In many ways, the Sprint Cup Series’ venture to the Pocono Mountains was a microcosm of the season to date. There was a singular figure who led many a lap, multi-time champions finding ways to struggle, and frontrunners succumbing because of the not-so-alive half the alliance between man and machine. The end result was very similar to the way the season started, with a fan favorite prevailing.
This edition is a refresher on several of the trends that have become prevalent in 2014 and a look forward to this week’s action in the Irish Hills. Here’s Who’s Not and Who’s Not:
As Dale Earnhardt, Jr. thanked his sponsors in front of a flowery backdrop in victory lane, the outlook of the NSCS got a little rosier for many NASCAR followers. That’s because the series’ Most Popular Driver further improved his playoff odds (and seeding) with a come-from-behind win, his first ever at Pocono.
It’s been a while since Earnhardt seemed this cheerful — try after the Daytona 500 — and that’s a scary thought (for the competition, of course). After all, a happy driver is a very dangerous one if his last win was any indication. It was after his second Great American Race triumph that Earnhardt reeled off back-to-back runner-up finishes and jumped out to any early lead in the standings.
This time, Earnhardt jumped back to third in points and Sunday puts him in almost unheard-of territory. This is the 10-year anniversary of the last time that the driver of the No. 88 recorded multiples in the win column and keeps him on pace for possibly his greatest year ever from a statistics perspective.
More bad news for everyone else not piloting the No. 88 Chevrolet: Michigan is home to two more Earnhardt triumphs.
Most of Hendrick Motorsports followed suit, as two of the organization’s three other entries posted top 10s. Among them, Jimmie Johnson continued his hot streak despite coming up short of a three-peat. The No. 48’s right front was damaged in a pit road collision with the No. 9 Ford, but a knocked out toe didn’t stop Johnson from posting a sixth. Jeff Gordon was eighth, struggling a bit on restarts but that was still enough to thrust him back into the point lead.
A late-race miscalculation kept Brad Keselowski out of the upper ranks; he’s the reason Earnhardt’s win was labeled come-from-behind, because the Hendrick Motorsports driver was trailing the Blue Deuce all afternoon until Keselowski got a little too close to Danica Patrick. The No. 10 Chevrolet washed up the track into Keselowski’s path, halting his momentum and allowing Earnhardt to make the final pass.
It’s not all bad news for Keselowski, however. He’s riding a streak of three top 10s that have jolted him to fifth in the standings. Besides, Keselowski already has his win, unlike several other Chase hopefuls. There are a few drivers who haven’t broken into the winner club yet who will be looking to continue their good times at Michigan.
Among them: Clint Bowyer, who’s beginning to show signs of a turnaround from his early-season troubles. As the days have begun to heat up, so has the No. 15 team, posting a 7.5 average finish over the past two events. One of the most noticeable reasons for this reversal of fates is a lack of pit road and mental mistakes, both out of the equation over this brief span after plaguing Bowyer for much of the year.
Now Bowyer gets a crack at Michigan — where he’s trending upwards at an alarming rate — at a time when his ‘14 stock is at an all-time high. Since 2011, Bowyer has finished eighth or better in all six Michigan attempts with gradually better results all along the way. And after that? It’s Sonoma, where Bowyer won his first race paired with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012.
Another driver to watch: Martin Truex, Jr. He has back-to-back top 10s for the first time this season and has two top 10s in the last three Michigan races. Suddenly, things are looking up again over at single-car Furniture Row Racing.
Something rare happened to Matt Kenseth at Pocono — and no, it wasn’t good. He suffered a momentary lapse of focus, or at least that’s what seemed to happen when he plowed into the back of Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 shortly after a restart Sunday. In one moment, he changed the face of the No. 20 Camry while losing a chance at a win and the points lead.
Briefly afterward, Kenseth, reduced to a moving roadblock, faded through the pack. He got the break he needed, which allowed the Dollar General pit crew time to attach a new nose without losing a lap, but was never able to regain the speed he showed before the accident.
The good news? Barring another “Grab a Snickers!” moment from Kenseth at Michigan, he finally might have an opportunity to join those already (almost) locked into the playoffs, given his ability to collect top 10s at a highly efficient 62.1 percent clip there.
Judging by that figure, his chances seem a little better than say, a third victory from Kevin Harvick. That said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Harvick post quick time at Michigan, given his ability to do so at almost every stop along the schedule so far. Nevertheless, issues outside of Harvick’s direct control have once again become, well, issues. His most recent run of bad breaks — tire problems — began at Dover and continued at Pocono.
Harvick managed a 14th, but things could have been a lot better for the No. 4 group, something that’s been said excessively of him through 14 rounds.
Remember how three of four Hendrick drivers fared well at Pocono? Well, Kasey Kahne was the odd man out, just as he’s been on more than a few occasions. It was hard to blame Kahne for this one, given his post-wreck radio comments and those given by Carl Edwards, who was caught up in the aftermath.
Kahne told his team that Kyle Busch body slammed the No. 5, sending him hard into the wall. Edwards then drove hard into the rear of the Chevrolet moments later. Edwards said that there was oil on the track, placed in the vicinity of the scene.
Either way, things are absolutely terrible for Kahne, who is having one of the worst years of his career. What’s worse, it’s not as though his Hendrick equipment is off, because three teammates have had little trouble finding the winner’s circle.
Currently, Kahne ranks 21st in the standings; worse, he hasn’t appeared to have a winning car in any race this season, leading only 63 laps along the way. Michigan isn’t exactly an ideal location for Kahne to bust out of his season-long slump, either. His hit-or-miss nature there is illustrated by top 10s peppered with finishes of 28th, 33rd, and 38th over the past few years.
That’s better than what Casey Mears has been able to accomplish lately at Michigan. Mears has been running at the finish only 50 percent of the time over the last six races and finished on the lead lap just twice.