The Rundown: Pocono
August 04, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
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1. Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. After going winless in 28 races at Pocono Raceway to start his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, Dale Jr. is suddenly 2-for-2 after completing the season sweep in Sunday's GoBowling.com 400. Thanks to savvy pit strategy from crew chief Steve Letarte and a heavy right foot on a late-race restart, Earnhardt rose to the top of the Chase for NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason seeding with his third win of the season. "Let's put a sticker on the door. Well done. Checkered flag," Letarte told his driver at day's end. (For more driver-crew chief in-race audio, subscribe to RaceView.)
2. Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. For all the adventure that Happy Harvick endured in the 400-miler's second half Sunday afternoon, the second-place finish was all the more remarkable. Harvick admitted fault on a pit-road speeding penalty in the 96th of 160 laps ("I knew it was too fast. It wasn't even close."), then bounded over a water drain low on the track apron while dodging a 13-car pileup on Lap 117. "It wasn't exactly how you would lay it out on a piece of paper, for sure," Harvick said after his fourth runner-up effort of the season. (Watch post-race reactions and video highlights on Race RePlay delivered by UPS.)
3. Joey Logano, No. 22 Ford, Team Penske. Logano started second and led the first 30 laps of the race and though he never returned to the point, he was a fixture near the front, clinching his second consecutive top-five finish. His average running position over the course of the 400-mile journey was an impressive 5.238, second only to Jeff Gordon's 4.962. "We're in the hunt," said Logano, a two-time winner this year. "I feel like our cars are definitely where they need to be."
4. Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing. The MWR camp gave Bowyer plenty of late-race motivation on his always lively in-car radio channel, telling their driver, "Kick butt. We can win this thing. Let's go!" Though his win-less streak grew to 62, Bowyer's fortunes are looking up with his fifth top-10 finish in the last seven Sprint Cup races. During that span, he's moved from 16th in points to ninth.
5. Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. It had been 11 races since his most recent top-five finish (second at Talladega in early May), but The Biff nearly pulled out his first victory of the season on a fuel-mileage gamble, leading Laps 136 to 146 until Earnhardt took command. Crew chief Matt Puccia radio-ed his driver in the late going: "We're damn close. … We're right there on it. Just go like hell and maybe we'll get another caution." Biffle made it to the end, but lacked the sheer performance to land his first win in over a year.
6. Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon was in front for the most laps (63) on his way to becoming the first driver in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history to lead more than 1,000 laps at the Tricky Triangle. Although strategy and pit cycles were not on his side, the leader in the series standings came out energized, still beaming after his victory the previous weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "It's been a long time but the way the cars are performing, the way the team is performing, it's very reminiscent of old-school 24. It's a lot of fun."
7. Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing. While a seventh-place finish isn't usually something to go overboard celebrating, Sunday's run at Pocono was a welcome change for McMurray after four straight results outside the top 15. He finished where he restarted on the final three-lap dash to the checkered flag and carries momentum into next weekend's race at Watkins Glen International. In the season's other road-course event at Sonoma Raceway, McMurray won the Coors Light Pole Award and wound up fourth.
8. Ryan Newman, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. Quietly, the veteran driver in his first year with the Childress organization has risen into the top five in points, thanks to Sunday's two-spot jump in the Sprint Cup standings. Newman moved up from 14th place on the next-to-last restart, last pitting for four tires and gas on Lap 140. The modest surge in the late going helped him claim his second top-10 finish in the last three races.
9. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. After a tumultuous week in which Darian Grubb, his regular crew chief, was suspended for post-Indy penalties, Hamlin rebounded at Pocono despite a topsy-turvy day. Hamlin's No. 11 made a big wiggle off Turn 3 in the 82nd lap, then slid in front of a heavy pack to trigger a 13-car pileup at Lap 117. "I really don't know why I got so loose. Was there someone on the outside of me?" Hamlin radioed, not knowing the No. 15 of Clint Bowyer had whipped around him in the high lane. In the end, he rallied and formed a bond with interim crew chief Mike Wheeler by race's end, calling the personnel shift "really pretty seamless."
10. Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne continued on the upswing, adding a 10th-place finish to efforts of sixth at Indianapolis and 11th at New Hampshire in previous weeks. But he let loose with verbal venom after a Lap 52 run-in with Joe Nemechek: "I don't know who that guy is or what he's thinking. ... Tell him to park it. Tell his spotter to park that piece of (expletive)." Kahne rallied from the contact and amassed an event-best total of 72 quality passes (passing a car running in the top 15 under green-flag conditions). (To hear more in-car audio during the race, subscribe to RaceView.)
11. Kyle Larson, No. 42 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing. Landing a career-first Coors Light Pole Award offered a projection of big things for the promising Sunoco rookie, but he was on the wrong side of pit strategy. While Larson just missed notching his 10th top-10 finish of the year, his 25th Sprint Cup start kept him entrenched in 12th place in the standings and in position for the 15th of 16 playoffs spots according to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup outlook.
12. Casey Mears, No. 13 Chevrolet, Germain Racing. After a rocky spell with finishes of 38th and 33rd, a finish just outside the top 10 at Pocono Raceway served as a shot in the arm for the Mears Gang. Tire specialist Bryan Kincheloe tweeted after Sunday's 400, "After the last 3 weeks this feels like a win." Indeed, the 12th-place run was the team's best finish of the season outside of restrictor-plate tracks Daytona and Talladega.
13. Kurt Busch, No. 41 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. True to Outlaw form, the SHR No. 41 team took a dissimilar fuel strategy than most by staying out on the track during an early caution period. The gambit nearly paid off as Busch led 30 laps, tied for second-most in the race, but a pair of wall scrapes with seven laps left did the former Cup champion in, prompting an angry post-race salvo on the radio directed at crew chief Daniel Knost.
14. Marcos Ambrose, No. 9 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports. A pair of pit-road mishaps created early hurdles for the Aussie. First, a vibration for a potential loose wheel forced an unscheduled stop that placed him at the tail end of the lead lap. Then during the next round of pit stops, difficulty in coming to a halt forced Ambrose to nose into his pit stall crossways. Early issues aside, the road-racing expert looks ahead to this weekend's race at Watkins Glen, where he's won twice, as his best shot to clinch a berth in the Chase.
15. Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. Dillon posted his sixth straight finish on the lead lap to keep the Sunoco rookie's streak of solid, consistent performances intact. But results in the teens likely won't be enough to secure a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason -- Dillon slipped two spots in the standings this week, relinquishing his tenuous grip on a provisional playoff berth.
16. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 Chevrolet, HScott Motorsports. After two straight crashes followed by an off-pace 27th-place run at the Brickyard, Allgaier overcame further misfortune at Pocono. The rookie caught a piece of the race's biggest wreck, but stormed back to match his best finish of the season and his young career; his other 16th-place result came mid-June at Michigan. Despite the effort, Allgaier remained 29th in the standings for the 11th straight race.
17. David Gilliland, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports. Gilliland received the free pass during the final caution period, using it to claim the final spot among lead-lap finishers. More importantly, he popped up to lead a green-flag lap along the way to registering his best finish of the season in 17th. "We knew that we had a good enough car to take advantage of some situations out there on the race track and be able to race hard for lucky dogs and those kind of things," Gilliland said. "We were able to do that and caught a couple breaks and had a good, solid day."
18. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. The second-year Sprint Cup driver alternated between fighting a zero-grip condition, tight handling and the feeling that his No. 17 entry was dragging the front splitter. But Stenhouse avoided disaster with evasive action through the 13-car stack-up in Lap 117 to come home as the first car one lap down.
19. David Ragan, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports. In what's been a fairly rough season for the Georgia native, the three-cornered Pennsylvania track has offered a pair of bright spots. Ragan scored his best finish of the season at Pocono with an 18th-place run on June 8. Just 56 days later, Ragan came one position shy of matching it at the Tricky Triangle and wound up just two spots back of his teammate Gilliland. "Front Row Motorsports had two cars in the top 20, so that's a solid day for us," Ragan said.
20. Ryan Truex, No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing. The rookie managed to escape involvement in the massive crash that snared 13 drivers, but that didn't mean his spotter enjoyed guiding his driver through the melee. "That was the worst restart I've ever seen," he said after the field bottled up in front of the BK Racing driver. Truex has yet to finish on the lead lap on his Sprint Cup resume, but he at least has his career-best finish in his pocket as he leaves Pocono.
21. Cole Whitt, No. 26 Toyota, BK Racing. Adjustments galore was the order of the day for the race's top-finishing redhead, who matched his best finish since early May at Talladega, 16 races ago. While it wasn't within striking distance of the top 10, the rookie left Pocono with a dose of perspective. Tweeted Whitt after the race: "Got pretty lucky today. Had to make some big swings on the car and got it as close as we could. Still got a long way to go."
22. Michael Annett, No. 7 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing. The lucky No. 7 wasn't quite so fortunate to avoid the large 13-car fracas on Lap 117, but after his crew pulled the fenders off the tires, Annett rallied. The result continued a positive trend of 12 consecutive races where Annett finished better than where he started. Sunday's race marked a 16-spot improvement from his 38th-place position on the starting grid.
23. Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford, Team Penske. Keselowski was in position to win the series' previous stop at Pocono, and while he had a fast car, a pair of incidents hampered his forward progress -- almost before the race was a mile old. Keselowski's Yellow Deuce wobbled big-time in the first lap and only a tremendous save kept it from being worse. His spotter said as much over the team communications: "We were wrecked. Just didn't hit anything." Kes recovered but suffered significant damage in the 13-car melee near the race's three-quarter mark.
24. Josh Wise, No. 98 Chevrolet, Phil Parsons Racing. Gearbox problems presented a major challenge for Wise and co. on Sunday. The team's No. 98 was without first gear early in the race, forcing the crew to push Wise out after each pit stop the rest of the day. Second gear dropped later and the team used a Bungee cord to hold the car in fourth gear for the majority of the race. Wise later tweeted that a top-20 outcome would have been a possibility, calling his best finish in the last three races "bittersweet."
25. Travis Kvapil, No. 32 Ford, FAS Lane Racing. Kvapil rose above some slight early damage to the nose of his Ford to land his best finish of the season. The 25th-place result was also team owner Frank Stoddard's top result this year outside of the playing field-leveling restrictor plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega. Kvapil navigated to avoid the race's largest shunt on Lap 117, then tried to help former teammate Gilliland via Twitter with the best way to avoid post-race traffic on the way home.
26. Dave Blaney, No. 37 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing. In making his first start of the season for team owner Tommy Baldwin, the Buckeye Bullet brought home his best finish of 2014. It marked the second straight race for Baldwin's third car; Bobby Labonte drove the No. 37 to a 37th-place finish at Indianapolis. Blaney's previous four results came with team owner Randy Humphrey, who announced in late June his team was "retooling things" in taking time off from the Sprint Cup schedule.
27. Reed Sorenson, No. 36 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing. With a post-race tweet, Sorenson lauded how well car his drove but lamented "a couple (of) issues" that kept him from achieving his first top-20 finish since the season-opening Daytona 500. Still, it marked just the fourth time in 21 races this season that both of TBR's full-time Sprint Cup entries were among the top 30 finishers.
28. Alex Kennedy, No. 33 Chevrolet, Circle Sport Racing. Though his portfolio of Sprint Cup races is just six races long, Kennedy marked a career-best in his third event of 2014 with car owner Joe Falk. He started 42nd in the 43-car field, just like his previous effort this season at Pocono, but chalked up an 11-spot improvement from his earlier go-round at the Tricky Triangle.
29. Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. With two regular-season victories sealing his spot among the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff contenders, Edwards can breathe a little easier even though he's been five straight races without a top-10 finish. Sunday's undoing was his involvement in the track-blocking pileup on Lap 117, when he avoided major contact but bounced his No. 99 Ford through a rough patch of the Pocono apron. He continued but rolled under the checkered flag three laps down.
30. Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Patrick struck an apologetic tone for her role in causing damage to her SHR entry on Lap 16. She managed to keep the car off the wall when a tire went down at the end of the long frontstretch, but pounded the barrier in trying to hustle the car back to the pits for service, causing the race's second caution period. "So sorry, guys," she said over the radio, prompting a reply of "it's all good," from unruffled crew chief Tony Gibson.
31. Alex Bowman, No. 23 Toyota, BK Racing. While there's something to be said for consistency, Bowman settled for a pair of 31st-place finish in closing the books on Pocono Raceway's two Sprint Cup races of 2014. The rookie, though, made sure to show his appreciation to his crew over the radio for well-suited adjustments to the No. 23 after the next-to-last yellow flag and chatted with his team during the cool-down lap for an impromptu debriefing session as the first-year learning process continues.
32. Martin Truex Jr., No. 78 Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing. The snake-bitten year for team owner Barney Visser's first-year driver continued as the 13-car accident on the Turn 1 exit snared Truex. The No. 78 returned to the race after going behind the wall for repairs, but the car was 16 laps off the lead pace at the end. Truex is still searching for his first top-five finish of the season; he had seven in 2013, his final year with Michael Waltrip Racing.
33. Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. Menard found himself in the midst of the race's biggest crash, and though he eventually rejoined the fray, it wasn't an immediate process since his No. 27 came to rest wedged underneath Tony Stewart's No. 14. Menard still holds the distinction of possessing the most top-five finishes (three) this season of any Childress driver, but he dropped another spot in the standings after his second consecutive result outside the top 30.
34. AJ Allmendinger, No. 47 Chevrolet, JTG Daugherty Racing. "The Dinger" jumped up during an exchange of green-flag pit stops to lead his first laps since Sonoma in June. He set the pace in Laps 75-76, leading Aric Almirola, Michael Annett and Marcos Ambrose in the top five, prompting speculation that the race was taking an alphabetical flavor. The order didn't last long as Allmendinger's day ended early, turning sour in the 13-car wreck on Lap 117 then ending with a Lap 139 crunch against the Turn 1 wall. "Yeah, it was awesome running out there waiting to crash," Allmendinger's radio chirped before the No. 47 headed for the garage.
35. Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports. The Daytona winner in July took a turn in the lead near the midway point to gather a bonus point in the Sprint Cup standings, but it was small consolation after a crushing blow in the Lap 117 melee. "I was just along for the ride," Almirola said after all avenues for getting around the crash disappeared, leaving The King's No. 43 damaged front and back. Since the Coke Zero 400 victory, Almirola has finishes of 23rd, 21st and Sunday's 35th.
36. Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Smoke endured an up-and-down day at Pocono Raceway that ended with his car being literally up, elevated as it came to rest on Paul Menard's Chevy after the Lap 117 crash. Earlier in the day, Stewart had reported an issue with a wheel hub that made his car feel "bound" in the turns, but adjustments resolved the trouble before bigger problems found him. After the crash, the two drivers recalled a similar instance of Stewart's car perching on Menard's at Talladega Superspeedway. "I think that is the second time I've landed on top of him," Stewart said. "This time at least we weren't looking windshield in at each other."
37. Brian Vickers, No. 55 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing. Vickers had a prime vantage point for Denny Hamlin's major slide through Turn 1 in the 117th lap, but his evasive action to the high side was the second stage in the chain-reaction of events that blocked the track with crumpled cars. "11 lost it in front of us," Vickers said over the team radio. The finish marked the eighth time in the last nine races that Vickers placed outside the top 10; he's slipped from eighth to 18th in Sprint Cup points over that span.
38. Matt Kenseth, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. The JGR driver entered Pocono with fourth-place finishes in three of the last four races, but his unfortunate position in the middle of the 13-car mishap saddled him with a heavily damaged No. 20 car, his second crash-related DNF of the season and his second-worst finish of 2014. Despite the early exit, Kenseth remained fourth in the Sprint Cup standings and 12th in the Chase outlook standings -- the best among winless drivers this season.
39. Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. The earliest trouble of the day snared the No. 48 team when a tire went down in the ninth lap to spark the race's first yellow flag. Though he eventually returned to the lead lap, Johnson's day was cut 49 laps short by a second encounter with the wall that ended his race. After a hot streak where Johnson won three of four races from late May into June, he's now gone 3-for-4 on early exits due to crashes, knocking him from second in the standings to sixth over that stretch. "It wasn't the best weekend," Johnson said, "but we still gave ourselves a chance at a win if not a top-five today and came up a little short."
40. Joe Nemechek, No. 66 Toyota, Jay Robinson Racing. Front Row Joe's 10th Sprint Cup start of the year ended with his third DNF after a run-in with Kasey Kahne in the 51st lap pushed his No. 66 into the outside wall in Turn 3. Each driver blamed the other over team radio communications, but Nemechek's tone seemed to indicate that he was filing the incident in his memory banks for possible payback later: "I hope he gets in the Chase and remembers that."
41. Landon Cassill, No. 40 Ford, Hillman Racing. The Iowa native pulled off a travel-heavy double duty weekend, managing to hitch a plane ride with Joe Gibbs Racing back to Pocono after racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series at Iowa Speedway the night before. Cassill, however, was relegated to his third finish worse than his car number after making contact with the Turn 2 wall in the 29th lap. His post-race statement via Twitter was the ultimate look at the bright side: "Rough day, you'll have those right? I love Pocono, though. Such a fun track, beautiful scenery, great fans. I'm lucky to do this."
42. Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. Losing power and coasting back to the pits after just 23 of the scheduled 160 laps caused mounting frustrations for Busch, who radioed back his diagnosis to his JGR crew: "It's the piston. I know what it is. You guys know what it is. ... Done." Two straight runner-up finishes in the weeks before had moved Busch up from ninth to sixth place in the Sprint Cup season standings. Sunday's next-to-last-place finish pushed him four spots back to 10th.
43. Johnny Sauter, No. 93 Toyota, BK Racing. The Camping World Truck Series regular's first start of the season in NASCAR's premier division came to an end after just 11 laps. It marked the third time in the last five races that the BK operation fielded a four-car effort, bringing the team's number of Sprint Cup starts to an even 200.