Sunday was a long day in Long Pond, Pa., as only a few teams really had their cars hooked up to handle the tricky triangle that is Pocono Raceway. While positive storylines like the implementation of double-file restarts and Tony Stewart’s march from the back of the pack to win his first race as an owner permeated the day, the same old song of single-file racing at the front of the pack was set to loop. The only chance for some teams to find success at Pocono was by gambling on fuel mileage, which garnered top-10 finishes for Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Unfortunately, teams high in the points that are not worried about falling out of Chase contention, like Stewart’s, Carl Edwards’s and Jeff Gordon’s also tried the same strategy and came out on top. Here are the HOT, WARM and COLD teams after the conclusion of the Pocono 500.
HOT: Stewart – After inheriting the pole as the points leader after qualifying was washed out Friday, Stewart made rubbing alcohol out of lemons, forfeiting the top starting spot after wrecking his No. 14 Chevy in the first practice, forcing his team to a backup machine. By the time the race’s first caution period was over, Stewart was up from 43rd to about 34th and never looked back from there. The Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy was the first off pit road after the last green-flag sequence and had just enough fuel to last the two-time champ to the finish. Sunday’s win, fittingly, was a team effort for Stewart, as crew chief Darian Grubb prepared a stellar backup racecar, made the right calls in the pit box during the race, and had the crew psyched up enough to get him off pit road fast. Stewart opened up his lead over fourth-place finisher Gordon to 71 points, as the No. 14 is hotter than ever right now.
HOT: Edwards – Edwards finally turned in a dominant performance in the Aflac Ford Sunday, but came up just short of a win at the finish. While a win still eludes the No. 99 team, consistency is finally starting to pick up for them (three straight top-10 finishes). Consistency is exactly what will lead Edwards to the Chase this year, as his second place finish Sunday catapulted him up five spots in the points to sixth, 61 markers ahead of David Reutimann in 11th. Edwards may be able to continue this momentum Sunday in Michigan, as he has won there twice over the last two years.
HOT: Reutimann – “The Franchise” continues to keep a head of steam into the summer months, following up his lucky win in the Coca-Cola 600 two weeks ago with quality runs and more luck. While his Dover result (18th) last week seems mediocre, the No. 00 ran well before getting partially caught up in a late wreck. Reutimann had a top-10 car Sunday, but a good call to stretch fuel by ever-clever crew chief Rodney Childers led to a third-place finish. Reutimann is now 11th in points, a few good finishes away from leapfrogging over several drivers in the points.
WARM: Clint Bowyer – Baby steps, baby steps. Bowyer’s season has gone from surprising, to strong, to sinking ship. While Bowyer has yet to crack the top 10 in the last nine races, he does have consecutive finishes of 11th and 12th, which is marked improvement over the previous weeks’ results. A stumbling block for Bowyer may stand at Michigan, as the driver of the No. 33 has no top-10 finishes at the track in six starts.
WARM: Gordon – The No. 24 team struggled the last couple of weeks with handling and is likely not in position to go to victory lane right now. However, Steve Letarte made a couple of gutsy pit calls to gain Gordon track position in Sunday’s race, including the last call to stretch fuel on the race to the checkered flag that resulted in a fourth-place finish. Calls like this keep Gordon, whose team does not have the dominance it began 2009 with, from losing points to Stewart’s super-hot team.
WARM: Ambrose – Ambrose has turned what could have been a disappointing first full year with a mid-level-at-best team in the Cup Series into a definite success. Ambrose’s first Cup Series race ever at Pocono saw the Aussie stay in the top 15 for much of the event before yet another fuel gamble near the end of the Pocono 500 garnered the No. 47 team a sixth place finish. Ambrose still sits 18th in points – ahead of many notable and established teams.
COLD: Denny Hamlin – Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford had differing views on whether the No. 11 team’s lack of wins this year were a result of bad luck. Ford had the more optimistic view of the two, but Hamlin’s latest mishap may have proven him wrong. Discussed as a possible contender for Sunday’s event, Hamlin’s fuel cable came unhooked before the first turn of the first lap. Hamlin went to the garage, only to have the same thing happen again when he returned to the track. Fuel cable hookup difficulties cost Hamlin and then-teammate Stewart multiple wins in 2007. Now without a top 10 since Phoenix, Hamlin’s poor showing Sunday cost him five spots in the points – he now sits 12th.
COLD: Kurt Busch – Busch’s bad finishes two of the past three weeks have been out his control. He had to pit with a bad tire two weeks ago in Charlotte and the rain trapped his finishing spot before he had the laps to make it up. In Pocono, a bum water pump cooked the No. 2 car’s motor, ending his day. Busch has not been dominant this year (except at Atlanta Motor Speedway) and may be losing momentum at a time where the top 12 in points are being separated by less and less as the second half of the Race to the Chase begins.
COLD: David Stremme – Though the driver of the No. 12 Dodge has run better than his finishes show, Stremme’s continuing habit of finding his way into crashes and trouble has not ceased. Sunday, Stremme tried to move up in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and did not clear him before the move, pushing the No. 12’s right front into the wall. Stremme has no top 10s and only two top 15s this season, and has finished outside the top 30 in four of the last six races. Now 30th in points, talk of there not being a fourth Penske team next year may mean that the rumored fourth driver of that team, Justin Allgaier, may end up in Stremme’s third seat.
Here are some of the HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:
HOT: TNT’s coverage… let’s hope – So far, TNT’s format of covering races and change in on-air personalities has been a breath of fresh air from the stale platitudes and repeated mistakes of the FOX crew. However, TNT does need to brush up on its awareness of the happenings all over the track before the network can be considered a true step up over FOX. The addition of RaceBuddy and the subtraction of Digger add to the six-race allure that TNT brings. Readers can further follow TNT’s progress in Frontstretch’s own Phil Allaway’s TV column.
NOT: Busch Banger’s Ball – While dozens, if not hundreds, of columns and blogs have been written on Kyle Busch’s smashing of the Sam Bass Gibson Les Paul Trophy guitar in victory lane after his win in Saturday night’s Nationwide Series race in Nashville, I have to throw in my piece on the issue.
I have been very open to Busch’s explosion as a presence on the NASCAR circuits the past few years, turning a blind eye sometimes to his obvious disrespect in favor of his pure driving talent, raw dominance and unmatched showing of personality. The guitar smashing may have been the last straw for me to draw – at least for a while.
Busch’s smashing of the guitar trophy, along with his over-the-top burnout that ignited the motor on the No. 18 NOS Toyota are signs that Busch really does treat racing and winning in the Nationwide Series, and maybe in all of NASCAR, as second-rate. While Busch’s intentions may have been to share his trophy with the team, he destroyed a symbol of his win. To his credit, Busch made good by seeking out artist Sam Bass and ordering two guitars from him. Wouldn’t splitting some of his salary or winner’s check with the team go a little further than tiny pieces of a destroyed, beautiful guitar?
Would Busch toss a Texas winner’s hat into the crowd or split it up with his team? Would Busch smash up a Martinsville grandfather clock or grind up the Daytona 500 trophy into oblivion to be shared with his No. 18 Sprint Cup comrades? The answer is no. Busch’s respect of competitors in the Nationwide and Trucks Series is second-rate and his Saturday night rock-star impersonation went a long way to prove that point.
HOT: The underside of Carl Long’s collar – Beleaguered owner/driver Long spoke out about the upholding of his heavy penalty Sunday on Dave Despain’s Wind Tunnel, stating several reasons why he thought that penalty at least could have been decreased. He pointed out that Junior Johnson and Geoff Bodine received only a four-race penalty for the same infraction almost 20 years ago and that Richard Petty even kept a victory after a similar problem. Long went into deeper detail, explaining how he would never really be able to pay the fine and voicing his frustration with the fact that his complaints mean nothing… because NASCAR is the only game in town.
If there is an upside to the Long situation, it is that at least some newer fans to the sport are aware of NASCAR’s inconsistencies. Take Saturday’s practice session that saw Stewart crash. The announcers in the booth during the TV broadcast mentioned several times that NASCAR would work with Stewart, allowing him to race in Happy Hour before going through a full technical inspection. That leniency makes sense and so would leniency for Long. Money does not talk – it swears.
At least Long’s injustices are not going unnoticed. He says that Reutimann is trying to take up a pool to keep him in the sport and there is a circulating petition that will eventually go to NASCAR. Long may be a casualty, but maybe this stink will help NASCAR’s bent decision-making in the future.
NOT: Starting and parking… yes, again – In the spirit of keeping an open mind about different issues (see the Busch blurb), I must say that teams starting and parking in the Cup Series sours my stomach a bit. In Sunday’s Pocono 500, five teams – yes, FIVE – started the race, but parked with varying “issues” within the first 60 laps. Those teams, from bottom to top (Sterling Marlin – No. 09, Dave Blaney – No. 66, Joe Nemechek – No. 87, David Gilliland – No. 71 and Patrick Carpentier – No. 36) are technically running the full schedule, but really are rigging the stats. Some weeks, they knock out legitimate entries like Max Papis’s No. 13 Germain Racing team or Brad Keselowski and the fifth Hendrick Motorsports entry, the No. 25. Of course, starting and parking has been happening even more in the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series. NASCAR doesn’t need to make a rule against starting and parking necessarily, but its increasing presence shows that more cost-effective measures need to be in place.
Turn here next week to see how the home of America’s struggling automakers treats both the struggling and successful Cup Series teams at Michigan International Speedway.
Listen to Doug this Saturday on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with Captain Herb Emory on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com this Saturday from 2-4 p.m.