Editor’s Note: Mike Neff, who usually writes these things these days, was called away by an important assignment at the last minute and asked if I could fill in. (OK, so actually I dragged him out of bed in the middle of the night, stuffed him in a closet, nailed it shut and asked if I could fill in. It’s all good.)
In a Nutshell – Truex led the most laps for the fourth race in a row but this time, it paid off big with a win at Pocono.
Dramatic Moment – On those final restarts, drivers were fanning out six and seven-wide down the frontstretch toward turn 1. In today’s Cup racing, a driver’s best chance to pass is in the first couple laps after a restart, and at the end of a race there’s a whole lot more taking than giving.
What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week – NASCAR has thrown a lot of cautions this year for cars that got out of shape but didn’t actually hit the wall. However, they chose to keep the race under green, letting drivers settle things amongst themselves when Danica Patrick spun out late. My guess is that they’ll say because she spun onto pit road there was no need for a caution flag. Well, that could have gotten real interesting if another driver decided to dive into the pits with a flat tire right then….
Well, folks certainly did kick up a ruckus about some bumps in the tunnel turn this weekend, didn’t they? The tunnel turn has always been the Bermuda Triangle turn of the triangular-shaped track; sometimes things that go in there don’t come out the other side. People used to play a drinking game where everyone had to chug a beer every time someone on MRN hollered, “And there’s trouble in the tunnel turn!” It was best to already be on the list for a liver transplant if you wanted to play. Trouble in the tunnel turn? Lady, for over a decade me and my buddies WERE the trouble in the tunnel turn, centered in the midst of Pocono’s notoriously rowdy infield crowd. In the ultimate irony, several drivers were saying the bumps should be left in place after the race because they give the track “character.”
There was also a lot of pre-race handwringing about new safety equipment pit crew members must now wear when they go over the wall. Many were afraid the new clothes would mess up their timing. Well, that turned out to be another non-issue. In fact, in a season plagued by them there were no reports of loose lugnuts on Sunday, leading one to believe that big “righty tighty, lefty loosey” sign in the No. 88 pits is finally drawing crew members’ attention. There was one incident where Brad Keselowski hit the air hose of the No. 78 team pitted ahead of him as he exited the pits, sending several crew members sprawling, but you can’t blame that on the new safety gear.
I did notice one of the tire changers had his air hose attached to a belt loop of his uniform with just enough free play he could do his job. That way, when he went back around to the left side of the car the air hose went with him without it having to be tossed. What’ll they think of next?
If you’re still paying attention, it was hard to escape news of the meeting of a “Drivers’ Council” with NASCAR officials at Dover last week. A lot of drivers were remarkably upbeat about the Council. While it was hard to escape the story, it was even harder to find anyone willing to talk about what was actually discussed. Oddly enough, NASCAR officials didn’t have a whole lot to say about the matter at all. And whether by coincidence or design CEO Brian France was not at the meeting. Keep your ear to the ground on this one. Imagine a fellow heading to the tavern in the Christmas season of 1773 and telling his friend, “Me thinketh I just seen the oddest thing, Clarence. A bunch of the guys were heading to the harbor dressed up like Indians and muttering something about taxation without representation. What’s up with that?”
A note to the Drivers’ Council. Historically, what works best in seeking change for NASCAR racing is to allow the sanctioning body to take credit for the idea, add that they’ve been planning these changes for years now, and let them accept the handshakes and hosannas for co-opting someone else’s ideas. Every time I read how NASCAR pioneered SAFER barrier technology I feel a little vomit rise in my throat. NASCAR resisted the “soft wall” idea so sordidly you’d have thought the new TV partners had suggested they pay their rights fees in Monopoly money.
Whoops. The No. 48 car had to go through pre-race inspection three times before their Chevy was declared kosher prior to the race. As such, the team and driver will be penalized with a loss of 15 minutes practice time next week at Michigan. No, I doubt they will be. They’ll appeal the penalty because obviously the rules only apply to everyone else. The team’s latest appeal (loss of pit stall selection because of written warnings two straight weeks) is to be heard this Tuesday. Can we just double up and hear both appeals this week to streamline the process? Who is running this appeals panel, Judge Judy?
Talk about a case of Sophie’s Choice for gearheads? Sunday featured the Pocono Cup race on FS1 up against the Canadian Grand Prix on NBC up against the Mecum auction in Seattle, all running concurrently. And of course, for the rest of the week there’s nothing on. Sigh.
It was, in fact a pretty rough weekend for race fans. The Cup race wasn’t the most competitive ever. The IndyCar race at Texas was a blowout. The truck race at Texas was a blowout. Trevor Bayne dominated the ARCA race at Pocono. (A race practically nobody saw because it was on FOX Sports 2, the Bigfoot channel. A lot of folks claim it’s out there but almost nobody has actually seen it.) Lewis Hamilton then started from the pole and led every lap of the Canadian Grand Prix. Hell, even the horse race at Belmont was a blowout. (But you’ve got to give some props to American Pharoah, the multi-million dollar horse with the misspelled name. Fun fact, American Pharoah had his tail chewed off when he was younger. Funny; I never realized he’d been on the Frontstretch staff. Bear with us as the site goes through some growing pains. One of the new writers is growing to be a pain in my….)
Action movie actor and former politician Arnold Schwarzenegger has been tapped to drive the pace car at Sonoma. Wait a second. Isn’t this the guy who tooled around Hollywood in a Hummer H1 with a big block Chevy crate engine then signed a law as Governor so everyone else in California will eventually have to drive hybrids? I’d heard Arnold was slated to do a sitcom based on the old Nanny and the Professor TV show, Nanny and the Terminator.
Rest easy, race fans, FOX’s reign of terror for the 2015 season is almost over. Does anyone else find it ironic that the “Hollywood Hotel” is named after a member of the broadcast crew that’s long since been put out to pasture?
In this era of declining race attendance, it was good to see a nice crowd on hand at Pocono Sunday. But who can resist a chance to see “the world’s largest Men’s Room”, “the biggest solar farm in sports” and the only intentional waterfall at a racetrack all in the same trip? When you travel to Mexico folks will tell you, “Don’t drink the water.” As a Pennsylvanian, I’m here to advise you when you come visit my home state “Don’t drink the Yuengling.” (Editor’s note: Some transplanted Pennsylvanians actually miss the brew.) It has pretty much the same effect.
NASCAR statistics claim that this year, there have been the second most passes in Cup races since the sanctioning body went to electronic scoring in 2005, almost 57,000. (Yep, that works out to about 4,300 passes a race over the last 13. So they’re saying every car passed 100 others per race? I must not have been paying attention.) Here’s the problem with accepting that statistic at face value. Take a big track like Pocono with 40 cars on the lead lap early in the event. The second-place runner dives into the pits under green and 38 cars pass him as his car is serviced. That counts as 38 “passes,” though I doubt many fans would be on their feet cheering. In another scenario, the first- and second-place drivers could dive into the pits at the same time. The leader’s pit stall is before where the start/finish line crosses pit road but the second-place runner’s stall is after the start/finish line. Electronic scoring counts that as a lead change. Yep, lies, damned lies and statistics.
Keeping It Real – Let’s look at passes for the lead at Pocono. Carl Edwards passed polesitter Kurt Busch to lead lap one. Truex wrested the lead from Edwards on lap 15, with Harvick in his wake. Everyone pitted and Truex wound up back in the lead when the pit sequence was over. Harvick then passed Truex to take the top spot on lap 70. Another series of pit stops interrupted the merriment after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. clobbered the wall. Gordon stayed out but pitted a lap later, handing the lead back to Truex on lap 94. Truex surrendered the lead only once for the rest of the race when he dove into the pits for his final stop. Harvick led one lap, and then Truex led the final 26. In reality, he led the last 66 laps with the exception of that one while he was in the pits. I’m counting five on track passes for the lead in a 400-mile race and I’m being generous counting one of those (Jeff Gordon passed Austin Dillon on a restart after they’d both elected to stay out when most others pitted.) A popular finish? Yeah. A competitive race? No, not really.
As the season heads towards the summer doldrums it’s hard to ferret out much news of use. This week, fans of really bad cinema were thrilled to learn that Team Penske drivers Keselowski and Joey Logano will have bit parts (chum?) in Sharknado 3, which could add a NASCAR flair to Oscars night if they emote well. Johnson, meanwhile landed a voice role in a cartoon called “Bubble Guppies.” (Maybe Johnson suffers from galeophobia?) Wow, we’ve come a long way. I remember an era back when this time of year drivers were talking about going fishing at the lake.
The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune
Danica Patrick was running in or around the top 10 in the latter stages of the race, but a trip into the wall and a spin onto pit lane left her 37th in the final rundown. In breaking news this week, it was announced that Patrick is not under consideration for a seat in Gene Haas’s new F1 team next year. In a related matter, Britney Spears is not being considered for a Nobel Peace Prize in physics next year either.
Paul Menard was having a time of it with a pit road speeding penalty followed by a stop-and-go penalty for speeding while serving the original consequences. He also cut down a tire. Eventually, he finished 31st, two laps off the pace. So other than that how was your night at the theater, Mrs. Lincoln?
AJ Allmendinger wrecked hard, taking Ryan Newman out with him and finished 38th. The team’s reason for retirement is officially listed as “radiator.” Yeah, those things will leak some when you put an engine block through them.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was running in the top five most of the day but a little run in with his teammate Kasey Kahne on a restart left him 11th in the final rundown. On the non-restricted tracks, Earnhardt has led just eight laps this season.
The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune
Johnson bought out a caution when he blew a tire. Logano hit the wall in front of the No. 48 and Matt Kenseth pinned Johnson up into the wall as he tried to avoid Logano, causing moderate damage but he elected to stay out. And after all that Johnson finished third. It wasn’t awe-inspiring, but it left a lot of people shaking their heads wondering how that guy is so durn lucky.
It wasn’t shaping up to be a red-letter day for Logano. He had to start the race at the rear of the pack after the team changed gears in the rear differential. (Can we all agree not to write about drivers suffering a leaking rear end anymore? That’s a personal problem epitomized by Tony Stewart’s absence from Victory Lane at Watkins Glen because he’d browned his shorts.) Logano then got nailed for speeding on pit road and later in the race he hit the wall. Logano still finished fourth.
Kenseth also got nailed for speeding on pit road en route to a sixth-place finish. He had that little run in with Johnson to add icing to the cake.
Truex won for the first time since Sonoma in 2013. His only other Cup victory was a rain-delayed race at Dover in the spring of 2007. All three of those wins were scored in the month of June. Truex was also born on June 29, 1980. See, this stuff is the sort of useless information you only get when I’ve got the reins.
Harvick finished second for the eighth time this season. Toss out Bristol and he’d had top 10s in every one of this year’s 14 points races. Oddly enough, Truex also scored his only 2015 finish outside the top 10 at Bristol.
Johnson finished in the top 10 for the eighth straight time in the Pocono spring race.
Kenseth’s sixth-place result was his best at Pocono since 2006.
Jeff Gordon is credited with leading a single lap at Pocono Sunday. Take away the two plate-track races (Daytona and Talladega) and he’s now led 28 laps this season. Gordon has failed to lead a lap in eight of those 12 non-plate races. Hey, Jeff, remember to shut out the lights when you leave, wouldja?
The top-10 finishers at Pocono drove six Chevys (including the top-three finishers), three Toyotas (all out of the Joe Gibbs stables) and a Ford.
Ryan Newman (39th-crash) suffered his first DNF of 2015.
Kyle Larson (eighth) put together back-to-back top-10 finishes for the second time this season. (He finished eighth at Las Vegas and 10th at Phoenix.)
What’s the Points?
The point about points is the Chase concept leaves them basically pointless. Case in point? Truex becomes the tenth different driver to win a Cup race this season and solidifies his grasp on the gold ring. But prior to Sunday, Truex had already scored the second most points of this season, trailing only Harvick so his victory doesn’t push anyone out of one of those top-16 slots.
10 race winners means that there are six slots currently open to make the playoffs based on the classic points system rather than the Chase silliness. Jamie McMurray and Kahne are sitting pretty comfortably right now. Gordon and Menard would currently be ranked 13th and 14th. Aric Almirola and Newman have to sweat it out a bit. If a driver other than one of the 10 that have already won this year were to win at Michigan, Newman would be bumped out of the postseason, at least temporarily. Almirola has just a five-point cushion over Newman, while Clint Bowyer is currently on the outside looking in, 20 points behind Newman.
Kyle Busch’s ninth-place finish moved him up to 39th in the standings. He’s got a ways to go. Maybe green racecars really are unlucky? Ask Ms. Patrick.
Takin’ It to the Bank – Seriously? Who cares? Kurt Vonnegut fans might remember a quote about taking flight, rolling doughnuts and the moon. No NASCAR drivers are going to be forced to subsist on Ramen noodles this week, OK?
Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six Red Bulls, with one being a necessary fix to wake fans up after the race and six being enough to keep fans bouncing off the walls for the rest of the week.) – Well, it’s hard to argue that it was a great race though a lot of people are going to be pleased with the outcome, myself included. It’s always nice to see a single-car team take it to the big boys and a driver who has faced adversity on and off the track return to Victory Lane. We’ll give the race four cans of Red Bull, three for the actuality and one due to sentiment.
Next Up – The Cup stars, their teams, their fast loud cars, and the great big trucks that haul them will be at Michigan for an event that some call a “race.” What Bat time? What Bat channel? What do I look like, a TV Guide?