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).
The best way to cool down after a long, hot day at the race track!
— Pocono Raceway (@PoconoRaceway) July 28, 2019
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.
A hard hit for Ryan Preece entering Turn 1 at @poconoraceway.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 28, 2019
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).
CAUTION: They're wrecking behind the leaders! pic.twitter.com/y3CgKtgU7s
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 28, 2019
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:
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.
— Kyle McNulty (@mcnultyk9) July 28, 2019
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:
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:
Now I think it will play (for real) … this might have been a penalty last week. But not anymore. But not sure. Probably why Nascar made the change. This is the first stop. Second stop was similar: pic.twitter.com/S0hziIkEmk
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) July 28, 2019
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.
Best Paint Scheme: Landon Cassill. Because the sponsor is a big-time throwback to the days of Bobby Allison Racing:
We see you, @landoncassill.
No, seriously, you can't miss that car. 😉 pic.twitter.com/4u0CJo95wc
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 28, 2019
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.