Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot and Who’s Not: Michigan Edition

This weekend at Pocono was the best of times and the worst of times. Yes, it was the Tale of Two Tracks, except that it was still the same place. But that’s how it goes on some late spring weekends in the eastern Pennsylvania mountains.

2016 Pocono I CUP Chase Elliott car John Harrelson NKP
Chase Elliott is getting close to that elusive first win (credit: John Harrelson – NKP)

Kurt Busch became the latest driver to climb the mountain to victory lane. While Busch has been a contender at times this year, this was a bit surprising since he was without crew chief Tony Gibson due to a suspension penalty after the Charlotte race. But Busch and his team, while being solid all day, also played the fuel mileage game to perfection at Pocono, being fast enough to get away from Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final restart yet saving enough fuel to reach the checkered flag. It’s a welcome to the 2016 Chase moment for Busch.
When there is a rainout basically no one wins. The fans, the drivers, the crews and the TV coverage all take a hit. The officials at Pocono waited about as long as they had to before calling the race at about 2 p.m. Sunday. As a fan who was there Sunday, the most exciting thing to happen was one of the cars being fired up in the garage area. You knew it was bad when it was still raining without a hint of rain showing up on the radar. And you knew it was bad when, pulling into the track’s parking lot Sunday, there was so much fog you couldn’t even see the grandstands, located less than a half mile away.
Chase Elliott didn’t get his first career Sprint Cup victory at Pocono Sunday, but he came closer than ever. Elliott led 51 laps in all, with almost all of those coming in the second half of the race. He just didn’t have quite enough for Busch or Dale Earnhardt, Jr., on the final restart. But that’s two of the last three points races now (the other being at Dover), where Elliott has contended for the win. It’s just a matter of time before he gets victory No. 1.
Pocono often brings about a variety of pit strategies with teams trying to figure out a way to have just enough fuel to make it to the end, but one of Kyle Larson’s pit stops on Monday was a real head scratcher. Larson did not pit during the competition caution on lap 15 and that gave him track position and the lead. OK, understood. But after another caution on lap 23, Larson did not pit again, so maybe they were wanting to lead another six or eight laps. Instead, Larson led one green flag lap and then came into the pits. If he was just going to stay out for one lap, why not pit under yellow when everyone else is going slow, rather than green, when everyone else is up to speed?
This doesn’t have to do anything with the actual race on the track, but it does do with the race to get home at a decent hour after the day is all done. I haven’t been to a ton of NASCAR tracks (only four to be exact), but Pocono’s traffic system for getting people in and out is an excellent one. There were very few delays in either direction on both Sunday and Monday this week.
Tony Stewart had a decent car over the weekend, including qualifying sixth. And during the race Monday he ran in the top 10 for most of the day. But on a restart Stewart got caught in the middle lane of a three-wide situation in Turn 1 at Pocono – that’s a no-no there – and had to let off the gas to try and avoid a crash, only to be hit from behind by Danica Patrick. Stewart returned to the track, but ended up 34th and now sits 71 points behind 30th-place David Ragan in his quest to reach the top 30 and win a race to make the Chase.

Prediction: When the Sprint Cup series goes to Michigan, it’s a big deal as it’s the home for both Ford and Chevrolet. And since Brad Keselowski is a Michigan native, and also showed good speed in his Ford Monday, I’m going with him for the win at MIS this week. The deep sleeper, super underdog, someone you might not think of pick this week is Ryan Blaney. He was 10th in his only Sprint Cup start at Michigan and now, with a little more experience, he may be ready to improve on that this week.

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