ONE: The Outlaw Back in Victory Lane
Kurt Busch took his 28th career victory Monday in the rain-delayed Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400, leading 32 laps before taking his third career victory at the Tricky Triangle. It was Busch’s first trophy earned there in nine years, a key moment in a season that had been quietly building toward this climax. His 12 top-10 finishes lead the Cup Series, that consistency key for Busch’s push to win a second title but his trip to Victory Lane has now cemented his status as a contender.
This performance snapped a 34-race winless streak and didn’t come easy for the Las Vegas native. Busch had to work hard to pass the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Chase Elliott in the latter stages of the race, then had to save fuel over the final run after his fill-in crew chief, Johnny Klausmeier informed him he was two laps short. Busch ran aggressive enough to keep the HMS twosome in his rearview mirror and won handily, never running out of gas even after multiple burnouts on the frontstretch.
The victory all but ensures that the Outlaw will return to the Chase in 2016, joining eight others with wins through 13 races in the Sprint Cup season.
TWO: Keselowski’s Body Modification
Teams are always trying to gain an advantage on track, and this week it was Brad Keselowski’s turn to get caught. Following a pit stop under caution Monday, Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford was black-flagged after the jackman leaned into it during the stop, causing a dent that would impact the aerodynamics of the car. The team endured a return trip to pit road, then a pass-through penalty under green that effectively killed off the driver’s chances to win from the pole.
Keselowski said he wasn’t sure exactly why the team was scrutinized, even cutting down FOX analyst Jeff Gordon for wrongly comparing an earlier “hip-checking” incident for the No. 2 car at Las Vegas. However, following the conclusion of the event NASCAR sent an official to stand next to the affected area of the car, ensuring nothing was touched. The sport has been stringent on body modifications in recent years, banning flared side skirts and in-race modifications. The No. 2 may just be on the penalty report come Wednesday.
THREE: What Rookie Curse?
Pocono has the stigma of being rough on rookies, and for good reason: the track’s three unique turns and exclusion from the XFINITY Series schedule until 2016 made it hard for newbies to acclimate. In fact, only one rookie has won at Pocono — Denny Hamlin, who did the deed twice.
But Hamlin is the anomaly, and while 2016 rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney didn’t take home the win, they tended more toward the Hamlin side of the scale with their performances in Monday’s race.
Elliott led a race-high 51 laps and looked like he would take the victory until an aggressive pass on teammate Earnhardt let Busch by. The notoriously-hard-on-himself Elliott said he learned a lot for the next race at Long Pond and was proud of his run.
Blaney, on the other hand, didn’t lead any laps but used his previous Camping World Truck Series experience at the track—he won the 2013 race—to guide him to a 10th-place finish. Despite Wood Brothers Racing not having run a full schedule in a decade, the team has certainly returned to its competitive-every-week self, and Blaney is a large part of that turnaround.
FOUR: What Winless Streak Will Fall Next?
Busch’s victory was his first in 34 races, a streak that dates back to the June Michigan race of last season. The week before in Charlotte, Martin Truex, Jr. broke a 34-race streak that dated back to Monday’s race.
So who might be next? Earnhardt’s streak stands at 15 races, while Hamlin hasn’t won in 13 races since his Daytona 500 triumph. Joey Logano hasn’t tasted victory champagne in 17 races, and Greg Biffle’s last win came at Michigan, 107 races ago.
Blaney and Brian Scott are the only active drivers with a winless streak in the 30s, the same range that Busch and Truex were in when they won. Scott most likely won’t win at Michigan, but Blaney’s Team Penske connections make him an interesting pick at the Brooklyn track. He finished second there in the Truck Series last season.
FIVE: Chase Grid Lookout
The regular season is halfway over and while the Chase Grid is largely filled with drivers one would expect, there are a couple of surprises highlighted by the young gun trio of Blaney, Elliott and Austin Dillon. What’s more interesting are the first four drivers on the outside looking in: AJ Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Trevor Bayne.
For Allmendinger, it’s apparent that he’s no longer just a road course threat. While he won’t contend weekly for wins on ovals, he’s been running well enough to be a scant four points out of the Chase cutoff. With Sonoma and Watkins Glen still on the schedule, a win could very easily leapfrog him into the top 16, but even solid finishes could net him a berth on points. For Kahne, 18th in points isn’t what the No. 5 team was expecting, but despite the lack of speed he’s still knocking on the door.
The Roush Fenway Racing duo of Stenhouse and Bayne lead a resurgent team that doesn’t look ready to win races yet but is rediscovering some of the speed it lost over the past two years. Bayne’s team has made some gutsy strategy calls in pursuit of victory and his Sprint Showdown triumph a couple weeks back shows that he can wheel it with the best of them. For Stenhouse, a 19th-place points position is a return to the position he held in his rookie season. With another Bristol race coming up, it wouldn’t be a huge shock to see the No. 17 sneak in a victory and make the Chase.