Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered with each week with the answers to six race-day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
For most of the race, Greg Biffle was an afterthought mired deep in the field. But thanks to some timely strategy, Biffle made it into the top 10 with 10 laps to go and didn’t look back, leading 11 laps late in the going. Biffle didn’t have a car good enough to win, but he hasn’t made much noise this year and made some on Sunday. Biffle has only led 109 laps all season long and Sunday’s race was just his third top-five finish of the year, but the good news is that he gained three spots in points to sit 13th in points. He’s not out of Chase contention yet.
What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?
It’s probably a safe bet that most teams’ pre-race contingency plans didn’t include a plan for the Big One, but it went down on Sunday and ruined the day for several teams. Denny Hamlin got sideways on the lap 117 restart, Brian Vickers checked up, Matt Kenseth didn’t, and it all went downhill from there. Hamlin righted his car and drove on, but in his wake, a multi-car crash reminiscent of Daytona or Talladega involved Vickers, Kenseth, Tony Stewart, AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, Kevin Harvick, Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Martin Truex Jr. and Marcos Ambrose. Carl Edwards escaped the initial crash but damaged his car when he dove onto the apron to avoid it, running over several storm drains. Stewart’s car was sitting on top of Menard’s when the smoke cleared. Some of those involved were able to continue, but for some Chase hopefuls without a win, including Kenseth, Stewart and Vickers, another week goes by without that chance.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kyle Larson won his first career pole this weekend, and looked like he might be able to top his fifth-place run in June. Larson’s car faded somewhat early, and while he was still fast, running in the top 10 for most of the day, he never really looked like a winner and had to settle for finishing 11th. But what Larson has shown this season is that he can run up front in the Cup Series and he is already a threat to win races even though he has yet to complete his rookie year. A trip to victory lane is looking not just like a possibility as Larson gains experience, but like a foregone conclusion.
Kasey Kahne was holding the trophy in the August race at Pocono a year ago, but he hasn’t held another one since. Kahne ran as high as second on Sunday, but never led a lap and wasn’t a contender. He finished 10th, his ninth top 10 of the year, but time is getting short for a Chase berth and Kahne isn’t looking like a winner. His recent results aren’t bad, but they aren’t as good as his teammates’ finishes this year, either. With Chase Elliott racking up the wins in the Nationwide Series, Kahne can’t afford to keep searching for his mojo.
When… did it all go sideways?
Tire issues continued to plague Jimmie Johnson, who had a flat tire on lap 10 and got into the wall; Johnson reported a vibration later in the race, and though it seemed to correct itself, Johnson later blew another tire and slammed the wall, knocking himself out of the race. It’s possible the No. 48 team is just testing for the Chase at this point — they’ve done it before. Still, it’s clear that whatever they’re doing to find speed isn’t working with the tires Goodyear is providing, and they need to try something else if Johnson is going to be a serious contender for a record-tying seventh championship this year.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch has also had a long, trying summer, and this week it was engine issues on lap 24 that left Busch in 42nd place. Joe Gibbs Racing is struggling to find speed and durability, and that’s left them behind the eight-ball as well as the Chase draws closer. As summer heads towards fall, the Chase picture is becoming clearer, and there are some early favorite teams who either aren’t showing their hands yet, or who are truly struggling.
Why… did Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the race?
On a day that came down to a variety of strategies, a Big One, and some hard driving, Earnhardt showed his mettle and that of the No. 88 team. The No. 88 wasn’t the best car all day (that alternated between the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon and the No. 41 of Kurt Busch), but the team made the best calls on pit cycles and Earnhardt made the most of that, making the winning pass on Biffle and then holding off all comers on the final restart of the day to take his third victory of the year and, at least for now, the top Chase seed.
Is this the year when Earnhardt fulfills what many fans have considered to be his destiny and becomes a Sprint Cup champion, following in the footsteps of his namesake? If it is, nobody who’s paying attention should be surprised. Earnhardt has shown that he’s more focused on that end than he ever has been, and he’s got the benefit of maturity and experience behind him, something he still lacked in his days at Dale Earnhardt Inc. That experience and a renewed hunger, along with the confidence that he can win under this Chase format, could be a dangerous combination as the title run draws closer.
How… did the little guys do?
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Simply put, this team needed the top-15 finish they took home this week. Mears’ 12th-place run was his best at Pocono (a track where he has a pair of ARCA wins) since 2007 and nearly a dozen spots better than his Pocono Cup average. Mears reported a “real bad vibration” at lap 75, but things improved and he ran solidly inside the top 15 for much of the day with stints inside the top 10 and top five. Mears gained a pair of spots in driver points this week and now sits atop the small-team list.
HScott Motorsports; Allgaier (No. 51 AccuDoc Chevy): Allgaier was strong throughout the day, running inside the top 15 for much of the afternoon and working his way has high as fourth. Even after suffering minor damage in the 13-car pileup on lap 117, Allgaier grabbed his best finish since Michigan in June, coming home 16th.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 A&W/CSX Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): Pocono provided a good, solid weekend for the FRM pair with both Gilliland and Ragan finishing inside the top 20, with Gilliland in 17th and Ragan 19th, For Gilliland, it was the best result he’s had in 2014.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & Ryan Truex (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Toyota of Scranton Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): True has struggled the most of the BK teammates in 2014, but this week, he was his team’s best driver, taking home a top 20 and his career-best finish in 20th spot. Whitt was right behind his teammate in 21st, while Bowman struggled a bit more, finishing 31st.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Annett & Reed Sorenson & Dave Blaney (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Chevy & No. 37 Accel Chevy): Annett continues to impress with decent finishes for Baldwin’s underfunded operations, and this week, despite being involved in the lap 117 melee, Annett again had a sold finish in 22nd. Sorenson, who has struggled this summer, finished a respectable 27th, his best since Kentucky. Blaney, running a third TBR entry this week, also had a good day for the team’s level of funding, finishing 26th. Placing three teams in the top 30 is a step in the right direction for this group.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Chevy): Wise posted his fifth straight top-30 finish this weekend. Considering that this team only finished seven races last year, they’re taking all the right steps toward being one of the better teams within their small team category.
GoFAS Racing; Travis Kvapil (No. 32 Ford): This team has struggled, but Pocono was unusually kind to Kvapil, whose 25th-place run was his best so far in 2014.
Circle Sport; Alex Kennedy & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Thunder Coal Chevy & No. 40 Newtown Building Supplies Chevy): Cassill’s day ended after just 28 laps after he lost a tire and hit the wall, causing so much damage he couldn’t steer the car to the garage. Cassill wound up 41st. Kennedy didn’t have a brilliant day, but he had a pretty good one for his bargain-basement team, posting a 28th-place finish.
JTG Daugherty Racing; Allmendinger (No. 47 Scott Products Chevy): Allmendinger started out the weekend well, qualifying 20th, and he had a couple of stints inside the top 10, but the No. 47 got some damage in the lap 117 crash, and then finished itself off after contact with the wall on lap 139. Allmendinger’s 34th-place result is his worst since Daytona in July, and cost him two spots in points.
Jay Robinson Racing; Joe Nemechek (No. 66 Land Castle Toyota): Nemechek struggled all day, racing in the mid-30s even before contact with Kahne on lap 51 sent him packing in 40th spot.