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The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2016 Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400

Who…gets my shoutout of the race?

A lot of drivers go on to great careers without winning a race in their rookie seasons, and some of the sport’s best have had rookie campaigns that certainly didn’t hint of any success to come later.  But first-year driver Chase Elliott is looking closer and closer to finding his first win, and he took one more step in that direction Monday at Pocono, leading 51 laps and getting the bonus points for leading the most laps of the day.  Perhaps the late-race strategy hurt Elliott, or perhaps his car faded just a bit, but whatever the case, the youngster drove like a veteran at a track he’d raced only a couple of times in ARCA.

What…is the takeaway from this race?

Attrition is important.  For what seems like the first time in a long stretch, attrition and varied strategy put some different names near the front of the field and gave their fans hope for if not a win then at least a great finish.  That was once a big part of racing, but in recent years as cars become more durable, teams are painted into tighter boxes on areas such as gears and suspension and drivers are unwilling to dash Chase hopes with a bad finish. It can be frustrating for fans hoping for the chance or at least the illusion of the chance at something a little different.  It’s a risk vs. reward sport, but maybe there needs to be more reward in taking a risk.

Where…did the pole sitter and the defending race winner wind up?

Brad Keselowski had quite a memorable day.  While he didn’t win, Keselowski overcame what could have been a devastating penalty to finish third.  After a crew member was caught on NASCAR’s pit officiating cameras putting a strategic dent in the right rear fender, Kesleowski had to return to pit road under yellow to fix it and again for a stop-and-go under green for the actual penalty.  And it may not be over; NASCAR officials surrounded the car following the race, not allowing team members to touch it.  The puzzling part is that Keselowski had one of the fastest cars at the track already, and with NASCAR’s recent rules crackdowns, why risk a certain penalty in the first place?

Martin Truex, Jr. came to Pocono as both defending race winner and the Cup Series most recent winner after he dominated the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte last week.  But the No. 78 wasn’t up to speed in practice or qualifying, and contact on pit road early in the race was the final nail in the coffin for Truex Monday.  He and his team struggled all day and climbed to 19th after a couple of others ran out of fuel.  It was an uncharacteristically bad day even for a team that’s had its share of lousy luck this season.

When…did it all go sideways?

The first half was relatively tame as teams positioned themselves to be in the hunt later, but there was plenty of late-race mayhem starting with a multi-car crash on a lap 93 restart when Tony Stewart appeared to get loose while racing in the middle of three cars, collecting Danica Patrick with Landon Cassill took the brunt of the chain reaction that caused damage to several cars.  Jimmie Johnson also found himself the victim of a late restart melee when he got onto the apron trying to keep from turning Casey Mears and spun the No. 48 into the inside wall.  Several single-car incidents peppered the box score as well.

For some fans, though, the fact that the race came down to fuel mileage marred their view of the event.  Kurt Busch will become in some minds “only” a fuel-mileage winner for the event.   I don’t buy that; races are won and lost on strategy, and sometimes that means fuel mileage strategy. Sometimes it means saving tires or playing the weather forecast game better than anyone else.  At the end of the day, a win is a win. And fuel mileage not a nail-biter?  Please.  I’d wager that Kurt Busch’s fans were on the edge of their seats in the closing laps, along with the fans of several other drivers.  Mileage races are white-knuckle races in their own right, and they absolutely have a place in the sport.  And the alternative is a couple of well-timed cautions to eliminate mileage in the closing laps of a long green-flag run — and do fans really want to go the route of the caution clock in the Cup Series? Fuel mileage races are a a lot of things, but boring isn’t one of them.

Why…did Kurt Busch win the race?

Busch was able to stretch his fuel to the end, and more importantly, he was in the right position to capitalize on a late restart, where he jumped from fourth to the front as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Chase Elliott raced each other and from there, Busch drove a smart, conservative race, pulling out to a large enough lead so that he could save fuel by shutting the car off for part of each lap.  In doing so, he was able to make a car that was a lap short last until the end with enough left over for some celebratory donuts on the frontstretch. Busch is the second Stewart-Haas Racing driver to see Victory Lane this season, and teammate Tony Stewart was also having a strong day until he was involved in a multi-car crash on a lap 93 restart that also caught SHR driver Danica Patrick in the aftermath.  Is SHR closing the gap on Joe Gibbs Racing as the regular season passes halfway?

How…did the little guys do?

The three best:

Ryan Blaney, Wood Brothers Racing: Ryan Blaney got off to a good start with a 14th-place qualifying run, and while a fast car early gave its driver some problems mid-race as Blaney faded back out of the top 15, a combination of solid strategy and good adjustments to the car helped the team rebound into the top 10 by the end.  That he was second in the Rookie of the Race standings at a track he never raced on before is a testament to how strong Chase Elliott is as well.

AJ Allmendinger, JTG Daugherty Racing: AJ Allmendinger’s day was a bit of a roller-coaster ride, as the driver struggled in qualifying but rallied forward early, only to fade, race back to the top 15, fade again into the low 20s — and rally back to finish 14th.  This team is looking more and more like the real deal each week, as Allmendinger sits just four markers behind Ryan Newman and the last Chase position in the standings.  While it’s entirely possible that Allmendinger will win his way in, with Watkins Glen International being the most likely venue, getting in on points would also be quite an achievement for the single-car team.

Clint Bowyer, HScott Motorsports: In the last month or so, Clint Bowyer has finally begun to get his team to the place it was in late last season—capable of the occasional top 20 and solidly in the top 25 most weeks.  It does seem as though the No. 46 may be holding the organization back somewhat, but it’s hard to say what needs to be changed, as a driver change would result in the loss of sponsor Pilot Flying J, which would be a blow to the team regardless of the driver.  Overall, though, the No. 15 does appear to be getting back on its feet.  Or wheels.

All the rest:

No.DriverTeamCarStartFinish / Notes+/-Points Position
21Ryan BlaneyWood Brothers RacingMotorcraft / Quick Lane Ford14th10th
Strong early but faded; clearly frustrated on the radio but was able to use mileage racing and good adjustments to his advantage
+415th
47AJ AllmendingerJTG Daugherty RacingBush’s Grillin’ Beans Chevy32nd16th
Moved into the top 15 early and stayed there for most of the day, faded back to low 20s late before rebounding to 16th
+1617th
15Clint BowyerHScott MotorsportsVisine Chevy23rd18th
Very strong day for this team, running inside top 20 all day
+523rd
+2
95Ty DillonCircle Sport-Leavine Family RacingBVT / Blake’s Snow Shack Ford28th21st
Did a good job avoiding multi-car crash on lap 93; pit strategy to lead lap didn’t keep Dillon up front but it did get him a solid finish
+7N/A
7Regan SmithTommy Baldwin RacingAPC Chevy35th22nd
Used solid strategy to get a strong finish; team needs days like this one
+1331st
23David RaganBK RacingDr. Pepper Toyota34th23rd
Struggled early but stayed clean and got a solid finish for his efforts thanks to attrition in the field
+1130th
13Casey MearsGermain RacingGEICO Chevy29th24th
Smacked the wall on lap 34; some damage on lap 93 multi-car crash, which caused a tire rub while running top 15; fuel-only gamble late got track position, was one lap short on fuel; would have had top 15; 2016 is becoming a season of would-have and should-have for this team
+528th
34Chris BuescherFront Row MotorsportsDockside Logistics Ford18th25th
Strong in qualifying; solid race, some damage in lap 93 restart crash; eventful day with some laps in the top 20 but lost a lap due to a late spin and ran out of fuel on final lap
-733rd
+1
30Josh WiseThe Motorsports GroupCurtis Key Plumbing Chevy38th27th
Another team that got a decent finish as attrition rate grew; Wise did a good job avoiding trouble and racing his peers
+1139th
98Reed SorensonPremium MotorsportsHilton Scranton Chevy40th28th
Driver swap this week didn’t seem to make a big difference for Sorenson; looks like team cars are more or less equal.  String finish as Sorenson stayed out of trouble and team made good decisions
+1242nd
+2
32Jeb BurtonGO FAS RacingRocky Ridge Custom Trucks Ford39th29th
Very strong run for this team, cracking top 25 for a while before a flat tire on final restart forced Burton to pit.  Perhaps keeping Burton around would be a good idea
+10N/A
55Cole WhittPremium MotorsportsVydox Plus Chevy36th30th
Driver swap this week; Whitt again outpaced teammate Sorenson most of the day but Sorenson had better finish after a broken gear sent Whitt to the garage
+635th
+1
38Landon CassillFront Row MotorsportsMDS Transport Ford31st36th
Heavy damage in lap 93 crash, drove away but damage left him multiple laps down
-527th
46Michael AnnettHScott MotorsportsAllstate Peterbilt Group Chevy36th38th
Hit the wall hard on lap 102, looked like left front tire or brake issue
-237th
83Matt DiBenedettoBK RacingE.J. Wade Construction

Toyota

27th40th
Spun on lap 4, did a great job to not hit anything; spun and hit the wall hard on lap 60
-1334th
-1

 

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3 thoughts on “The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2016 Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400”

  1. Amazing how Clint Bowyer’s fortunes have changed. A few years back he was in the championship hunt late and now an 18th place run is considered a strong finish.
    I don’t consider a fuel mileage win in the same vein as a rain-shortened win. At least in a fuel mileage race, the race is concluded at its advertised length.

  2. Correction: RyBlay ….at a track he never raced on before ***in a Cup car.
    I made the same mistake earlier this week. BUT, in reality he has raced & won at Pocono.
    P1 in ’13, P5 in ’14 in the #29 BKR CWT.
    I understand Chase getting a lot of attention for his great run at Pocono. It is somewhat remarkable, but so was Blaney! He another great run & got his 6th top ten of the season. But was only mentioned all of ONE time during the race broadcast. Gordon’s commentating bias is nauseating & pathetic! Between him & the Waltrip dunce act, Focks does Nascar community as a whole a HUGE disservice! It is no wonder why Fock’s ratings are in the water closet!

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