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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2019 Gander RV 400 at Pocono

The Headline(s): After a late-race wreck involving Kurt Busch and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (more on that later), Denny Hamlin prevailed on an overtime restart and held off teammate Erik Jones to win his fifth career race at Pocono, scoring his third win of 2019, the 34th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win and 53rd NASCAR national series win of his career. With Martin Truex Jr. finishing third, Joe Gibbs Racing swept the podium for the second time this season (the other being the Daytona 500).

How It Happened: Pole-sitter Kevin Harvick had no trouble leading the field from the green flag drop, pulling away from Joey Logano and comfortably leading the first 39 laps as many of the leaders short-pit. In the end, it was Kyle Busch, who first pitted on lap 22, cycling through to the lead on lap 40 and going on to win stage one, his eighth stage victory of 2019.

Staying out during the ensuing stage break, Harvick retook the lead as pit stops hit on lap 52 and led the first 17 laps of the second stage. On lap 72, however, Kyle Busch, who sliced and diced through the field and was back in the top five by lap 58, took the lead at the finish. Busch held the lead through the first incident caution on lap 85, when Chase Elliott pounded the turn 3 wall:

Busch prevailed on the restart, held the lead through a brief lap 93 yellow for rain and stayed out front until lap 97, pitting right before the stage break.

Busch’s long-term race strategy was derailed here, as moments after the No. 18 hit pit road, the yellow flew again after contact between Daniel Suarez and Ryan Blaney sent the No. 12 spinning in turn 3. The resulting yellow handed the stage two win to Jimmie Johnson, who won his first stage since 2017.

When Johnson pitted during the stage break, Harvick led the race back to green on lap 104 but was passed by Hamlin on that same lap, with Hamlin driving away to lead until a lap 114 yellow when Ryan Preece slammed the turn 1 wall. 

Kyle Busch stayed out on the track as the rest of the leaders pit. Busch held the lead until he pit under green on lap 133, with Jones inheriting the lead until lap 143 when teammate Hamlin passed him again.

With nearly the entire field in fuel conservation mode, the race was up-ended on lap 154, when backmarker Josh Bilicki stalled on the backstretch only minutes after pitting (social media indicated Bilicki broke a driveshaft). The yellow flag solved fuel concerns for the majority of the field and bunched them up for a lap 157 restart. As expected, the ensuing chaos resulted in a wreck, with Stenhouse appearing to take out Kurt Busch after being pinched on turn 1 exit (the incident nearly flipped Michael McDowell over).

Despite fuel concerns, the resulting overtime was tame, with all drivers making it on fuel as Hamlin held off his Toyota teammates for the race win. 

Why Should You Care? While the weekend’s announcement about Pocono’s unprecedented Cup doubleheader in 2020 was among the top news stories, Sunday’s 400-miler provided Joe Gibbs Racing with a dominant showing and a looming problem for 2020. Namely, there are too many hot drivers and not enough racecars. 

Kyle Busch and Truex have combined to win eight races. They’re not going anywhere. For all the talk that started the 2019 season about Hamlin being on the hot seat in the No. 11, he’s now won three races, including the 500, and is red-hot heading towards the playoffs. And on this Sunday, Jones led laps and finished on the podium for the third consecutive race. The No. 20 team is firing on all eight cylinders right now, and a win for Jones seems a matter of when, not if, this season. Had fuel mileage not been a concern this Sunday, Jones may well have fought his teammate Hamlin harder to maintain the lead on lap 143. 

Meanwhile, 24 hours earlier in Newton, IA, Christopher Bell led 235 of 250 laps in the Xfinity Series race, falling just short of what would have been a series-leading sixth victory before Chase Briscoe prevailed on fresher tires late. Bell has now scored four consecutive podium finishes and is all but a lock to be in the title fight at Homestead in November for that series. It’s a matter of where not if, he’ll be racing Cup in 2020.

Toyota’s at least one seat short. Any hopes of either moving Jones or putting Bell in the No. 95 at Leavine Family Racing, the only other Toyota team with factory support currently racing Cup, would come at the expense of Matt DiBenedetto, who finished 17th on Sunday, equaling the best finish the LFR organization has ever had at Pocono. His average finish the last four races has been a strong 11.5.

Speaking to a number of the local reporters in Pocono waiting (all afternoon long, these 3 p.m. start times suck), we had no shortage of speculation as to how this would play out. But the inevitable conclusion seems to be that Toyota’s factory support is going to have to spread further in 2020. Be that starting a second LFR entry or buying another team (is it blasphemy to imagine Richard Petty Motorsports fielding a foreign entry?), there’s too much talent in the inn right now in the Toyota camp. 

Who would have thought sweeping podiums would make racing so complicated?

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

What more can you say about Joe Gibbs Racing? Kyle Busch won a stage, proved more able to pass cars under green flag conditions than any other car in the field, and likely would have run away with this one had they not been burned on strategy at the end of stage 2. Hamlin looked 2006-vintage in winning at a track that he used to dominate as a rookie. The Truex/Cole Pearn partnership has lost nothing for moving from Denver to Huntersville. And as mentioned, Jones has gotten the No. 20 car red-hot as the summer has heated up. I seem to remember a guy named Tony Stewart that was awful successful doing that.

By winning the pole, leading the most laps on the day (62) and finishing sixth, Harvick and his No. 4 team served notice that last weekend’s win at New Hampshire was no fluke. They’re not where they were a year ago, but Harvick is lurking.

It wasn’t a flashy day, but for Blaney to rebound from starting in the back after an inspection failure and from a spin on lap 99 to still score a top 10 finish was a departure from the story’s ending for the No. 12 team in 2019. They’re still not putting together clean races, but at least they got the finish this Sunday.

Daniel Hemric scored a career-best seventh-place finish, the first top 10 of his career not on a superspeedway (though Pocono is awfully long). In a (perhaps) unrelated note, Hemric provided his services as a driver to provide fortunate media members with hot laps around the Tricky Triangle on Sunday morning:

https://twitter.com/BryanDavisKeith/status/1155489481258078209

There’s no substitute for seat time.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Twitter is always a harsh place, and in the end, Kyle Larson did score a top-five finish. But to see the No. 42 team in a prime position on the final restart of the race (third, first behind leader Hamlin on the preferred outside line), only to hit the wall and prove a non-factor in deciding the race was just the latest in what’s become a season of disappointments for the now-second team at Chip Ganassi Racing. 

And this one wasn’t the result of the “package” taking away the throttle control Larson wields so effectively.

Elliott body-slammed the wall on lap 85 to become the second Hendrick Motorsports driver in as many weeks to wreck two cars in a weekend. Not to be outdone, Preece totaled his own Chevrolet on lap 114 with an even harder hit and more damage done in turn 1. Both drivers finished outside the top 35, continuing cold streaks. Elliott hasn’t scored a top-10 finish since the June Pocono race, while Preece hasn’t scored a top 20 since Talladega. It’s becoming hard to fathom Elliott being a title contender in 2019, and whether Preece will still be a Cup driver in 2020.

Every single driver found trouble at Front Row Motorsports this Sunday. McDowell failed inspection, incurred a pit road speeding penalty and nearly did a barrel roll in the tunnel turn after getting caught up in the Kurt Busch/Stenhouse squabble on lap 157. David Ragan made hard contact with the frontstretch wall on lap 123 that sent the No. 38 behind the wall for good. And Matt Tifft was forced down pit road inside the first 25 laps after scraping the wall. He also got busted speeding on that pit stop. Tifft was the team’s best finisher in 23rd.

Yes, Kurt Busch pinched Stenhouse up the track towards the wall exiting turn 1 during the final restart of regulation. What Kurt Busch did was not worthy of Stenhouse blatantly turning the No. 1 car in the middle of the pack.

And that’s what happened. A blatant turn.

Frustrated or not, Stenhouse choosing to take out his frustrations over a likely playoff miss, and a career-long inability to win off the superspeedways on any car in the field under green flag conditions is petulant (there’s that word for this week) behavior. Not to mention dense. Why would anyone pick a fight with a Busch brother unless it was for something meaningful?

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

Larson and Elliott in backup cars. Bubba Wallace with an engine change. Nine cars failed inspection. All 12 had to start at the “rear”. The “invert” that the second Pocono doubleheader race will feature in 2020 almost came a year early.

It didn’t take long to catch some flak on Sunday morning for penning a story advocating the reduction or destruction of Pocono’s trademark triangle track. But after watching the last 50 laps of Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Iowa, more short track ovals, please.

It also didn’t take long after the yellow flag flew on lap 154 and derailed what was likely to be a nail-biter of a fuel mileage finish that the tin-foil hat crowd of NASCAR fans (of whom I’m a card-carrying member) had their say about Bilicki playing a major hand in deciding a Cup race:

https://twitter.com/DavidfromMD/status/1155597786278244353

While on the topic of yellows, let’s get into this week’s gray rule calls. For one, given the standard for yellows that were set when Kyle Busch kissed the turn 1 wall at New Hampshire last week, it’s consistently inconsistent that no yellow flew on lap 123 when Ragan limped the length of a 2.5-mile triangle around with damage bad enough to retire his car without a yellow flag flying. NASCAR ultimately got that call right, as no debris was ever seen in conjunction with the incident, but that seems more lucky than good.

Now let’s give some credit where it’s due. Despite the insistence of some eagle-eyed fans, having reviewed a lap 79 pit stop where Harvick’s pit crew had a tire roll momentarily out of their pit box:

Based on the way the rulebook was revised, the stop on lap 79 was all good. And it should have been… all… season… long. The loose tire never impeded another competitor, never forced a crewman to cross into pit traffic to retrieve it, and ultimately cost no one but Harvick himself a few key milliseconds during a green-flag stop. I tweeted euphorically when I heard of this rule change, and I stand by that.

If fans learned anything from Sunday’s radio-style broadcast that was pushed all-week by NBC, it’s that there’s a whole lot of difference between calling TV broadcasts and calling radio broadcasts. There was no shortage of fans noting that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his compadres seem to be bellowing their call of the race; I heard it loud and clear on the press box TV through my scanner headset all afternoon long. There’s an art to being articulate and exciting without being belligerent, and NBC stumbling through MRN’s turf demonstrated enough shortcomings to maybe shelve this project. Unless of course NBC just wants to do the camera work to compliment MRN’s excellent work.

While I’m thrilled that Sunday’s rain delay lasted only three laps of yellow shortly after the mid-point of Sunday’s race, part of me really wanted to see the ridiculously late 3 p.m. start time bite all responsible for it in the arse. From noon to three, the perfect sunny weather would have had nearly the entirety of Sunday’s race done before that one straggling cell ever got to Long Pond.

Race-winner Hamlin probably used the word “PJ1” as much as the word “the” during his post-race remarks, but the No. 11 was one of several drivers that did successfully use the sticky strips, particularly in turn 3, to make passes that otherwise may not have happened at Pocono (not with the 550 package at least).

Larson, as expected, made use of the high line first and was successful enough at it to get his backup car into the top 10 by the end of the first stage. Even Keselowski cashed in, using it to storm past Kyle Busch coming to the checkers in overtime to secure eighth place in the running order. It wasn’t enough to make this race one to remember in 2019 (the first stage was literally a pit stop parade), but it was an improvement for a track that had a woeful show on its hands in June. 

Participation Trophies

Best Paint Scheme: Landon Cassill. Because the sponsor is a big-time throwback to the days of Bobby Allison Racing:

And because Pocono and Harvick’s latest ridiculous scheme marks the only time that a pink and orange car wouldn’t be the ugliest thing in the field.

The Pied Piper of Pocono: Keselowski. I didn’t hear anything on the radio to confirm this, and it may well have been a product of the “package’s” emphasis on drafting, but seeing Keselowski tow William Byron, Austin Dillon and Larson for lap after lap while the cars were all in fuel-save mode had an expert leading the young guns look to it.

The George Clooney “Smug” Cloud Award: Hamlin. Hamlin’s love for Pocono is easily understood, given he’s scored five trophies here. But his remembering to mention Pocono’s PJ1 application in both of his winning interviews was quite the pucker-up. After arriving in the media center from victory lane, he also took credit for his “own” working with the track to get the PJ1 where it needed to be.

Where It Rated: Being in the home state of our beloved Matt McLaughlin, we’re going to a throwback rating and giving this one three bottles of Sly Fox’s Helles Golden Lager microbrew. The PJ1 proved unable to provide sustained side-by-side racing on Sunday, but an extended fuel strategy run and a late-race restart made for a show that kept fans awake. Plus, thank you Pennsylvania for some beautiful weather.

What’s the Points? Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Elliott, Hamlin, Harvick, Keselowski, Logano and Truex have locked into the playoffs by winning races in 2019. If the playoffs were to start today, Aric Almirola, Blaney, Byron, Jones, Larson, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman would point their way in. Newman currently holds a 12 point lead over Johnson for the final playoff spot.

Up Next: The Cup Series takes its circus to the second road course of the season in the rolling hills of New York. Coverage from Watkins Glen, the facility smart enough to tell Woodstock 2K19 hell no, starts at 3 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.

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13 thoughts on “Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2019 Gander RV 400 at Pocono”

  1. It’s amazing how cars that shouldn’t be in Brian’s product cause cautions at the end of events. They’re the next best things to Phantom Debris Cautions.

  2. Honestly I wish they would have attempted to run this race or a practice session using the 750HP package. It’s been proven especially at New Hampshire when a driver has a lot of power and needs to use the brakes and lift it creates better racing. The high speeds and downforce along with the ability to lift and brake into the turns would have been neat to watch at this track. Out of all the racing today F1, INDYCAR, etc this race was the snoozer out of the 3. Crazy racing today in the other series but this package at Pocono isn’t the right fit here.

  3. Absolutely hated the way they called the race. Jeff Burton screeching and Dale yelling, omg, and I could still hardly understand what the heck they were saying much of the time over the noise on track. I hope they abandon this format; the sooner the better!

  4. Road courses justify having announcers at different turns. Pocono is not a road course. About half way thru the race I muted the sound. The constant engine noise and trying to shout over it gave me a headache. These is no need for this type of coverage on any type of ‘straight’ track. I think part of the reason for the shouting was trying to keep up with the constant parade of cars going by. I certainly hope they find a way to mute the engine noise under the announcers voices. I don’t think I can take another race being shouted at over the noise of the cars. at least when I’m at the track I can wear ear plugs. Hmmm. Maybe I should try that at home and see if it helps.

    The good thing about having someone in each corner was how quickly they called out trouble on the track.

    • Agree 100%. The announcers were back to yelling over the engine. Very annoying but given their proximity to the track it might be unavoidable. Personally, I’d prefer the not have coverage in each corner if the cost to the viewer IS HAVING TO LISTEN TO EVERYONE SCREAM.

  5. Not a great race but it was watchable. I think the stage breaks hurt what the race could have been from a strategic point of view. Not a fan of fuel mileage races but those last cautions kind of ruined what might have been an interesting finish. I was also annoyed that NASCAR started the race so late at a track with no lights in an area none for afternoon thunderstorms. They got lucky. Glad we are done with Pocono for the year.

    They didn’t seem to show many overhead shots of the crowd (or I missed them) so I couldn’t tell what the attendance looked like. Did anyone else notice how many folks were in the stands?

  6. The radio style coverage wouldn’t be that bad if they could somehow turn down the volume of the mikes capturing the car engines….not sure that is actually possible.

    That said, the SHOUTING by Jr. and the Mayor was annoying as hell, but Bagley once again proved why he is perhaps the best in the business. The shot of the day was seeing Bagley and Dave Moody on the radio call in turn one reacting to Preece’s wreck. Priceless…

  7. I watched the Indycar race, and when it was over they noted the NASCAR race had 10 to go, so I flipped over to see the end. BORING! Even with the contrived caution and green white checker, there were more aggressive moves, more beating and banging amongst the top 10 in the Indycar event than there was on the NASCAR side. Unbelievable the open wheelers are driving more aggressively and pulling off more daring moves and putting on a MUCH better show than the full bodied cars!

    Said it before and I’ll say it again, NASCAR needs to get their **** together, Indycar is currently doing all the things NASCAR should have been doing all along. I’m a fan of pretty much anything with an engine and at least 2 idiots trying to go faster then the others, but right now NASCAR is seriously losing my interest.

    • If you missed the F1 race from Hockenheim yesterday you missed a treat. Now F1 can be boring, but not because of the announcing Yesterday the rain gave us everything you want to see in a race. Strategy, overtaking, drama, announcers who knew what they were talking about and finally a organizing body that wasn’t afraid to enforce the rules.

  8. I enjoyed the radio style broadcast outside of Jeff Burton. It takes talent to be a great broadcaster and not former athletes. There were mistakes made by all three which is to be expected when going off car colors from afar as they are coming to you. The radio style broadcast made the racing feel more intense than what it was.

    The move by Stinkhouse was quite cheap. Kurt got pushed up and Ricky didn’t lift, it was a racing incident but then to deliberately turn into someone and wreck them going 180 mph was absolutely uncalled for.

  9. I watched part of the race live, then recorded the rest to watch after supper. I was doing things around the house, but came into the living room to see what was happening when Dale’s voice started sounding like a six year old girl at a birthday party. I can’t understand him or Burton most of the time. Those two need some Xanax or voice lessons, or both. They talk too fast and try to create excitement when there is none. We muted the sound for the rest of the race, only listening now and then. It actually makes me wish DW was in the booth instead…how crazy is that?

  10. So the big question I have about the NBC broadcast is if Bagley tells corny jokes during the commercial breaks like they all do on MRN? The MRN crew must all have corny joke books.

    Gotta love Stenhouse, making new friends every week.

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