Who’s in the headline – For the third time this season, we have a first-time winner in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. It’s Ryan Blaney, who drove to the lead after a late-race restart with fresher tires than a dominant Kyle Busch. He then held off Kevin Harvick in a thrilling finish after Harvick closed in while Busch and Blaney duked it out for the top spot. It is the first victory for the Wood Brothers since Trevor Bayne’s improbable triumph in the 2011 Daytona 500.
What happened – The pole sitter for a second straight week, Busch was in control of the race. But once again, a caution at the end caused it all to fall apart. This time, the pit box was to blame as poor pit strategy made the difference. (Interim crew chief Ben Beshore is serving his first race on the box while Adam Stevens endures a four-race suspension). Staying out on the final caution, Busch ended up on track with 15-lap old tires while the pack behind him was loaded with fresh bologna. The end result was 100 laps led, a segment win… and a disappointing ninth-place finish.
Kyle Larson won the second stage, emerging briefly as a contender but faded down the stretch and came home seventh. Martin Truex Jr. also had a nice run through the field, coming from the rear to lead five laps. But ultimately, the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team never had the right track position at the right time.
The race was slowed by only four cautions, two of which came for the end of stages. The third was for Kasey Kahne losing his brakes on Lap 140 while the fourth was the day’s one big wreck. Both Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray had brake failures, hit the wall hard into turn 1 and caused a red flag of over 20 minutes.
Why you should care – Blaney’s victory marks another driver locked in the playoffs, provided there aren’t 17 unique winners and he stays inside the top 30 in points. Joe Gibbs Racing, meanwhile had another strong day and came up empty. They remain winless after 14 races this season.
Hendrick Motorsports had an abysmal day with Johnson and Kahne’s wrecks. Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed a shift for the second time on the weekend, resulting in a second blown engine. It was the first time three HMS cars failed to finish since Michigan in June 2013. Two of their four cars, Earnhardt and Kahne, remain outside of playoff position with 12 regular season races remaining.
NASCAR’s safety team was also raked over the coals after the Johnson/McMurray wreck for taking far too long to get to the car of McMurray.
What Your Friends Are Talking About
After last weekend’s racing, the No. 18 team of Busch and the No. 29 truck team of Chase Briscoe were both issued major penalties. They stem from pit road mishaps that resulted in loose wheels falling off on the racetrack. The teams each lost their crew chief plus the tire changer and carrier of their loose wheel for the next four races. Not only that, but those crew members are suspended from all NASCAR events. That means they can’t even go to an XFINITY or a K&N team to make money during the month or more they’re sidelined.
This punishment would make perfect sense in the scenario that led to that rule, where teams were only tightening three lug nuts on a wheel. If the car/truck was racing and the wheel fell off, it could injure a myriad of different people and that is dangerous. But this punishment does not fit these crimes. Both cases were unintentional pit road mistakes. Each one left the team already penalized, having to come back in and ultimately restart at the end of the longest line. NASCAR needs to change this rule for next season because it is simply too steep of a penalty for an oversight on pit road that was not about gaining a competitive advantage.
Monday, Johnson revealed he had surgery to remove a cancerous growth. During a doctor’s visit in January, his physician noticed a mole that was growing oddly. It turned out to be carcinoma, a non-spreading form of cancer. Johnson explained that this form does not spread, does not go to the glands and they just have to ‘dig it out’. He stated he calmed down significantly to the ‘C’ word after hearing that explanation.
Danica Patrick had a confrontation with some fans at Pocono this weekend. A man went through a pass-through area where drivers head to the garage from pit road. When security stopped the man, Patrick acknowledged him but refused to sign an autograph. Other fans booed her for this reaction. But instead of walking on, she confronted the fans, explaining that her job is not to sign autographs. It is to drive a race car and work with her crew chief to make it better.
When the season isn’t going well, it can be harder to be congenial with constant fan requests, especially in the garage where teams are trying to get things done during their limited time on track during a race weekend. While Patrick could have handled it differently, she had every right to deny a request when a person with a hot pass was doing something they are not allowed to do. Hot passes afford fans a great experience. They do not offer an automatic opportunity for autographs.
Brakes were an issue for several drivers on Sunday, which fans don’t often think of when the circuit heads to Pocono. It was on the mind of Austin Dillon‘s crew chief Justin Alexander when he spoke to Frontstretch last week for Tech Talk. And what’s with almost all the Hendrick-supported cars having the same type of issue?
NASCAR informed crew chiefs they could potentially lose tires for race weekends due to inspection violations in the future. Teams start a race on the tires they use for qualifying. If a team fails inspection and doesn’t get to qualify, they start the race on brand new bolognas. That can be a significant advantage at some races. That is why NASCAR is looking at taking away that set of tires from a team should they continue to have pre-qualifying technical inspection issues.
Earnhardt’s missed shift problems resulted in two blown engines. He spoke to the media about it and was clearly bothered this issue resurfaced. It is something he’s done for years and the fact it is suddenly a problem has him concerned for the return to Pocono and the upcoming road course races. It is a safe bet Earnhardt was already glad he doesn’t have to go back to Charlotte in 2018; Sunday had to make that realization even sweeter.
Bubba Wallace made an impact at Pocono as the first African-American since Bill Lester in 2006 to start a NASCAR Cup race. Unfortunately, it all didn’t go as planned with his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. An early pit road speeding penalty knocked him off the lead lap and it was a fight just to finish 26th. Wallace then passed out on pit road after the race and was treated and released at the infield care center.
Remember the days of standard start times? Why is a track with no lights and a history of rain events starting a Cup race at 3:00 p.m. ET? Any kind of weather problem is going to totally screw up the day. For some reason, the focus group studies they did a few years ago that showed fans really want to have consistent start times don’t matter anymore and NASCAR is just going to drop the rag whenever the TV partners tell them to. When a sport is struggling with ratings, pissing off fans and begging for delayed events is not a wise move. Of note, Pocono itself referred a writer to NASCAR when he asked on Twitter about the later start time.
Who is mad
Johnson scored back-to-back wins at Texas and Bristol. Since then, he’s had one top-five finish, his win last week at Dover. The No. 48 team has the most wins of anyone this season, but HMS has had plenty of whiffs this year. That has to be frustrating for the seven-time champion, especially after a brake failure at the worst time possible at Pocono.
McMurray had the same issue that Johnson had, on the exact same lap. Not only does he not get listed as part of the caution in the official race report, the safety team took an eternity to get to his mangled race car. Pocono is a big track but after seeing the response times by both Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NHRA safety crews the last week or two, something needs to be done. When lives are potentially at stake and seconds are the difference between life and death, it should not take a minute or more to get to a wrecked race car. Adding insult to injury, the No. 1 car was on fire and McMurray admitted in comments after the wreck he struggled to get out.
Who is happy
Erik Jones was pretty fast at Pocono late in the race. A two-tire call put him in the front two rows for the final restart. Unfortunately, Brad Keselowski ahead of him wasn’t as fast as the No. 77; it resulted in Jones falling back into traffic instead of fighting for a win. He still came home in third place, a career best in the Cup Series for this Rookie of the Year contender.
Chase Elliott knocked out an eighth-place finish with segment finishes of sixth and fifth on Sunday. His HMS teammates came home in 35th, 36th and 38th. While it is far from a win, Elliott has to feel pretty good that he dodged a bullet. The poor luck he suffered through the last month or two is now aimed squarely at everyone else.
When the checkered flag flew:
- In his 68th career Cup start, Ryan Blaney became the 189th different driver to win a race in NASCAR’s top series.
- His win is the 99th career victory for the Wood Brothers racing organization. It’s their first since February 2011 with Bayne.
- Blaney is tied with 62 other drivers who have notched a single win triumph in the Cup Series.
- On this day 45 years ago, David Pearson drove the Wood Brothers iconic No. 21 to a win at Michigan.
- Harvick finished in second for the third time in his career at Pocono. He’s never won at the track.
- Second is Harvick’s best result of the season.
- Harvick has scored 49 career runner-up finishes, a number which puts him alone in 10th on the All-Time list. He moved ahead of Lee Petty.
- Erik Jones, running third was Rookie of the Race.
- Jones is tied with 95 other drivers for 242nd on the All-Time podium list with his first career top-3 result.
Fourteen Cup races into the season, there have been ten different winners. With 12 races left before the playoff cutoff, if there are eight new winners, someone with a victory will not make the playoffs. That said, there most likely won’t be 18 unique drivers hitting up Victory Lane (remember, Joey Logano’s encumbered Richmond win does not count for playoff purposes).
For now, you have Johnson leading the pack with three victories. Brad Keselowski and Truex are next up with two wins. Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, and Ryan Blaney have one each.
Here are the remaining seven playoff drivers after Pocono with their points position:
- Kevin Harvick
- Kyle Busch
- Chase Elliott
- Jamie McMurray
- Denny Hamlin
- Clint Bowyer
- Joey Logano
Playoff Points Through Pocono
Martin Truex Jr. – 18
Jimmie Johnson – 15
Brad Keselowski -12
Kyle Larson – 8
Ryan Blaney – 8
Ryan Newman – 5
Kurt Busch – 5
Austin Dillon – 5
Kyle Busch – 4
Kevin Harvick – 3
Chase Elliott – 2
Denny Hamlin – 2
Joey Logano – 1
Matt Kenseth – 1
What is in the cooler (one to six beers where one is a stinker and six is an instant classic)
Pocono was another one of those races where the finish redeemed a less than captivating day. 13 lead changes among nine drivers saw just two on-track passes for the lead. Aero has always played a role at Pocono but it definitely was a key factor in the way Sunday’s race unfolded.
A first-time winner who passed Busch and held off a charging Harvick is a captivating story. But is Blaney able to hold off his challenger without aero push?
The Wood Brothers win salvages a less-than-satisfying day, but Pocono was a rather boring race when you get right down to it. This one gets two lukewarm Iron City beers from Pittsburgh Brewing Company.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – We head to the Irish Hills of Michigan for next weekend’s Cup race. The action can be seen on FOX Sports 1 starting at 3:00 p.m. ET. It can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate, www.motorracingnetwork.com and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.