in the Top 10 until it spun on pit road, and ended up pitting the car sidewaysâ€¦yet, the team persevered, stayed on the lead lap, then benefited when a late caution during pit stops for Scott Wimmer's blown tire allowed them to take the caution in the lead and pit under yellow for fresh rubber. Those tires vaulted Labonte to an 8th place finish, his first Top 10 since Phoenix back in April.
Kasey Kahne: On a day where many of the Chase contenders dealt with mangled sheet metal, Kahne found himself dealing with a mangled motor. With only 10 laps to go, the engine in Kahne's Dodge lost a cylinder, and the 9 car was hanging on for dear life from that point on. With a disappointing 31st place finish, one lap down, Nextel Cup's season leader in wins now finds himself just 53 points away from falling outside the Top 10.
Kyle Petty: Petty's preparing for his annual motorcycle ride across America, but I'm sure that tour didn't include a date with the outside wall in turn two. Unfortunately, that had to be added to the game plan when Petty cut a tire and couldn't recover before the concrete. Now down to 34th in points, Kyle needs to dig deep or risk falling out of the Top 35 in owner points, a big no-no that could cost this team dearly.
Greg Biffle: In a tight race for the Chase, a faulty tire could prove to be Biffle's undoing. After thinking a right front was going down on lap 108, Biffle pitted, putting himself down a lap to the leaders. By the time he earned that lap back, it was far too late to grab a good finishâ€¦ending up 24th, it was a far cry from the 6th place the Biff earned at Pocono in June, and the run dropped him out of the Top 10 in points.
Matt Kenseth: This season, it's been rare to see Kenseth run an entire race never in contention, yet that's exactly what happened Sunday with the 17 car. After struggling mightily with the handling of his Ford all day, Kenseth slumped to a 14th place finish, his third straight result outside the Top 10.
With 20 races in the books, Jimmie Johnson continues to lead the standings, with his 6th place finish allowing him to take a 97 point cushion over Kenseth heading into Indy. Jeff Burton filed home another Top 10 at Pocono to stay within 318 of the lead in third, with Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick (up three spots) rounding out the Top 5.
Mark Martin fell one spot in the standings to 6th after a "ho hum" 19th place finish, followed behind by Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, and Jeff Gordon. Tony Stewart's 7th place run allowed him to sneak into 10th place, 462 behind the leader.
"I tell you, it's amazing that I was getting upset when guys were running within a tenth of my lap timesâ€¦I knew coming into this race that it almost felt like a normal short track race. I got the pole. As long as something doesn't happen, I'm going to cruise to a victory." Denny Hamlin
"We unloaded with the exact same setup we ran in Juneâ€¦the speed came back. Seemed like we picked up right where we left off." Mike Ford, Denny Hamlin's crew chief
"We knew we were racing for second. If (Denny) wasn't a rookie we'd have two wins at Pocono this year and three in a row, but we can't talk about what we don't have." Kurt Busch
"I don't know what happened. I sit there and look out my windshield all day. I don't live in the world that's outside of it." Kurt Busch, when asked about the Tony Stewart - Carl Edwards Incident
"The only thing that Tony has going against him is he's got a little bit of a temper, and sometimes that gets the best of him, you know. That doesn't have anything to do with respecting him on the racetrack (though)." Jeff Gordon
"I want to like Tony. He's a hard racer and all that, but how can you like somebody like that. It's just amazing. If you hold that guy up, like if he thinks you held him up, he gets do upset and then he can wreck two guys and give you the finger. That's spectacularly self-centered. I can't imagine being like that." Carl Edwards
Throughout the Nextel Cup season, there are two races that tend to take on added importance - the Daytona 500 in February, known as the Great American Race, and a 400-miler held at the Great American Race Track, Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After a much needed weekend off, NASCAR will take on the racing capital of the world for the 13th annual Brickyard 400 on Sunday, August 6th. The action will come your way at 2:00 EST live on NBC.
©2000 - 2008 Thomas Bowles and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!