Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Repeat after me: there are no cheap wins in NASCAR. A top finish is hard to come by, no matter what the circumstances. The great thing about racing is that it’s about more than just a fast car—it’s about strategy and making things work under the rules. Chris Buescher’s win is worth no more or no less than any other in NASCAR, and neither was the third-place run of Regan Smith. Smith has been successful driving for small teams; his win at Darlington with Furniture Row Racing came at a different time. Back in 2011, FRR was at the bottom of the sport’s ladder, looking up at the elite status they enjoy today. Smith’s finish didn’t get the press that Buescher’s did but it’s a big deal for Tommy Baldwin Racing. It’s TBR’s second top-5 finish ever (first on a non-restrictor-plate track) and ties the organization’s all-time best finish (Dave Blaney ran third at Talladega in the fall 2012 race). Smith also had the top-finishing Chevrolet. Sometimes, gambling on strategy pays off big.
Finally, props to Kurt Busch, who set a NASCAR record Monday, completing every lap pf all 21 races so far this season. That kind of consistency will be worth keeping an eye on in the Chase.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Filling in for another driver, no matter how good the equipment is, can be much more difficult than most people realize. Given the past success of both Jeff Gordon and the No. 88 team, it would be easy to assume that a great finish was just a matter of dotting the Is and crossing the Ts. But it’s far from that simple. Cars vary widely from driver to driver. Some (like Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) prefer one that will handle on the loose side all day while others (like Gordon) would rather deal with a tighter setup. Each car is like a custom-tailored suit for its regular driver, and that suit isn’t going to be a perfect fit for anyone else. Teams prepare cars weeks in advance, meaning the Pocono chassis was built to Earnhardt’s preferences, not Gordon’s. The team worked on adapting the setup to Gordon’s style in practice, but there was another handicap as well: the 2016 low-downforce package. Gordon, who retired from full-time competition after the 2015 season, hasn’t driven these cars prior to Indianapolis last week. Add in the speeding penalty Gordon incurred on pit road, and the team had a long row to hoe for a top finish they didn’t get (27th).
Where…did the pole sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Martin Truex, Jr. brought that car…you know, the one he absolutely dominated the Coca-Cola 600 with in May? Yeah, he did, giving us a brief reminder on the practice and qualifying sheets of just how strong the No. 78 Toyota really is. Unfortunately, a flat tire on a lap 17 restart, resulting from a sheared valve stem, sent Truex hard into the outside wall. He did get back on track, only to hit the wall again at lap 100, ending his day early and in 38th place.
Matt Kenseth had a top 10 starting spot to start his defense of the race win, but that was about the highlight of Kenseth’s day. He did run inside the top 5 for awhile midrace, but by the end, he shuffled out 17th. Kenseth was far from alone—several top drivers were mired in the teens when the race ended.
When… did it all go sideways?
There were a few crashes throughout the day, including for Chase contenders Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. as well as a hard hit for Aric Almirola (he was OK). But the the real wrench in the works was fog. Lots and lots of fog. It rolled in with 30 or so laps to go and made itself at home, settling in over Turn 2 and both back straightaways as rainstorms moved closer and closer to the track. NASCAR finally made the call when lightning and severe weather warnings were issued, cutting the race short 22 laps shy of the scheduled distance. It was absolutely the right call—a fan was killed at Pocono a few years ago by lightning and the safety of the fans and race teams was paramount. It was certainly strange to see the race called when the track was raceable, but when spotters can’t see their drivers, safe racing isn’t possible. Racing in the fog is best left to those with just one horsepower.
Why… did Chris Buescher win the race?
Buescher won the race for one simple reason: his team played the best strategy on the day. Would he have won if the race had resumed? Probably not, but it didn’t, so there’s no point in asking that question. Buescher’s win was as legit as they come, though there were a few rumblings on social media that NASCAR waited a long time to call the race, even after the raceway issued severe weather alerts and urged fans to take shelter. Would Buescher’s inclusion in the Chase put a bigger name out? Yes, it probably would. And don’t forget, Buescher isn’t in yet; he still has to gain a few points and get in the top 30. With teammate Landon Cassill in 29th, the conspiracy theories were already cropping up on Twitter post-race. But here’s the thing: that big name has had the exact same opportunities as Buescher to capitalize and win a race this season. If they can’t do that, Buescher deserves the spot under NASCAR’s current Chase rules.
How… many drivers got slapped with pit penalties, anyway?
It certainly seemed that every time the cars hit pit road, someone was slapped with a penalty. Perhaps it was just because there were some big names involved, because there have certainly been longer penalty reports to come from NASCAR after some races this year. All in all, there were 15 drivers penalized for something. A few of those were pitting too early after an accident, which is unavoidable. Speeding tickets were handed out left and right, though, after NASCAR added scoring lines and shortened speed zones to keep teams from speeding through the zone with their pit box, where the pit stop makes the average speed much lower. There were eight speeding penalties Monday, including one for race winner Buescher. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was nabbed twice. Other than those, though, it was a pretty average race in terms of teams getting caught in the pits.
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