Who…should you be talking about after the race?
Kyle Busch made it look a lot easier than it was, and at times the driver of the No. 18 gambled with the track position that’s so precious at Pocono, but in the end, it was the same ending to a different story as Busch won his fourth race of the season, and Joe Gibbs Racing went to victory lane for the sixth time in the last eight races. Why did Busch win? His team played the strategy game right every step of the way and gave him a car he could wheel. Busch was better than anyone at gaining an keeping track position when he needed to. Sound simple? It isn’t.
Strategy may not have been his friend Sunday, but Daniel Hemric had a solid finish despite being off-sequence with the leaders on pit stops. His 13th-place run was his best result since fishing fifth at Talladega this spring and his best non-superspeedway finish of the year. Hemric led three laps Sunday, the first time the rookie has led in back-to-back races. Ryan Newman only had three top-10 runs at this point last year in the now-rebranded No. 8 car. So while Hemric has just one, he’s not terribly far off, and Newman has a lot more experience under his belt. The rookie has shown flashes of brilliance. But this week, he showed the patience that will serve him well in his career and it paid off with a solid finish.
What…is the takeaway from this race?
There’s an old adage in racing that sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. And in many ways, it’s absolutely true.
Don’t overlook the importance of momentum in NASCAR’s top series—it can definitely play a role in a team’s confidence over time. To an extent, teams can make their own luck, by racing smart and putting themselves in the right position so that even if they don’t have the best car, they can get the best possible finish, maybe even better than the car alone was capable of.
That’s what happened last week with Corey LaJoie, who finished a strong 12th in the Coca-Cola 600. The momentum carried over, to an extent, to Pocono. While LaJoie ended up 36th after a crash on Sunday, he was running inside the top 20 earlier in the day, something that his No. 32 team doesn’t do very often. But they entered Sunday with confidence in their driver and in their ability to overachieve. The bad luck happened, but they had some good luck before that.
On the flip side, Kyle Larson and the No. 42 team continue to struggle. Larson won the All-Star Race, and it looked like that might be the boost he and the team needed to turn the raw speed they’ve had into top finishes. Larson led 35 laps on Sunday, more than anybody but Kyle Busch, but once again had nothing to show for it, as he got into the wall on a late charge and had to pit in the closing laps, finishing 26th a week after a crash relegated him to 33rd at Charlotte. Larson has everything it takes to win races, except luck, and perhaps the confidence that comes with it.
Where…were the other key players at the end?
Pole sitter William Byron was one of several drivers lamenting the importance of track position at Pocono, finishing ninth despite having a car that ran with the leaders early. The good news for Byron is that the Camaros seem to be leaving their growing pains behind, and the Chevrolet camp as a whole is improving. That bodes well for Byron as he gains experience in his second year.
Has defending race winner Martin Truex Jr. worn out his welcome with teammate Busch? It seems as though the two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers could have a bit of a rivalry heating up for dominance as both entered the weekend with three wins. While Busch claimed his fourth win, Truex was suffering a rare engine failure and finished 35th. Still, the best rivalry of the year is setting up to be in-house at JGR. How much room is there on top of the JGR mountain? Can Truex knock Busch off of it once the playoffs start?
Active Pocono win leader Denny Hamlin also drives for Joe Gibbs Racing. He also has two wins of his own this year, but he hasn’t been in the spotlight since winning at Texas, and he hasn’t scored a top five since Richmond last month. He came close Sunday, leading once and finishing sixth, but something has been lacking for Hamlin of late. Could it be there’s just not room on that mountain for three?
When…was the moment of truth?
A lot of fans don’t like Pocono, because track position is so important and even the high-drag package can’t keep the cars close together. Pocono is for sure a different animal. Winning a race at the Tricky Triangle is not as easy as Busch made it look Sunday. Instead, the team has to be perfect in every aspect of the weekend. Pit strategy is largely like that of a road course, and three completely different corners mean that setting the car up for all of them is an art.
There was a day when if you got two of the three turns right, you’d win at Pocono, but those days are gone. Getting that balance plus the power on the longest frontstretch in NASCAR and hitting the pit strategy right and keeping one eye on the weather because that could change everything and avoiding tire, engine or driver trouble? That’s not easy, and that’s why nobody should be so quick to dismiss Pocono. Its trophy is one of the hardest-earned of the entire season.
The problem NASCAR faces is that the high-downforce package, which has shown success at the mile-and-a-half tracks in recent week, doesn’t improve the racing at the Tricky Triangle. Should the sanctioning body go a step further in individualizing packages for different tracks with the next-generation cars, and come up with a unique package just for Pocono and possibly Indianapolis? Is there another solution that will improve the racing at some tracks without losing the strong racing we’ve seen at others? There’s a lot of work to be done before 2021.
Why…should you be paying attention this week?
There is a passel of drivers without wins this year (and some without wins ever) who are showing strength. That could bode well for the summer after JGR has dominated the first half of the regular season, though, one of those drivers is JGR’s winless Erik Jones, who finished a strong third Sunday. But Jones isn’t the only driver who’s gaining steam lately.
Alex Bowman has been on fire, finishing outside the top 7 this week for the first time in the last five races. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll finish the season without a win.
Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole has been strong, too. While Kevin Harvick has been in the spotlight for having fast cars though no wins, Clint Bowyer (fifth on Sunday) has an average finish of 12.8 this year so far and has posted top 10s in three of the last four races. Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez aren’t far behind, with Suarez in particular showing real signs of life.
Then there’s Larson, who has certainly had the speed to win this year if he puts it together for a whole race, he’s going to win. Kurt Busch doesn’t look far off. Ryan Blaney has looked to be on the verge.
In other words, things could get a lot more diverse in victory lane this summer.
How…worried should Jimmie Johnson be about making the playoffs?
One driver not heating up consistently is Johnson. He looked as good as he has in the last two seasons last week in Charlotte, and early on Sunday had a top-10 car, a step in the right direction for the veteran driver.
But despite Larson’s woes on Sunday, his stage one win was enough to move him into a tie with Johnson for 16th in points—likely the final playoff spot. Larson gets 16th on the tiebreaker, leaving Johnson outside the playoff picture for now. Whether he was a title contender or not, Johnson has been the one constant in every year of the playoff format to date, the only driver never to miss the title hunt since 2004.
Is that in jeopardy? With Hendrick Motorsports apparently shifting the focus onto the future and the young drivers in the stable, it could be. Johnson certainly knows how to get every position he can in every race; that has not changed. But if the focus of the organization is how far will they go to make sure the veteran makes his 16th consecutive postseason appearance? That’s the biggest question and the key to it all for the seven-time champion.