(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Pocono Organics 325 at Pocono Raceway

The Headline(s): Kevin Harvick snagged his first career victory at Pocono Raceway and his third of the 2020 season in Saturday’s (June 27) Pocono Organics 325. The difference between taking two tires on the No. 4 and four tires on Aric Almirola’s No. 10 Ford proved to be what helped Harvick break his winless streak at the Tricky Triangle.

Despite a late-race vibration, Denny Hamlin held on for a second-place finish, followed by Aric Almirola, who led a race-high 16 laps. Christopher Bell walked away with a career-best fourth and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five.

How it Happened: Rain and track drying delayed the start of the race and even forced a handful of extra pace laps when a small shower hit the speedway. But with moisture on the camera lens and a couple of drivers complaining about damp spots and weepers, Aric Almirola led the field to the green flag nearly an hour after the originally scheduled time.

Almirola remained in control of the field through the competition caution on lap 12, the following restart and a yellow for a spin by Quin Houff. A lap 20 restart saw Joey Logano get a good push from teammate Ryan Blaney, which gave the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford the stage one win, but it was a lead that lasted only until the lap 31 restart when Almirola took the top spot once again – a position he held a green flag pit stop on lap 46.

Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin each took a turn out in front of the field until Almirola regained the lead once again during the fourth caution, which flew when John Hunter Nemechek and JJ Yeley made contact. The resulting cut tire spewed debris on the track and forced the yellow to fly once again.

After that, the field went green for just two laps until Erik Jones and Tyler Reddick, sending the two in a tandem slide to the inside SAFER barrier. And what a relief it is that it’s a SAFER barrier, given the contact. It appeared Kurt Busch suffered some sort of problem and had to check up, leaving Jones to make evasive moves to avoid a high-speed collision. Jones was out on the spot while Reddick limped his car back to pit road and ultimately ran to a 30th-place finish, four laps down.

Under that yellow flag, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. suffered a fuel pressure issue and had to be pushed to pit road. His team completed repairs and allowed him to return to the track for what turned out to be a 17th-place finish.

A two-lap dash to the end of stage two saw Almirola take his first stage victory of the 2020 season and his fourth in his career.

Stage three saw the field run under the green flag for the final 48 laps, setting up a variety of green-flag pit stops that ultimately had a large role in who won. During that run, Almirola held onto the top spot until he made his final pit stop. He and Kevin Harvick pitted on the same lap, but the difference between Almirola taking four tires compared to Harvick’s two was what the driver of the No. 4 Ford needed to put himself ahead once the round of green-flag pit stops cycled through.

Virtually unchallenged while navigating through lapped traffic and several drivers at the tail end of the field, Harvick cruised to his third win on the 2020 season. Hamlin was the only driver who came anywhere close to challenging Harvick on that final 17-lap stretch, but he just didn’t have enough to make the pass after a vibration popped up on the No. 11 Toyota in the final few laps.

The victory was Harvick’s first in 39 starts at Pocono, leaving just Kentucky Speedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL as his only winless tracks. It also made 2020 the 11th straight season Harvick scored at least three victories.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Alright, so Almirola didn’t win the race after leading a race-high 61 laps. That’s a bit disappointing for the No. 10 team but think about this for a second: the third-place finish Saturday afternoon marked his third straight top five in a season that’s been anything but consistent. But perhaps what stands out more is that Almirola, courtesy of finishes of second and first in stage one and two, scored 53 points on the day, the most of anyone in the field. Those points also mean moving away from the cut line for the playoffs with 12 races remain to set this year’s championship contenders.

Just two races after posting a career-best eighth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Christopher Bell bested that at Pocono on Saturday. When all was said and done, the driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota walked away with a fourth-place finish and momentum headed into the second race of this weekend’s double-header. It marks Bell’s third top 10 this season and his second in the last three races. It’s a clear indicator that the rookie is making strides in making a name for himself in the Cup Series.

Not far behind Bell, Michael McDowell scored his career-best finish outside of the superspeedways. Outside of Daytona and Talladega, the driver of the No. 34 Ford had a best finish of 10th at Homestead-Miami in 2016, but by the time the checkered flag flew over Pocono, he was eighth.

Michael McDowell Earns Best Career Finish on Non-Superspeedway at Pocono

Speaking of McDowell’s top-10 finish, Front Row Motorsports also marked a first as an organization. Coupled with John Hunter Nemechek’s eighth-place finish at Talladega, it was the first time FRM scored back-to-back top-10 results.

Normally, you wouldn’t celebrate finishing 19th and 20th as anything special.

After NASCAR rescinded its approval for James Davison to run at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend, his Cup Series debut was pushed back to this weekend at Pocono. And without a single lap on the track, Davison took the green flag in 35th and quietly brought home a 34th-place finish. While most would just ho-hum that as a mediocre result, it’s a solid debut for a driver who has just four NASCAR starts to his name in the Xfinity Series, all of which came on road courses. In fact, it’s not all that far off of the 28th-place average finish the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet has posted this season with a variety of different drivers behind the wheel.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Coming into Saturday’s race, many had high expectations for Erik Jones, especially given his history at the Tricky Triangle. In his previous six starts at the track, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had finished outside the top 10 just once and boasted an impressive eighth-place average finish. But Jones never really got the chance to show what he could do thanks to contact between him and Reddick ending his day just past halfway.

Chevrolet was almost nowhere to be found in the top 15 when the checkered flag flew Saturday. Completely locked out of the top 10, Matt Kenseth was the highest finishing Chevrolet driver in 11th. Yes, that’s the driver who returned to take over the No. 42 in a NASCAR climate that hasn’t allowed him to have a single lap of practice before taking to the track, running an aero package that he’s not at all familiar with. It’s also Kenseth’s best finish since he returned to NASCAR with a 10th-place run at Darlington Raceway. William Byron was the only other Chevrolet driver inside the top 15 with a 14th.

Quin Houff completed just 19 laps before spinning and sending the No. 00 Chevrolet into the inside wall. It marked a fourth DNF for Houff in just 14 races. By comparison, Landon Cassill had four DNFs throughout the entirety of the 2019 season. It makes you wonder if StarCom Racing regrets dropping Cassill in favor of Houff despite having “a commitment to Landon that we plan to honor in 2020” according to a statement released by the team late last year. Here we are just past the halfway point of the regular season and StarCom has yet to deliver on the “details to come at a later date.” Hmm…

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

With the confirmation that post-race inspection was completed with only a couple of loose lugnuts, the lineup for Sunday was set. Ryan Preece and Austin Dillon will lead the field to the green flag by virtue of finishing 20th and 19th, respectively on Saturday.

If I had to pinpoint just one thing that NASCAR has done well throughout its attempts to adapt to the world we currently live in, it would be the no practice and qualifying model. While it didn’t help the quality of the on-track product at Pocono (and what would?), overall the lack of practice has meant better competition. I can handle eventually bringing back qualifying so teams in the back of the standings aren’t always relegated to starting toward the rear of the field just based on where they are in points, but it’s hardly worth bringing back several hours of practice each weekend. Eliminating it would decrease costs when it comes to tires and extra personnel at the track, and help put on better racing. With that said, I’d advocate that any driver who hasn’t made a start at a track should be given a minimum of a half-hour to familiarize themselves with the way it drives. Otherwise, I’m good with lining them up and letting them race and figure out the rest along the way.

It’s been said before by so many people, but there is literally zero reason to have a competition caution as it stands right now. While I understand that the “need” for it is based upon the lack of track time heading into the race and gives teams a chance to check tire wear and the like, the purpose of slowing the field is defeated by the fact that teams are allowed use that caution as a part of their race strategy. In fact, NASCAR’s best decision when it comes to the competition caution is the model it used for the first Darlington race when the sport returned to the track following the COVID-19 stoppage, although I’d change one thing. To make it worthwhile, NASCAR needs to freeze the field and allow teams who beat the pace car off of pit road to maintain their position, but should also require changing all four tires. After all, if the point of a competition caution is to check tire wear, that’s exactly what should be done under that yellow.

For the first time in history, NASCAR will run a triple-header at the same track with all three of its national series scheduled to take to Pocono on Sunday. Assuming the weather cooperates, the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series will open up the day at 9:30 a.m. ET, followed by the Xfinity Series at 12:30 p.m. ET. Finally, the Cup Series is set to run its second race this weekend at 4 p.m. ET. As of press time, Sunday’s forecast isn’t exactly promising, though. It calls for a high of 79 with scattered thunderstorms and a 50% chance of rain. While I’m far from a meteorologist, I know that doesn’t bode well for squeezing in all three races in time if there’s any need for extended track drying.

I would be remiss not to mention what Mike Joy had to say to open Saturday’s race broadcast. Presented without comment:

Paint Scheme of the Race: I don’t know if it’s the odd Progressive commercials with Flo or the contrasting shades of blue. Maybe it’s just nice to see a sponsor return, especially since many will likely be facing budget cuts in the wake of COVID-19. Whatever it is, it was certainly hard to miss this one on the track.

Where it Rated: I really want to enjoy racing at Pocono… I do, but it was a struggle once again. We’ll go with a single, ice-cold Miller Lite. The differences in stage lengths and varying pit road strategies had just enough to them to keep me awake, but that’s about it.

What’s the Point(s)?

Kevin Harvick holds a 29-point lead over Ryan Blaney, who leads teammate Joey Logano in third. Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski round out the top five. Denny Hamlin sits sixth, followed by Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman. Brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch round out the top 10.

Harvick joins Hamlin as the second driver with three wins this season. Team Penske teammates Keselowski and Logano have two apiece, and Blaney, Elliott, True and Bowman each have one. If the playoffs were to begin today, the Busch brothers, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto, William Bryon and Tyler Reddick would point their way into the field.

Up Next: You don’t have to wait long for the next NASCAR Cup Series race. Assuming the weather plays nice, the second event of the double-header will run Sunday, July 28 at 4 p.m. ET on Fox.

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Content Director Beth heads up management of our 30-person staff, acting as Tom’s main assistant with technology and personnel while working as Frontstretch’s Truck Series expert. The author of Truckin’ Thursdays and the coordinator of the site’s pre and post-race coverage, she also runs a periodic charity column that spotlights when NASCAR gives back. A childhood transplant to Texas, Beth is a 15-year writing veteran who has contributed content to BRANDT and Athlon Sports, among other outlets.

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    Yes FOX, NASCAR DID OVERREACT, imo. Boy you clowns are bound by cone of silence. You know it was BS, we know it was BS! NASCAR does pay your bills!! So, whatever NASCAR says, sounds perfectly reasonable and valid to you! GOT IT!!!!!!!!!!!!! That pic does not look like the pic that states the claim of racism nor the pic to soundly refute that claim! WTFIGO????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

  2. Avatar

    The race was, at best, so-so. The restarts were a bit frantic, but otherwise, the race was just not very exciting, and there’s little that happened worth discussing. I hope today’s race is better, but I’m not holding my breath.

    I’ve wondered why I don’t like Jeff Gordon in the booth this year… last year I enjoyed his commentary, but this year it seems like he’s trying too hard. I think with Darrell Waltrip gone, Fox wants Gordon to be more of a “personality”. Bad move… Jeff needs to just be himself.

    Finally, I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I hate stage racing. No one should get points for leading at some arbitrary lap. That’s just ridiculous. If you want to make the drivers race harder during the middle of the race, give bonus points to the top five lap leaders of the race. No one cares who won the first third of a race.

  3. Avatar

    I’m thinking about the concept of watching three races today. The mind boggles. Even two races would be too much. I fell asleep several times watching one race yesterday and each time when I woke up pondered whether or not to rewind to find out what happened while I was snoozing. Each time, after watching a minute or so it was clear that nothing had happened so I didn’t bother. Sit through two or three of those? I think not. I’ll watch the last one and try to stay awake.

    • Avatar

      Only day we used to watch 3 races in a day was over Memorial Day weekend with Monico, Indy and Charlotte.

      • Avatar

        Boy did I miss that Memorial Day trifecta this year.

        I agree with most above. Neither race was particularly great. The stages kind of defeat some of the drama since teams can plan their strategy ahead of time. It’s always better when no one knows if and when a caution will come. We are in the dreaded “summer doldrum” part of the schedule.

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