NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Pocono Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment – With under four laps to go, race leader Mark Martin bobbled just enough that second-place Joey Logano was able to execute a perfect bump and run to retake the lead.

In a Nutshell – A new track surface, a new race distance, and the youngest and oldest Cup drivers competing hammer and tongs for a win.

Dramatic Moment – The final 10 laps featured some of the best racing of the season. It sure did look like Martin (who isn’t competing for a title) and Logano (who only had an outside chance of making it to the Chase prior to his win) were actually battling for the victory, not just willing to settle for a good points day.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

OK, less is more. The 400-mile race Sunday was better than most of the recent 500-mile ones held at Pocono, especially in the middle stages. This year’s event took just three hours, three minutes; but wouldn’t 300-mile races here be even better still?

Zone 10, the final timed segment on pit lane became something of a Twilight Zone on Sunday afternoon. 22 penalties were issued for speeding, and 19 of them occurred in that single segment. Something had to be amiss. (Or perhaps NASCAR hired the East Brandywine police department to enforce the speeding rules. I’m told today there was no speed trap on Horseshoe Pike for the first time since Christmas Day.)

Editor’s Note: That final segment was part of an expansion of timing lines at Pocono, from nine to 10 that occurred during the repaving this offseason. Crew chiefs confirmed they were notified of the changes, given a detailed diagram and several mapped out pit road for their drivers. Speculation on the incident from NASCAR teams, at press time ranged from faulty wiring to the “pit out” line drawn in the wrong place (some teams speculated by as much as 10 feet) or even straight-up driver error. However, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton vehemently denied there were any problems, telling Jeff Gluck of SB Nation and others, “There’s nothing wrong with the loops. There’s a time to pass over them, [they] calculate the speed and that’s the end of it. Pretty simple.”

Anyone else notice with the speeds at Pocono a lot of the teams had their cars dog-tracking again? (In other words, the body is skewed off-center from the chassis.) At Michigan next week, you’ll probably be able to read the numbers off the door standing dead straight ahead of those cars.

Why do the caution periods have to be so long at Pocono? It takes two and a half minutes for the pace car to circuit the track with the field in tow. That ought to be plenty of time to grab an errant piece of debris; instead, three cautions to clean it all up took an average of about five laps apiece. Oh, and whatever brand of oil dry they use at Pocono, it’s time to switch to something else.

Good manners “refrains” me from dwelling too long on this week’s one-race suspension Kurt Busch earned for his post-race comments to the press after the Nationwide Series race at Dover. I’ve watched a lot of “fans” pile on the reporter involved, but here’s the deal. If a driver feels a question is inappropriate or leading, how difficult is it to simply reply, “I have no comment on that?” It’s a lot more social than expressing a wish to do somebody bodily harm. Secondly, I hate this notion that Busch isn’t hurting anyone but himself. Busch’s attitude is keeping the No. 51 team from signing a sponsor and that puts the jobs of those hard-working guys and gals at James Finch’s shop at risk. My guess on how this one plays out tomorrow (Tuesday) when Finch and Busch have their “come to Jesus” meeting to discuss what happens going forward? Busch will keep the ride but he’ll lose it before August for mouthing off on the radio yet again. The former Cup champion’s career has suffered a fatal, self-inflicted wound; it’s just going to take a few weeks to bleed out.

Speaking of self-inflicted wounds… why the hell was qualifying allowed to start on Saturday with the track so covered with Speedy-Dry that clouds were forming behind the cars as they entered turn 1 (and started a sideways trip towards the outside wall.) C’mon, really, NASCAR is supposed to be a professional sport, right? If nothing else, they could have learned a lesson from the Daytona 500 and soaked the offending parts of Pocono with Tide.

In Friday practice, Stephen Leicht hit a woodland mammal out on the track he told his team he thought might have been a beaver. Fortunately, the car wasn’t too extensively damaged but Ward, I think there’s something wrong with the beaver. Run-ins with wildlife aren’t uncommon at Pocono, with everything from squirrels and rabbits right up to whitetail deer having wandered onto the track during races. I’d say the most bizarre instance of “wild life” intruding on the track was a drunken fan, back in 1993 who decided to sprint across the speedway directly in the path of race leaders Kyle Petty and Davey Allison. Ward, I think there was something wrong with that fool as well. (Said rocket scientist then hopped over the wall and got lost in the woods. Seeking help, he set a signal fire which allowed State Police troopers to find him and place him under arrest.)

Anyone hear a rumor that Twitter and NASCAR have formed some sort of alliance? Yeah, talk about it has been so incessant this week even I figured out how to go look at the #NASCAR page. I felt like an adult attention deficit disorder sufferer at a really bad cocktail party. There were tons of people talking incessantly without saying much of anything. Though it’s still lost on me, I’m told one of the charms of this whole Twitter thing is the egalitarian nature of the medium. But with this #NASCAR tag, a Twitter team decides whose comments get posted and which don’t make the cut. They say they are “curating” the comments. I guess “curate” is French for “censoring.” Editor’s Note: NASCAR has maintained there is no censoring involved, as an algorithm goes into selecting the Tweets. No NASCAR employee was reportedly part of the actual Twitter selection process so as to maintain a sense of independence.

Vanilla Ice at a NASCAR race? Really? Vanilla Ice driving a late ’80s 5.0 Mustang convertible replete with the ugly ass “GT” batmobile body cladding and chromed wheels? I think I felt a little vomit in my throat. (But for the record, Mr. Ice was once a championship-caliber motocross racer.) I’m fearful Meatloaf might be the Grand Marshal at Michigan.

I guess I’ve never understood NASCAR, which bills itself as a family sport (and it is if you happen to be a member of the France family) being used to promote an R-Rated movie. That’s just me. I don’t understand domestic violence being used to sell fried chicken, either.

10 teams employed a start-and-park strategy at Pocono, the most ever. Ever wonder why NASCAR doesn’t limit the field to 33 competitive entries to end this foolishness?

Even though he finished eighth, most of the email I’ve gotten so far about Pocono has been about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s incredibly awkward post-race interview. According to USA Today’s Nate Ryan, Junior thought the interview was taped, not live and an unruly fan looking for autographs distracted him to the point that he wanted to start over.

Yes, I heard the rumor that Jerry Springer is considering sponsoring the No. 51 team and Kurt Busch. Sounds to me like an adept marketing ploy by both Springer, to get his name out there and the Phoenix Racing team to remind folks they are looking for sponsorship. Sure, Kurt Busch in the Jerry Springer Chevy… with Lindsay Lohan filling in on weeks Busch is suspended.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

For the second straight weekend, Kyle Busch’s efforts were derailed by engine failure. Busch was 30th in line when the pay window opened.

Greg Biffle led a lot of laps and clearly had a fast car before losing a cylinder and falling off the pace en route to a 24th-place finish.

Kasey Kahne charged into the top 10 late in the race only to slide sideways into Denny Hamlin. That apparently bent up the No. 5 car badly enough that eventually, Kahne lost a tire and slapped the wall hard. He wound up 29th in the final tally.

To finish first, first you have to finish. This obvious lesson was apparently lost on Aleks Gregory, who managed to wreck out on the pace laps in Saturday’s ARCA race.

Carl Edwards qualified for the outside pole but on the first lap got hit by Hamlin from behind. That shoved a fender into his tire, though fortunately for the No. 99 team, a caution flew that same lap. Edwards then got nailed for speeding on pit road and an additional penalty for failing to line up where NASCAR directed him to do so for a restart. After that type of beginning, maybe an 11th-place finish wasn’t a complete disaster?

A questionable “fuel only” call by his crew chief late in the event sent Jeff Gordon back onto the track deep in the field. He eventually finished 19th. Yep, passing was difficult at Pocono but his teammate Earnhardt employed the same strategy and emerged from the pits just one position ahead of Gordon; in that case, the No. 88 went on to finish eighth.

AJ Allmendinger emerged from his car shaken and sore after a hard impact with the turn 2 wall. He wound up 31st.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Jimmie Johnson was hit twice with pit road speeding penalties, then had his car get out from under him on a late restart, surrendering about a dozen positions. Still, he soldiered on and surged back to a fourth-place finish.

Despite hitting Edwards on the first lap and getting hit by Kahne late in the going, Hamlin still managed to finish fifth at one of his best tracks.

Clint Bowyer was yet another unfortunate recipient of a speeding penalty but he managed to drive on to a sixth-place result. It’s a lot easier when a third of the field has the same problem…

Worth Noting

  • Logano’s win was the first Cup victory for him since a rain-shortened event at New Hampshire in June of 2009.
  • Martin remains winless at Pocono over a career spanning 30 years despite now having finished second here seven times.
  • Logano was the first pole winner to win a Cup race since Ryan Newman at New Hampshire last July, a span of 31 races.
  • Four drivers: Matt Kenseth, Hamlin, Biffle and Johnson lead the pack with seven top-five finishes in this season’s 14 Cup points races. Earnhardt continues to lead all drivers with 11 top-10 results in those events.
  • The top-10 finishers at Pocono Sunday drove four Toyotas, five Chevys and a Ford. Brad Keselowski way back in 18th was the best-finishing Dodge driver.
  • Martin’s second-place result was his best since he was also runner-up at Dover last spring. Martin’s last Cup victory occurred at New Hampshire in the fall of 2009.
  • In the last six races, Stewart has finished third three times and 24th or worse in the other three races.
  • Hamlin (fifth) has managed three top-five results in the last four Cup races.
  • Bowyer (sixth) hasn’t led a lap since Martinsville.
  • Kenseth (seventh) has strung together a streak of nine straight finishes of 11th or better.
  • Paul Menard’s ninth-place finish was his best since Las Vegas.
  • In 10 consecutive races, Earnhardt (eighth) has missed the top 10 just once, at Darlington.
  • Jamie McMurray’s 10th-place result was his best since Bristol.
  • Newman’s 12th-place run marks his eighth straight race without a top-10 result.
  • Kahne’s 29th-place disaster ends a streak of seven straight top-10 finishes.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (17th) hasn’t managed a top-10 finish since Bristol.
  • Biffle’s 24th-place drive was easily his worst of the season, eclipsing an 18th-place result at Richmond.

What’s the Points?

Kenseth takes over the championship lead after Pocono and is now ten points ahead of second-place Earnhardt. Former points leader Biffle slides down two spots to third after his engine woes. Hamlin and Johnson hold station in fourth and fifth places, respectively, with more than a full race’s cushion on 11th-place Edwards.

Kevin Harvick (+1), Martin Truex Jr. (-1), Tony Stewart, Bowyer (+1) and Keselowski (+1) round out the top 10 in the standings. Kyle Busch, whose mechanical problems had him tumbling three spots now moves to the first “wild card” position in 12th place. Menard leapfrogs up three spots to 13th in the standings, still winless and would miss the Chase if the season ended now along with Edwards. The second “wild card” position is actually a tie; Newman and Logano have the same number of points, but Newman’s extra top-five finish is enough to give him the edge.

Further back, Kahne’s wreck dropped him two spots to 16th. Teammate Gordon’s still mired at 22nd in the standings (down a spot from last week), just 10 points ahead of Martin who has sat out three races this season.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — I’ll give this one four icy cold bottles of Corona with a Gentleman JD chaser added for the final 10 laps.

Next Up – The Cup series heads off for a Father’s Day weekend stop in the Irish Hills of Michigan. It’s the second straight visit to a track that’s been newly repaved.

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