Posted: 8:47 am Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Strange things happen at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. Stranger things happen than rained out races pushed to Monday and fog ending an August race early. Stranger things happen than animals on the track (an oft occurrence at Pocono Raceway). Fuel and weather strategy Monday gleaned 23-year-old rookie Chris Buescher his first-career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win in the Pennsylvania 400 in the under-funded No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford. No one predicted that, not even them. Here is how it went down.
Flag to Flag: Martin Truex Jr. (finished 38th) started on the pole for the third time this season and led the first 16 laps. The competition caution on lap 16 brought most leaders to pit road, but Brad Keselowski (2nd) and Greg Biffle (25th) stayed out to gain track position. Just after the ensuing restart, Truex Jr. cut a right-front tire, couldn’t slow down, and nailed the outside wall. A flying lug nut from the old tires on his two-tire stop knocked off the valve stem of the inner liner of the new tire, causing it to go flat. A similar problem plagued Truex Jr. at the Kansas Speedway race earlier this season. He wrecked the wounded No. 78 twice more on the day.
Keselowski and Biffle both led some laps, before finally having to pit and handing the lead over to the day’s best entry, the No. 22 of Joey Logano (37th), who led three times for 38 laps. But after a caution interrupted a pit sequence and stuck him back in traffic, Logano got tagged by rookie Chase Elliott (33rd) on lap 106, spinning both and sending them to the garage.
Kyle Larson (6th) had a brilliant day, leading one less lap than Logano and looking twice like he could win the race. While leading, heavy mist and some drizzle descended on the track. Larson had just taken the lead on a restart with fellow winless driver and Chase hopeful Austin Dillon (13th) in tow. Larson and his team kept campaigning NASCAR to throw a rain caution as Dillon closed in. Dillon dove low under Larson, got loose, and caused both to almost spin, allowing Logano to swoop by for the lead. NASCAR threw a yellow for rain on lap 86, just after the halfway point, but that would not end the race.
Larson and Dillon had to pit for fuel, so Logano maintained the lead and then had to pit under yellow for fuel, bringing Larson to the point again. Kyle Busch (9th) got a great restart, but Larson got around him, before Dillon caught him and led a lap as green flag stops began. Larson and Dillon both lost track position, as they waited longer to get fresh tires than Kevin Harvick (4th) and Keselowski.
Spotters had been telling drivers that the fog was making the Tunnel Turn hard to see. Finally, it was getting bad enough for the drivers to not see. With Buescher and Regan Smith (3rd) the only drivers yet to pit for a final time, the visibility and mist had gotten bad enough. NASCAR threw a lap 133 yellow to try and allow the fog to pass. They threw the red flag on lap 138, 22 laps shy of the finish – and that is where the day ended as severe storms closed in on the track. Buescher’s Dockside Logistics Ford was frozen up front and became the surprise winner. What a shock!
The race started about an hour late than the scheduled 11 a.m. start Monday and rain washed out Sunday’s events. With no track lighting at the facility and a three-hour wait time to dry the two-mile triangular track, calling the race was the only call NASCAR had. When there actually was racing, the action was fairly close and tense. The multiple wrecks, fuel strategy, weather strategy, and surprise winner all made this Pocono race quite compelling, especially with so many drivers right on the Chase bubble.
Top 10: Buescher (first-career win, survived earlier cut tire); Keselowski (strategy would have won him the race likely, had it stayed green); Smith (ties Tommy Baldwin Racing’s best finish in 2011); Harvick (would have waged a heck of a battle with Keselowski if race had continued); Tony Stewart (got mired in traffic mid-race, but rallied back); Larson (twice almost had the race won, he’s knocking on the door); Denny Hamlin (a quiet top 10 and surprisingly the best JGR finisher); Carl Edwards (ran strong early, but never led); Kyle Busch (really struggled early in the race, lost spots on slow final pit stop); Kurt Busch (started in the back, not as strong as when he won in June).
The points: Harvick leads Keselowski by 22 in the season-long standings and Keselowski and Ky. Busch are tied with four wins apiece, seeding them atop the Chase standings. Elliott had been the highest-ranking winless driver for weeks, but his recent crashes have Dillon in that spot at 11th in points. Only 100 points separate Dillon from A.J. Allmendinger, who is 21st in points. Larson was on the outside of the Chase looking in, but his recent good runs have bumped him up to 15th in the points, with a 20 point cushion over 16th Kasey Kahne.
Buescher’s win puts him six points behind 30th David Ragan. Buescher must be in the top 30 after the Richmond race, to qualify for the Chase. If he does, Larson needs to be 14th in points to make the Chase. Jamie McMurray, his teammate, holds that spot by nine points. The next few weeks will be very interesting at Chip Ganassi Racing.
NSCS RaceTweet: Logano leads the most, Larson almost wins twice, so of course Chris Buescher wins the fog-shortened Pocono Cup race.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kyle Larson – He was one lap shy of leading the most laps and one rain cloud shy of winning his first race. If he had pitted earlier in the last pit sequence, he very well could have been in position to assume the race lead after Buescher pitted (which he never did, of course). Larson has shown poise in piecing together his season the last few weeks and may both make his first Chase and win his first race this season.
North Korean Missile Dud: Joe Gibbs Racing – Not that the four-car Gibbs stable, plus the No. 78 of Furniture Row Racing didn’t have speed, but none really manhandled the race as they had the last couple of weeks and most of the season. Despite a pole (Truex Jr.) and other good starting spots, the highest-finishing Gibbs car has been the most disappointing one, Hamlin in 7th.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Chris Buescher – Easy. When Buescher got off sequence, having to pit under green for a flat tire, crew chief Bob Osborne put the team on another strategy that allowed them to pit later than everyone else for fuel. Buescher would have lost the race, had it stayed green, but Osborne banked on bad weather and scored FRM their first win since David Ragan won at Talladega three years ago. Buescher became the first rookie in this impressive class of Elliott and Ryan Blaney – both in much better equipment – to win. Buescher, a Roush-Fenway Racing driver, does not drive RFR cars each week – he is at best driving for a satellite team and has to make do with what he has. Buescher was an impressive 14th at Indy last week, which frankly was just as surprising a result as this win.
Ghost Driver: Jeff Gordon – Is picking on the guy that is supposed to be retired fair? Maybe not. But Earnhardt Jr.’s fill-in has struggled these two races as a substitute. A loose belt cost him some positions, but really he was no better than about 20th all day. This is from the winningest driver in Pocono history and with a team that swept the races there two years ago. This all goes to show how much team chemistry, conditioning, repetition, and presence in the sport all matter to compete at the highest level. Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t appear close to returning and if the No. 88 team wants to qualify for the owner’s points Chase, they have only a one point cushion. Gordon needs better runs to make that happen.
You Can Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Kurt Busch – The June Pocono winner started in the rear of the field and was never very strong, but drove all the way into the top 10. He also extended a streak of finishing on the lead lap for 21-straight races to begin the season. The No. 41 team has the consistency that will be hard to beat come the Chase next month.
Wheel of Misfortune: Martin Truex Jr. – Truex Jr. has lost race because of a freak errant lug nut than he has won this season. He may not necessarily had won, given the strategy plays the weather made, but Truex Jr. would have been a big player. He summed it up best on his team radio after the first wreck, “F— me.”
Jimmie Johnson’s Golden Horseshoe: Chris Buescher and Regan Smith – For as unlucky as Truex Jr. and Logano were, Buescher and Smith turned barely top 25 days into a win and a top 5, because of fuel strategy and timely fog. Had it come any later, they would have pitted and finished in the back of the lead lap and Keselowski would have won. Smith’s good finish is interesting, because he is only 21 points behind Buescher in the points. Were he to overtake Buescher, that could keep Buescher from making the top 30 and making the Chase. I’m betting that Roush-Fenway, which has three other drivers it is trying to get in the Chase, is suddenly going to supply FRM with more RFR chassis for Buescher.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Richard Petty did not hold back even a little bit in a recent interview with Al Pearce of Autoweek. Petty pulled no punches on rating Danica Patrick on the track or on why he supports Donald Trump. But Petty’s comments on NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France are telling.
“The question from the owners is, “Who’s running NASCAR?” I think everyone questions, ‘Where does the buck stop?’ His granddad and dad were there every (race weekend). They looked at it like, ‘We have to take care of the racers, but we have to take care of the
fans, too.’ I think Brian looks at it like, ‘What can we do to expand NASCAR? Not with race cars, but with all the electronic crap and the social media stuff that’s going on.’ That’s not bad, because we need to generate new fans, but I don’t know if racing—pure racing by itself—will generate that many new fans. Brian’s probably doing what he needs to do while we’re over in the garage wondering if he’s even paying attention to the racing. We know what we’re after, but we don’t know what he’s after.”
This may be the heart of what is wrong with NASCAR (and with many other parts of society even) these days. Petty has been involved in the sport in some way since the very beginning. He has seen it all. And while he is old school, he is pointing something out very profound: NASCAR may truly only be a niche sport. He seems to be saying that the leaders should notice that and focus on cultivating the tried and true elements of the sport, instead of trying to woo other things or fans that are not true to it.
Seriously, read that entire interview. Petty had about as much filter as one of those cigarettes he used to smoke back in the day.
Georgia On My Mind: Maybe we could just skip this section. Elliott wrecked and went from a top 10 finish at a track where he almost won with a big Chase points cushion in June to placing 33rd and suddenly feeling lots of pressure after some bad finishes of late.
David Ragan had a mighty poor handling No. 23 Toyota and finished a spot ahead of Elliott in 32nd. He is now only six points inside the top 30 in points. And Reed Sorenson had maybe his first interview of the season, then promptly blew the engine and placed the No. 55 in last.
The Xfiinity Series race Saturday night at Iowa Speedway was pedestrian for the Georgia gang. Ryan Sieg placed 15th, Brandon Jones 16th, and Garrett Smithley 22nd.
And Saturday’s not-rained-out Pocono Camping World Truck Series race was also disappointing for the Georgia drivers. Reed Sorenson led the gang with an 18th place run in a spot start for Premium Motorsports’ NCWTS team. John Wes Townley, in his first race back from both getting a concussion and hugging Spencer Gallagher too hard, crashed early and placed 29th. And Austin Hill crashed on the first lap, ending the day 31st (and barely missing a headline on Brock Beard’s LASTCAR site).
NXW RaceTweet: Ty Dillon almost breaks two-year winless streak, but powerhouse Erik Jones passes him for the win at Iowa Speedway.
NCWTS RaceTweet: Another dominating performance for Kyle Busch Motorsports’ William Byron, breaking the rookie record with his fifth win of the season at Pocono.
Next: Both the NSCS and NXS race at Watkins Glen International Speedway. The Cup cars run Sunday at 2:30 p.m. on USA (because of the Olympics on the NBC networks), MRN, and Sirius/XM Channel 90. Road courses often produce big drama and this weekend should not disappoint. The Xfinity teams run Saturday at 2 p.m. on CNBC and the same radio networks. The NCWTS is off until Bristol and their mid-week race in two weeks.