It has been approximately seven months since Kyle Larson pulled into Victory Lane in any of NASCAR’s premier divisions. However, that all changed Saturday for the inaugural XFINITY Series contest at Pocono Raceway.
The forecast predicted that after Friday’s half-day full of rain, Saturday would have a blue, sunny sky with a slight chance of precipitation. But that chance was all that was necessary to cut short a race that was being widely celebrated among the crowd at the 2.5-mile track.
As the rains came, Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet edged down pit road slowly as the leader, pacing the field for 27 laps. Prior to the caution on Lap 53, he had an intense battle after the penultimate caution with Ty Dillon, who was victorious at Pocono’s sister track — Indianapolis Motor Speedway — in 2014. Hanging within five car-lengths of Larson, Dillon pressured him as the dark clouds approached. But when the inevitable rainstorm enveloped the track, the caution and eventually the red flag was displayed just after Erik Jones passed the No. 3 car to push his way back into contention.
Larson paced back and forth on pit road, going from sitting on pit wall with crew members to walking around near his car during the delay. With a glimmer of blue skies, it appeared briefly as if the race would be restarted. As the Air Titan 2.0 slowly circled the racetrack, though that glimmer turned into false hope.
NASCAR called the race one hour and 35 minutes following the display of the red flag on Lap 53, handing Larson the first Pocono victory in XFINITY Series history.
Will it be a momentum builder for tomorrow? In four prior Cup Series starts at Pocono, Larson has a best finish of fifth, coming in his debut at the track in 2014. His average finish at Pocono stands at ninth, with an 18th-place result in the 2014 Truck Series race and his lone ARCA Series win occurring inside the same year.
Larson’s victory marks the first XFINITY Series win for Chip Ganassi Racing since Reed Sorenson brought home a trophy at Gateway Motorsports Park in July 2007. The organization partnered with HScott Motorsports last year to form HScott Motorsports with Chip Ganassi, but separated to have CGR field two full-time cars in 2016, including a Rookie of the Year and title run with Brennan Poole.
Saturday’s race at Pocono also marks the first time a new track has been on the XFINITY Series schedule since the Mid-Ohio SportsCar Course was added to the schedule in 2013.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Daniel Suarez continues to lead the XFINITY Series standings, holding an 11-point advantage ahead of Elliott Sadler. Sadler and Jones continue to be the lone drivers locked into the Chase courtesy their wins during the season. The remaining Chase Grid is as follows: Suarez (408 points), Ty Dillon (-18), Brendan Gaughan (-45), Brandon Jones (-51), Justin Allgaier (-53), Brennan Poole (-65), Darrell Wallace, Jr. (-100), Ryan Reed (-134), Blake Koch (-142) and Ryan Sieg (-145). Ross Chastain is currently the first driver outside of the Chase bubble with Jeb Burton not attempting the race at Pocono.
JGR continued its dominance of the series Saturday afternoon. While the team lost its track position during the final set of pit stops, all three cars finished inside the top 10.
Kyle Busch, who led 16 laps on the day, took advantage of starting on the front row. His No. 18 car held a commanding lead before the competition caution on Lap 15. Busch wound up further back in the field, the victim of pit strategy but was able to fight his way to fourth by the checkered flag. Meanwhile, Jones cut back through traffic quicker, emerging with the fastest JGR Toyota and had just climbed back to second place when Mother Nature put an end to his momentum.
Daniel Suarez struggled compared to his teammates, never truly contending but still emerged from the race with a quality top-10 finish. That left him the series point leader and kept his edge mostly intact heading to a stretch of races the No. 19 team is confident they’ll succeed (Michigan, Iowa, Daytona).
Justin Allgaier felt like he had “a car capable of contending for a top 5” entering Pocono. However, the No. 7 car didn’t last long on the racetrack. On Lap 19, he got into the wall coming off Turn 2.
Entering Sunday’s race, Allgaier sat third in the series standings.
— NASCAR Xfinity (@NASCAR_Xfinity) June 4, 2016
The end result was a trip behind the wall, a 39th-place finish behind even some of the start-and-park teams and a drop to fifth in points. Clearly, it’s not the day JR Motorsports expected after Allgaier had three straight top-5 finishes heading in.
Saturday was not Ryan Reed’s day.
First, Reed’s radio went dead. Then, several laps before the halfway mark, he made contact with Ryan Sieg, who competes for his family-owned team, on the Long Pond straightaway.
With 62 laps remaining in the race, the Roush Fenway Racing driver cut a tire heading into Turn 1. Reed moved up high, attempting to save his No. 16 car, but couldn’t control his Ford. Jeremy Clements drove right into Reed exiting the corner, destroying both racecars.
— Xfinity Racing (@XfinityRacing) June 4, 2016
During the red flag period, Sieg and Reed had a confrontation. With both drivers returning to their haulers, which are parked next to each other, Sieg threw a punch and the No. 16 crew reportedly went after the driver, who had a handful of crew members by his side. Evidently, the chaos ended with Sieg mouthing off about Reed, who in turn attempted to take the high road, saying he wants to talk things over. Neither side looks good after physical contact, both on and off the track and it’ll be interesting to see if NASCAR issues any penalties on the situation later this week.
Underdog Performers of the Race
JJ Yeley finished 13th for TriStar Motorsports, another solid lead-lap effort for the program. Since taking over the No. 44 car, replacing David Starr, Yeley has three top 15s compared to none for Starr in the first seven races of the XFINITY Series season. After not having a ride late in the offseason, Yeley landed at TriStar at Atlanta, piloting the team’s No. 14 car before moving over to the No. 44, which has funding from Zachry.
Mario Gosselin ended the day on the lead lap for the second time in his XFINITY Series career. Driving his self-owned No. 90 Chevrolet, Gosselin earned his second career top-20 finish, ending the day in 20th. Quebec native Martin Roy has been piloting the car when Gosselin is not racing, earning a best result of 25th at Texas.
Double Duty Interlopers
Eight drivers in the Pocono Green 250 are scheduled to run the Sprint Cup race Sunday afternoon. Among those performing double duty are Larson, Busch, Paul Menard, Logano, Ty Dillon, Aric Almirola, Josh Wise and Matt DiBenedetto. Additionally, Brandon Jones ran the ARCA Series event on Friday afternoon, finishing third.
The Final Word
The first XFINITY Series race at Pocono Raceway might not have been what was expected. But that’s life. You can’t control Mother Nature and it’s hard to judge the first effort based on an event that barely made it past halfway.
Larson’s win marks the ninth time a Sprint Cup regular has won in the XFINITY Series this year. While JGR’s two-race win streak came to an end, Larson brought Chevrolet its fifth win of the season in NASCAR’s second-tier division.
The race featured six lead changes between five drivers, with 43 of the 53 laps led by Larson or Busch. In 133 miles compared to the originally scheduled 250, Saturday’s race featured more than half the lead changes that Indianapolis saw last July. It also equates the number of lead changes from the second XFINITY Series race at Indianapolis in 2013.
Meanwhile, Suarez’s championship lead is staying steady. He continues to show improvement, including a shot at a top 5 until he dropped back to ninth during the final 10-lap stint prior to the caution. However, the driver of the No. 19 car is still missing his first victory, one that he continuously says will be the difference maker in his title hopes.
“We had no radio from the start of the race, so I could hear the spotter, but I couldn’t talk to him. We were on the splitter really hard. I don’t know why. We weren’t having a very good run, and we were also dealing with all that. I felt like we were going to have a decent day.
“The [No.] 39 crowded us getting into [Turn] 1 and took all the air off us. I was just holding on the bottom. I didn’t hit him on purpose. I was just trying not to wreck. I got into his door and sent him in the wall and cut our tire. Hopefully, we can go out there next time and he can give me some room.
“It was just a racing deal. Emotions run high obviously. It’s racing, so I look forward to talking about it in a calm, collected manner. We both race every week. It’s not going to do us any good to get out there and have a battle royale. At the end of the day, it’s going to take two parties here to agree, and I think we need to sit down and have a mature conversation. Words were said. Emotions were high. If he’s mad at me, I’ll listen. We can give each other room, or we can go out there and wreck each other.” – Ryan Reed
“Went into Turn 1 and Ryan Reed – I should’ve been a little smarter than I was. You can’t race around the kid. He’s got a lot of money and he’s got a Roush car but he can’t drive it. Just an idiot. Everywhere he goes, it seems like he’s always in a wreck. Money can’t buy skill, obviously, with him. We had a really good car but it just sucks you get torn up here in the garage and have nothing to show for it from somebody that obviously can’t see or he’s brain-dead, can’t drive… probably all three.
“There’s no talking to him. He thinks he does nothing wrong. He hasn’t figured it out yet. Still young, I guess. He kept jabbing off at his mouth and I figured I’d shut it up for him. And then all the crew guys jumped in on me. I couldn’t get a hold of him.
“We only had four against 20 [crewmen], so our odds were a little slim. We only have about four or five people on the car, at the shop and here at the track. Just outnumbered. [The car] is not going to make it to Michigan. That’s the Michigan car so we’re going to have to thrash to get another one ready.” – Ryan Sieg
“It [the XFINITY race] allowed me not to run an ARCA race. There are some tracks that XFINITY doesn’t get to run that Cup does. I like this place. It’s such a tricky track that I ran the ARCA race here in the past, the Truck Series race to try and help myself. It was a pretty obvious race for me to pick to come run. To gain that extra bit of refresher before you get in the Cup race.” – Kyle Larson