For Kurt Busch, it was a monster restart with 33 laps to go that sealed the deal in winning the Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 at Pocono Raceway.
The No. 41 Monster Energy Chevrolet stormed past Dale Earnhardt, Jr. before taking off in the final 32 laps to win by 1.126 seconds.
“It’s an amazing feeling when you get to drive into Victory Lane,” Busch said. “Any track, at any weekend, in any time, it’s very special. Overall, a great team effort. Each week we’ve been in position this year and we haven’t sealed the deal. Today we did.”
Despite a gallant effort by both Earnhardt and Brad Keselowski to close, Busch was just quick enough to build a gap and take his third win at Pocono, first of 2016 and 28th of his Sprint Cup Series career.
What makes this win a bit different than recent victories was the man atop the pit box. Following a lug nut penalty after the Coca-Cola 600 last week, Busch’s normal crew chief, Tony Gibson, was on the sidelines, leaving race engineer Johnny Klausmeier to fill in.
Grabbing the win in his first start as crew chief, Klausmeier stayed under the radar in the closing laps.
“He called a perfect race,” Busch said. “To gamble on the fuel a little bit, but he also gave me the ball. He said ‘Hey, we’re two laps short, go get it for us.’ His voice was way more calm than Gibson’s.”
Stealing the lead off the final restart, Earnhardt was in prime position to take his first win of the year, despite struggling with a “15th-or-so-place car” early. Unable to close into Busch’s advantage, Earnhardt nonetheless took his runner-up result happily.“I just started backing the corners up, trying to get to the center enough,” Earnhardt said. “We certainly finished better than we should have. Our car wasn’t quite a second-place car. We certainly made it more competitive.”
Among the hot topics to come out of the 400-mile Monday madness was a drive-through penalty for Keselowski’s No. 2, as NASCAR found an unapproved body modification during a lap-23 pit stop. Rallying through the field to claim third, the pole sitter didn’t lack a level of confusion following the call from NASCAR.
“Of course it’s frustrating,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know what [NASCAR] saw, so it’s not really fair for me to say anything with that. I can tell you that every car I saw had some body modifications on them after pit stops out there today.”
Running down the top duo during the closing laps, Keselowski thinks he could have used another few more circuits to grab a third win of 2016.
“A little more time and I think we could’ve had a shot at it,” he said. “The last four or five weeks we’ve had really strong runs, seems like a bunch of seconds and thirds. Not quite the win we wanted, but a lot to be proud of.”
Unlike the top 3, not everyone exits Pocono with a smile on their face, as a number of on-track accidents made the garage area a busy place.
Matt DiBenedetto brought out the opening caution on lap 3 before slamming the wall on lap 58. Drivers like Austin Dillon, Brian Scott and Michael Annett also pancaked the turn 1 wall throughout the day.
Another touchy moment of the day came between Ryan Newman and Joey Logano, when Newman bumped the No. 22 up the racetrack after the two made slight contact in turn 1. Logano wound up needing to make several pit stops to repair the rear bumper of his Team Penske Ford.
Completing the top 5 was Chase Elliott, who arguably had his strongest race in his rookie season, leading a race-high 51 laps before falling to a fourth-place effort.
“I hope that’s a good sign for races to come,” Elliott said. “We certainly had, I feel like, one of our best days of the year, personally. I thought for us to be able to contend and lead laps all day and have a car that could fight for the lead the majority of the day I thought was great.”
Also making an appearance on Pocono’s hit list was Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, who each crashed separately late in the race shortly after restarts. Johnson slid off the left-rear corner of Casey Mears before pounding the inside turn 1 wall on lap 124, after Kyle Busch hit the wall after contact with Newman’s No. 31 Chevrolet.
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