Who … should you be talking about after the Pocono Doubleheader?
Kyle Busch finally put an end to Hendrick Motorsports’ absurd dominance, finding a way to overcome a transmission that was stuck in fourth gear while saving enough gas to win the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 on Sunday (June 27).
Busch had an exceptional weekend overall at Pocono Raceway, finishing second in Saturday’s Pocono Organics CBD 325 to go along with his second victory of the season, already doubling his total from 2020.
But give credit to Saturday’s winner, Alex Bowman, too. Bowman did a masterful job of keeping HMS teammate Kyle Larson behind him for way longer than anybody expected. Larson eventually worked around Bowman for the lead with four laps to go, but that left front tire failed one corner too early for Larson to hold on, allowing Bowman to capitalize.
Honorable Mention: Yes, his name pops up quite often, but it’s hard to downplay the significance of Bubba Wallace netting his first top five with 23XI Racing Sunday. Michael Jordan’s team has struggled to post consistently strong results, in particular failing with multiple pit strategies. They finally succeeded on one Sunday by saving enough fuel.
Credit also goes to Ryan Preece and the No. 37 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet for finishing eighth in that fuel mileage race. That’s a program which badly needed an encouraging performance after four straight finishes outside the top 20. Mission accomplished at the Tricky Triangle for a team that now reportedly will attempt all 36 races in 2021.
What … is the buzz about?
Pocono Raceway’s first doubleheader with fans brought plenty of eyes to one of the sport’s largest markets.
While the track is neatly tucked away in the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania, Pocono sits just two hours west of New York City and 90 minutes north of Philadelphia. Fans came out in droves this weekend as the event was held without capacity limits, a stark contrast from the inaugural iteration of this doubleheader in 2020. Back then, barren grandstands were cast with sponsorship banners and thousands of acres in the infield sat empty with nothing but grass.
There were plenty of folks who questioned the validity of a doubleheader weekend. How would it work for fans? Would people really pack the stands in consecutive days for what could be the same Cup race all over again?
The overwhelming answer was yes. Fans were incredibly willing — and eager — to experience both days in person themselves. The massive infield property was sold out, the grandstands were filled to near capacity, and both days produced dramatic, entertaining racing.
What’s more is both Cup races were uniquely their own. While each featured a strategy play, Saturday’s 325-miler was caution-filled as drivers raced with aggression, resulting in multiple yellow flags for incidents. Sunday’s 350-mile race, on the other hand, was far calmer but centered around a heated fuel-mileage battle.
Add in drama in the final two laps on both days — Larson’s failed tire Saturday and Denny Hamlin’s late need to pit Sunday — and you have an impressively solid weekend of racing in a one-of-a-kind event.
Where … did the other key players wind up in the Pocono Doubleheader?
Chase Elliott is ready to leave Pocono Raceway in the rear-view mirror. The defending series champion finished 12th Saturday, forced to play catch-up from lap 1 following left-rear contact from Preece on the initial start.
After the No. 9 team thrashed to prepare the car for Sunday’s race, things were starting to look up for Elliott, especially when finishing fifth in stage two. But a fake to pit road cost him the lead on the ensuing restart, eventually resulting in Elliott getting loose to the left of Christopher Bell, sliding up and cutting a tire while nearly wrecking Bell.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) June 27, 2021
With a second tire failure later, Elliott finished 27th.
Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr.’s strange streak of relative irrelevance continued at Pocono with respective finishes of 18th and 11th. (Truex did earn a stage point by winning stage one on Sunday). The No. 19 team has now finished outside the top 10 in six of the last seven races, the lone exception coming at Sonoma Raceway where Truex finished third.
When … was the moment of truth in the Pocono Doubleheader?
With so many various strategies playing out in real time, the “moment” shifted every few seconds during Sunday’s event. Leaders started falling like flies in the final few laps after realizing they couldn’t make it on fuel.
The first fly to drop was William Byron coming to two laps to go, recognizing the No. 24 Chevrolet could never make it to the checkered flag with what was left in the tank.
One lap later, Denny Hamlin was forced to abandon the win and hit pit road, handing the lead and eventual win to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
The next race on the docket is another new venue to the Cup Series in Road America.
There’s plenty to love about that. The NASCAR Xfinity Series has been putting on exceptional shows there for over a decade, and if we’re not going to race at Daytona International Speedway for July 4 weekend, then yes, let’s race at a track that literally has America in its name on Independence Day.
There’s a lot to digest coming out of Pocono Raceway as well. Two races means two chances to gain — or lose — points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had a dismal result Sunday, finishing dead last after a blown motor sent him home early.
That sets up a precarious playoff picture after Pocono, poised to present problems for some heading to a brand new road course on the Cup schedule. Sunday’s pole sitter Chris Buescher now sits three points beneath the cutline while Daniel Suarez has crept into the picture at 48 points out. Behind him sits Stenhouse in 19th at 54 points behind, underscoring how detrimental Sunday’s engine loss is for that organization.
How … will Kyle Larson respond to a two-race losing streak?
Kyle Larson hadn’t lost a Cup Series race since May 30, sporting a three-race points-paying win streak entering Pocono. But now that he went trophy-less this weekend, the sport’s hottest driver has officially cooled off.
That said, it’s not like Larson was out to lunch. He was one corner and a good tire away from winning Saturday and wound up second the following day despite early damage from contact with Denny Hamlin.
In all honesty, watching Larson and that No. 5 team take a moment to reset may be dangerous for the field. After seeing a month of dominant performances come to an end, I can only think this setback motivates them more.
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