The Headline(s): There were two winners in the Pocono 400 on Sunday; Kyle Busch and clean air. Busch, who dominated Sunday by leading 79 of 160 laps, held off challenges on the last two restarts from Kevin Harvick on lap 106 and Brad Keselowski on lap 152 to cruise to an easy victory, his fourth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win of 2019, 55th career Cup victory and 206th career NASCAR national series triumph. Keselowski, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top five.
How It Happened: Pole sitter William Byron led the first 20 laps leading up to a competition yellow after heavy rains doused the Pocono Raceway Saturday night. From there, varying pit strategies handed the lead to Kyle Larson. After a lap 30 yellow flag for an Austin Dillon wreck after he tried to squeeze into a hole in turn 3 and ended up being tapped by Paul Menard, Larson held off Keselowski on a lap 34 restart, eventually staving off a challenge from Byron (who took four tires to Larson’s two) to win stage one.
With weather threatening the area and some teams expecting only to race to the end of stage two, Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. both stayed out under the stage break yellow. However, as the two raced side-by-side for the lead on a lap 56 restart, Busch surged to the point, keeping the lead through a rash of yellow flags between laps 57 and 73 that saw both Matt DiBenedetto and Matt Tifft suffer spins on the backstretch, while Corey LaJoie pounded the turn 2 wall after cutting a tire. Bowyer was able to get around Busch briefly for the lead on the lap 73 restart, but Busch would use a scorching move on the outside of turn 3 to retake the lead on lap 75. Busch would pit from the lead on lap 94, handing the stage 2 win to Larson.
The pit strategy allowed Busch to restart the race from the lead on lap 106, holding off Harvick and driving away until lap 124, when both Busch and Harvick pitted under green from the race lead. From lap 125 to lap 140, the lead would shuffle between Daniel Suarez, Byron and Daniel Hemric as their teams attempting a long pit strategy. But without a yellow flag, Busch reassumed the lead on lap 140. The caution would come out one more time on lap 147, when Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. slammed the turn 2 wall and dropped debris all over the racing surface. Busch restarted the race on lap 152 alongside his teammate Jones, but with a push from Keselowski both he and the No. 2 car cleared the field. From there, Keselowski could not keep up with Busch’s No. 18.
(Why) Should You Care? For one, if you’re someone who plans their weekends around NASCAR races, it may be worth making other arrangements come the Cup Series’ second 2019 visit to Pocono in July. Unfortunately, after two consecutive points races in which the vaunted package put on stellar races in Kansas and Charlotte, the low horsepower, high downforce (LHHDF) racecars proved unable to do much of anything on the Tricky Triangle. Passing everywhere in the field, from front to back, was almost non-existent after a run went longer than several laps, with plenty of distressing radio chatter and post-race comments to dig through.
Take runner-up Keselowski for instance, who in his post-race interview, told FOX it was one of those races where “you can be a 20th-place car in the lead and nobody can pass you.” That came after a radio transmission around lap 142, when the No. 2 crew could be heard saying that even cars two to three tenths faster than the cars in front of them were unable to complete passes.
Even more succinct about it was another top-five finisher in Bowyer:
“About wherever you came off of turn 1 is about where you ran.” – Clint Bowyer.
— Jake Holley (@JakeHolleyMedia) June 2, 2019
The LHHDF package has had some true success stories this season, but Pocono was an abject failure. Which is a damn shame, because such a lackluster race really takes the shine off a thriller at Kansas and a layered, complex marathon at Charlotte, both of which were worth watching from green to checkers. Fortunately, there are ways to course correct before the series returns to Pocono in July.
Speaking to several writers late night in the press box after the Kansas race last month, the discussion came around to the package and horsepower; namely, a consensus that as teams figure the package out, they should get some horsepower back. Pocono is a prime track to benefit from such a change because it’s not a track that’s conducive to drivers essentially holding it wide open like they were able to at Kansas and to a lesser degree at Charlotte.
A hodgepodge triangle of corners stolen from flat tracks across the U.S., the amount of time drivers have to spend off the gas at Pocono requires in kind that they have more throttle response to accommodate for it. As much as I’d love to see the full horsepower engines in the current Cup cars with their skyscraper spoilers, experimenting with a 650-700 horsepower package in July would be a proactive move, and one that I’d suspect would have allowed Keselowski to come closer to challenging Busch in the closing laps this weekend.
There’s been one race in 2019 where adding horsepower has been the net result of the new package (Talladega). Outside of the Daytona 500, Talladega may have been the best race of the season. Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Busch’s latest Cup win this Sunday (which ties him with Rusty Wallace for ninth all-time with 55) won’t go down as the defining drive of his career (clean air was just as responsible as his talent behind the wheel). But where I will give him credit this weekend was in pre-race remarks he made to Frontstretch’s own Dustin Albino not as a driver, but as an owner:
I asked Kyle about the Truck program, he says he would grade it a “2” out of 10. Says the two drivers “ain’t doing shit”
— Dustin Albino (@DustinAlbino) June 1, 2019
That’s a blunt assessment, and maybe even a bit harsh given that development drivers can be both competent and deserving of Truck Series rides without reaching Busch’s immense talent level. But it’s quite refreshing to hear such a high standard coming out of a public figure in NASCAR’s development ranks because Pocono this weekend bore witness to the consequences of lax standards in the development ranks, namely, that only 18 cars started Friday’s ARCA race, a historically low car count for a race whose winner list is dotted with champions and Cup regulars.
We’re to a point in big league stock car racing now where drivers with money or a pretty face promote themselves when their PR teams are good and ready, rather than when they’re proven masters of their current homes and ready to move up for a new challenge. When it’s accepted practice to come up to the big leagues to tear vehicles up and figure it out, dire car counts are no surprise.
Busch, the driver, often makes me cringe. Busch, the owner, offers perspective a lot of drivers and teams, and sanctioning bodies, for that matter, need to hear.
Though Keselowski proved just as unable as every other driver in the field to pass Busch in clean air, both he and crew chief Paul Wolfe successfully used contrarian strategy all day long to score a runner-up finish, their best finish at Pocono since 2016, and Keselowski’s fourth top five in the last five Pocono races. The No. 2 will be a threat for the win in July.
Finishing third, Jones equaled his season-best finish in 2019 and his career-best finish at Pocono, in doing so moving back into the playoff positions in the point standings. Jones has three top 10s in the last four races.
Bowyer finished fifth and scored his first top five at Pocono since 2014, carrying the flag for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Both Suarez and Hemric used pit strategy to maximize track position and score solid finishes. Suarez scored an eighth-place finish for his first top 10 since Bristol, while Hemric’s 13th-place result was his first top-15 finish not scored on a superspeedway. It was only the second lead lap finish of 2019 for Hemric.
Byron did make contact with the wall on lap 107 but finished ninth after winning his third pole of the season. The Byron/Knaus partnership is starting to blossom, and have moved to 14th in the standings.
Lastly, despite having to start at the rear after an engine change and spinning on lap 57, DiBenedetto recovered to finish 17th, his first lead lap finish since Bristol and his best finish of 2019 off the short tracks.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
As mentioned during the broadcast, Sunday was the third time Larson has led both stages in a Cup Series race. And Sunday was the third time Larson failed to win said Cup race. Despite scoring both stage wins and leading multiple laps (35) for only the second time in 2019, Larson slapped the wall on his own racing for position after the lap 152 start, causing severe damage that forced the No. 42 to pit under green and finish a distant 26th. Larson remains right on the playoff cutline in 16th, failing to capitalize on a strong race car.
Truex followed up his Coca-Cola 600 victory with a blown engine at Pocono. 2019 truly has been feast or famine for the No. 19 team.
Pocono Raceway will always have a special place in the hearts of Front Row Motorsports after Chris Buescher capitalized on foul weather to win at the track in 2016. And for a while, it looked like Sunday would be another such race. However, by the lap 106 restart after the second stage break, it was clear the weather wasn’t going to shorten Sunday’s race. And it was clear that FRM wasn’t going to enjoy another memorable weekend in the mountains. By lap 112, David Ragan was still dealing with tire rubs, Michael McDowell was outside the top 20 with front end damage after spending his stage break with the hood up, and Tifft was behind the wall with a broken transmission. The team’s best finisher ended up being McDowell in 20th.
Ryan Blaney finished 12th with minimal incident, but there was no driver in the field that struggled more on restarts. It wasn’t four laps into Sunday’s race that Blaney had dropped like a rock from his starting position, with bumper damage from contact with Ryan Newman. It got even worse on the lap 106 restart, where Blaney nearly spun in front of the field after getting stuck in the middle of a three-wide situation in turn 1; the No. 12 car lost 11 spots within one lap of that restart. Blaney was the worst finishing Team Penske car for the fifth time in the last six races.
And that leaves the Dillon brothers. Ty Dillon’s day was punctuated by almost as many pit stops as Ragan’s, dealing with left front damage for most of the afternoon; the No. 13 car finished 27th, their fourth consecutive finish outside the top 20 and off the lead lap. Austin, though, had perhaps the largest gaffe of the day, wrecking on lap 30 after forcing himself into a narrow hole between Jimmie Johnson and Menard in turn 3; Dillon, who had to slow to avoid contact with Johnson, left Menard with no room before being turned into the wall. Despite video replay being all but conclusive that Dillon was not clear when he forced himself in front of Menard (though Menard apparently took fault for the incident), he wasted no time blaming Menard:
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) June 2, 2019
Menard’s apology notwithstanding, it was clear to the naked eye that the No. 3 forced itself where there wasn’t room, and paid for it. Even if that’s not nice to say to Dillon.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
The intent of the package aside, there does seem something very wrong about the discrepancies in horsepower and speeds that were evident in racing at Pocono this weekend:
— JBD🏁🔥 (@bryceduncan13) June 2, 2019
What’s more, the Xfinity Series arguably put on a better show.
Though Elliott sounded a bit exasperated in post-race remarks, and Larson failed to score a decent finish despite winning both stages, Pocono was just the latest chapter in Chevrolet’s marked improvement since Talladega; Elliott finished in the top five, while Byron finished in the top 10 after winning his third pole of 2019 and Hemric scored his best finish of the season not on a superspeedway. What’s notable about this performance though, is the age disparity in its effects.
While Elliott has been on a tear, winning at Talladega and contending everywhere else, Byron has been winning poles and Bowman coming as close as any driver in the Cup ranks to breaking into the win column, veterans Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch have been reaping far lesser awards. Johnson has still yet to contend for anything since his controversial wreck fest victory in the Clash back in February, while Busch’s hot start has cooled. This Sunday, Busch battled hard to finish 11th after dealing with handling issues that nearly dropped him off the lead lap in the first stage, but even with those efforts has posted consecutive finishes outside the top 10 for the first time in 2019. His struggles the past few weeks aside, he has definitely improved the No. 1 team, but in the case of Johnson, has the No. 48 become the ol’ No. 25 at Hendrick Motorsports?
I’m to a point I’m going to have to create a weekly feature in this article for inconsistent, mind-boggling officiating in Cup races. Two events worth noting in Sunday’s 400-miler. For one, throwing the yellow flag on lap 61 for Tifft’s spin was absolutely unnecessary. Tifft did not spin in front of other cars, made no contact with any wall and was able to get his car restarted within seconds of the field getting past him. On a 2.5 mile track where laps take nearly a minute to complete, to throw the yellow was trigger-happy at best. Such a decision made it all the more frustrating to listen to the tower hesitate in throwing the yellow flag on lap 69, despite LaJoie’s contact with the wall visibly throwing debris all over the racing surface. The same thing happened last week in NASCAR handling debris cautions involving Denny Hamlin in different ways 200 laps apart. What’s so frustrating about this is that NASCAR officials have proven themselves completely capable of proper officiating, they just don’t execute.
On a different note, it’s time for NASCAR’s “Hawkeye” system to be chucked in the woods along with Pocono’s turn 4. Any chance Harvick had of capitalizing on a timely two-tire strategy call to challenge Kyle Busch for the race win during pit stops on lap 124 went out the window due to an uncontrolled tire penalty. The uncontrolled tire never left Harvick’s pit box, nor did it obstruct any other race car, or entry/exit to any other pit boxes. Former Frontstretch alumnus Nick Bromberg perhaps said it best:
NASCAR fans live for races decided by penalties for tires too far away from crew members pic.twitter.com/Zod2b4RuNx
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) June 2, 2019
For comparison’s sake, in Friday’s ARCA race, a similar incident occurred with race leader Riley Herbst’s crew; only difference is, instead of throwing a pointless black flag, ARCA officials assisted to make sure the loose tire didn’t cause problems, and let Herbst and eventual race winner Ty Majeski settle the race on the track. Less is more when it comes to officiating.
Since there was relatively little to report on when it comes to on-track racing this Sunday, let’s spend a few minutes discussing the broadcast. As this article has run negative so far, let’s start with a highlight…Larry Mac:
Today's race is a pure example of why @LarryMac28 needs to be in the booth next season! His analysis is unmatched, especially when strategy 📝 is a key player.
— James F. Wagner (@JamesWagnerTW) June 2, 2019
Mr. Wagner says it all. FOX has a home run sitting in the wings to fill Darrell Waltrip’s soon-to-be-empty seat that provides all the technical wherewithal needed to complement Joy and Gordon. And don’t underestimate just how important being enthusiastic without being a caricature can be.
But speaking of characters, the ultimate conundrum of the weekend surfaced after LaJoie’s lap 69 wreck. Austin Dillon wrecked himself on lap 30, got interviewed. Truex blew a motor while running near the front on lap 91, got interviewed. LaJoie damn near knocked down the turn 2 wall, and despite there being a 27-lap green flag run in between the end of that caution and the stage two break, FOX didn’t interview him. While I personally am of the opinion that all drivers who exit a Cup race early should be interviewed (meaning yes, J.J. Yeley should have been reported on as well), the fact that LaJoie, a driver who even the most mainstream of NASCAR media laud as being the type of young personality that the sport needs, can’t get airtime even when he’s part of a race-altering event speaks very poorly of the vitality of sponsoring said drivers. NASCAR and FOX alike need to wake up… there’s never going to be 36 Penske/Gibbs/Hendrick cars to fill their fields. It’s in everyone’s best interest to take the efforts of teams like Go FAS Racing seriously, and to report on them accordingly.
Best Paint Scheme: Hemric. It’s not the first time that Kalahari Resorts has been on a Richard Childress Racing machine, but this paint scheme was the first one that actually reflected what Kalahari is:
— RCR Cup Teams (@RCRCup) June 2, 2019
Clearly Bought Stock in Goodyear This Week: Ragan. I lost count of how many times Ragan made trips down pit road for tire rubs or failures. But “check car 38” was on repeat on the NASCAR officials’ channel this Sunday.
The Dog Ate My Homework Oral Presentation: Jamie McMurray. As discussed earlier, Larry Mac is bringing material to FOX’s beleaguered broadcasts. The other Mac, not so much. I cringed when listening to Jamie Mac refer to the ARCA race at Pocono as one of the most popular during Saturday’s Xfinity Series broadcast… the day after the Pocono ARCA race started a historically small field of 18 cars, with only one of those 18 starters a regular in any of NASCAR’s top national series.
Where It Rated: All the passing of the past few weekends disappeared in the Pocono Mountains along with turn four. I hate admitting this, especially about an independent-owned track as NASCAR continues to consolidate it’s consolidation of power, but despite being less than four hours from my house, I voluntarily chose to stay home for this race. What’s worse, that choice was validated.
What’s the Point(s): Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Elliott, Keselowski, Hamlin and Truex have all locked into the playoffs with race wins in 2019. If the playoffs started today, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Blaney, Bowyer, Bowman, Aric Almirola, Suarez, Byron, Jones and Larson would qualify on points. Larson currently holds the tiebreaker over Johnson for the final playoff spot.
Dust Off the VCR: The Cup Series brings its 550 horsepower circus to the Michigan International Speedway this Sunday. Coverage from the Irish Hills begins at 2 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.