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Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2015 Pocono Spring Race Recap

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.)

The Key Moment – On the final restart, Jimmie Johnson held up Kevin Harvick just long enough to allow Martin Truex Jr. to sail off into the sunset.

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.

Worth Noting

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?

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kb

..Tis amazes week in and out…the shenanigans of Team Chad plays on…every other Team is penalized for the rest of the season with something or another and all team members are made to walk around with a “Scarlet C” on their
firesuits. A issue mid race with a tire for Jimmie and a miraculous 3 place finish. This stuff is just to weird. Imo of course.

Bill B

I rarely check the notes prior to the article, I just assumed that the usual writer penned the article. When I saw the line “me and my buddies WERE the trouble in the tunnel turn” it made me check and, sure enough, I was right, Matt was at the helm this week.

As for the race, I thought it was decent as races at Pocono go. Let’s just say it exceeded my expectations.

Nice of you to point out the folly of using number of passes as any kind of litmus test as to how good the racing was. I get so tired of hearing about that, when in reality that stat has little bearing on the race itself.

Didn’t hear about Johnson failing inspection twice. Speaking of Johnson, is it just me or does it seem like when he has an issue that the caution comes out faster than when other guys have the same issue. I forget who had a tire go down early in the race (Menard maybe?) but they got on the apron and drove back to the pits with no flag. Johnson had the same issue and was also on the apron but that flag flew really quickly. Later, Danica spins out and goes right into the pits with no flag. IMO, none of those warranted a flag (although Danica’s spin could have) but somehow the 48 gets the flag so that the results of their issue is minimized. Coincidence?

kb

..Well people are starting to pay attention, every time Johnson’s car has the slightest of anything a caution immediately is thrown, he goes to the pits and whatever “work” they do on it, no matter what it is..he ALWAYS
is on the lead lap and never a lap down. The whole midrace Johnson thing as a stranger odor to it.
The immediate caution courtesy cannot be said for his fellow drivers.

Bill B

I’ve felt they’ve ran some extra caution laps than needed on a few occasions to let them fix his car without going a lap down. But, I admit, I am bias against him so maybe that is just my perception.

kb

Perception is often times fact. And there is truth in that. Noticed it for years. More people are starting to catch on. One of the many things you notice when you pay attention.

Sue

Bill, I also noticed that when Johnson blew a tire, Mike Joy hardly had time to mention it B4 the caution was out, so of course the 48 was able to recoup under the caution. And also someone needs to keep oxygen in the booth for Larry Mac now that the Toyos are running better. Gees he is so obvious.

JohnQ

Sue, When Toyota wanted to enter NASCAR via the truck series they went out and bought Larry to put together their first team. As I’ve yet to see anywhere that they have sold him you can assume that Toyota still owns him.

Bill B

Sue, glad I wasn’t the only one that felt that way. We must be imagining it, right? :)

Hank

Good call on the spinning onto pit road with no yellow. Last week at Dover there was a yellow for a loose tire on pit road..how’s that any worse than a car spinning onto pit road? I guess it just depends on circumstances, right? I got home in time to see the last 30 laps after watching the first 20 then running some errands. It wasn’t bad, no worse than what we’ve seen all year long, with the leader pulling way in front, then Harvick/Truex/Johnson, another gap, and finally the rest of the field kinda close.

Steve B

Holy Hell, a Matt M. sighting. as always, excellent insight Matt.

janice

i was wondering what outpost channel racing was on this weekend. don’t get foxsports2.

saw when i flipped to pre-race noise on foxsports1 (raceday i think) that they said the 48 was having difficulty getting through inspection and they were on their 3rd try.

race was on but i only really paid attention to the last 20 or so laps to see if martin would win. congrats to him and the little team that tries and tries. it was nice seeing crew chiefs and owners, that were at the track, congratulating the team and crew chief on their way to v/lane.

i wasn’t sure what was up with the bumps int he tunnel turn. haven’t they always been there? guess these new fangled cars don’t like bumpy surfaces. i don’t know…….just seemed like a lot of airtime for nothing.

Scott

I keep wondering when NASCAR will adopt some of the pit set-ups for Formula 1. If you have not seen it, they have the lines hung out over the car and they drop down. They don’t have to worry about lines getting run over or tangled.

Then again, it just depends if BZF can make some money off of it!

Paul

I can’t believe NA$CAR would allow a pit crewman to have the air hose attached to him. Can’t wait for him to get dragged down the pit lane!

Scott

Agreed. There is no way that is safe.

The Formula 1 version has a contraption (with lack of a better word!) that sticks out over the pit area. The lines go straight down and, I believe, have a deal that retracts them slightly when not in use.

Carl D.

It appears that the chewed-off tail aero package is the reason there no passing at the Belmont. I’m pretty sure that’s an old Chad Knaus trick.

janice

i thought that was amusing when i heard that his tail had been chewed off by another horse. wonder if the power to be in horse racing mandated tail extensions for the horse to level the playing field?!

Chris

At least they didn’t call a debris caution for tail hair on the track and then trot them around for three laps before a restart. One line that I did hear on the news regarding Belmont was that having a triple crown winner would help build the sport…where did we hear something like that before?

JohnQ

As to the driver’s council, I wonder what can realistically be accomplished? Three or four organizations have become so powerful that even the suggestion of something that they do not like cannot be seriously explored. The mere threat of pulling back or withdrawing financially would be enough to shut down any meaningful change. NASCAR has allowed teams like Hendrick’s 48 to become to powerful to be governed. I cannot see any way the current state of racing can undergo any but the most insignificant of changes.

GinaV24

Congratulations to Truex and his team. They’ve been so close so often and it was nice to see them get the win.

I watched some, but not all of this race – the weather was too nice to be inside all day but I needed to take a break from the heat of doing yard work and came in to see the end of the race. I got there in time to hear Gordon & Gustafson have their argument on the radio. Track position being the end all and be all these days – IMO Gordon was right (anyone surprised?) that coming IN again for 4 tires wasn’t going to do it. The last time I heard JG yell at his crew chief like that was when Loomis was his crew chief and they missed the “chase” cutoff at Richmond. He had a new crew chief the following week. Obviously with Jeff getting out of the car, that most likely won’t happen this time, but it certainly did make me think. How in the heck can Johnson spin out and finish in the top 5 (the only HMS car to do that) and the 88, 5 and 24 were all roughly in the mid pack? I know what I think about that and I know some of you do, too – right kb?

Laughing at Matt’s “we were the trouble in the tunnel turn”. Too funny. Also I think the “stats” that NASCAR likes to tout with all of the green flags are all hooey anyway. What is the line – lies, damn lies and statistics? Funny thing, before the COT, before the Chase, whatever, people enjoyed the racing and didn’t need the loop data to be convinced it was a good race.

Hey don’t go dissing Yuengling, Matt – I like Yuengling!

jerseygirl

LOL, I remember Rolling Rock in the pony bottles. My granddad always drank those in the summer (I think my grandmom didn’t want him to drink more beer than that). He used to let me have a sip (even before I was old enough to drink – of course now someone would report that as underage drinking) my mother always said that was why I liked beer when she didn’t. Oh well, she can take the blame for why I don’t drink coffee!

Ha, pony bottle races, huh? Well that sounds like fun and yes I can see why it would make you be “trouble”. We were at Homestead one year and there was a guy with one of those funnel things – he was sitting to our left in the stands and so as I looked that direction to see the cars come thru the turn, I could see him and each time it seemed he was putting another bottle into the funnel. Pretty amazing – hopefully someone else was driving. I have some pretty good memories of sitting next to people who were getting really skunked but were having a great time at the races. The two good ole boys at Charlotte who were fascinated when they found they were sitting next to a Gordon fan – that took a few drinks to wash down and a little bit later, when they asked where I was from and heard the Philly area, well, that took a little more drinking to swallow that news. My brother seemed a little worried by the back & forth, but it was all good and by the end of the night, we were good friends – at least enough so that they offered me a swig from the bottle — and it was NOT beer that they were drinking.

I’m not a big fan of beer that I have to chew and Black & Tan doesn’t sound remotely desirable.

babydufus

golly….
THIS is the writing i miss.
both in the main and the comments it generates.

Dan

You guys will probably say ” oh no not this again”. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. That 48 team is just too good, too smart and too determined to be beat. Therefore at the end Johnson will be hoisting that big trophy once again. The only thing that will keep that from happening is if someone else screws up on track and takes Johnson with them in one of the last 10 races . He also still has the “Golden Horseshoe ” too so I don’t look for that to happen. If it does whoever it is better do enough damage to put him several laps down late in the race or they will come roaring back to stay alive.Hey can you tell I’ve given up hope for everyone else?

Chris

I agree Dan to a point but with the current Chase format it leaves even the pace car as a viable candidate for the Championship.

DoninAjax

So the diva drives for Hendrick. Harvick drives for Hendrick. If the caution was thrown for her spin at the end and Harvick won on the restart…

MilChad

Damn it’s good to read an article written by Matt McLaughlin once again. Nothing against Neff, it’s just that we all grew up on Matt. Please stop by anytime!

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