Zach Sturniolo of the Pocono Record joins me to help break down Kyle Busch’s win at Pocono, NASCAR’s try at same-day qualifying and the playoff picture with five races to go.
Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway…
1. Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch?
Kyle Busch haters can skip over this part, but the guy is a serious championship contender despite not having won in more than a year until Sunday.
For most of the season, the best car each week has been either Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Larson. But Busch has been creeping into the picture lately, and he’s been the one to battle Truex the last couple weeks while Larson hasn’t shown as much speed (even before incidents which resulted in finishes of 28th and 33rd).
Busch hadn’t won since the 2016 Brickyard 400 and Joe Gibbs Racing hadn’t won all season until two weeks ago, so everyone has been busy talking more about that than how the 2015 Cup champ might have a pretty good shot to do it again.
Busch has the most poles, second-most laps led and third-most top-five finishes this season. And perhaps most important, he is now tied for the third-most playoff points with Larson and Brad Keselowski.
As JGR continues to gain speed, Busch has been out front the most. He’s led at least 74 laps in four straight races now. That’s a very dangerous car for his rivals to deal with.
“… We’ve had speed, we’ve been right there, we’ve been able to do what we should be doing: That’s running up front,” Busch said. “It’s just been a bit frustrating on the finishing side.”
It’s scary, because with all the near-misses until Sunday, you get the feeling the No. 18 team hasn’t even performed to its potential yet. If Busch and his team start converting all the close calls into wins? Watch out.
2. What’s the point?
Speaking of championship contenders, I was puzzled by the No. 78 team’s decision to pit late in Stage 2 and give up what seemed like a sure playoff point — which would have made 30 on the season.
I get that Truex and Cole Pearn were going for the win, which meant sacrificing a stage win. Had it worked, they would have made a trade for four additional points than a stage victory brings.
But that’s only if it works. It didn’t. So instead of one playoff point, the team left with zero.
“That was the gamble,” Truex said. “That was our mindset before the race. We figured if we felt like we were good enough to possibly win the race, we’d have to pit before the end of that second stage. Just stuck to our plan.
“It didn’t work out, so obviously now I wish we would have stayed out and won that stage. That’s part of it.”
I can’t recall every situation that led to 14 stage wins for Truex this season, but it seems like the team had been going all-out for playoff points every week until Pocono. And as has been discussed frequently, those points are going to be a massive factor this fall in deciding who makes it to Homestead. So why not take as many as possible when the opportunity presents itself?
Truex and Pearn had an easy one point, gambled for four more and ended up with none. That’s what a team in a trailing position should do, not the leader.
This was like a basketball player passing on a wide-open layup with a 20-point lead; there’s no need to take a contested three in that situation.
3. A different level of speed
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was pumped after finishing 12th, pleased he and the No. 88 team “finally put one together” and had a “complete race” despite an early speeding penalty. Earnhardt ran in the top 10 for much of the second half of the day — something he didn’t anticipate after fighting a loose condition on corner entry all weekend.
But even on a good day, he wasn’t really close to running with the top cars.
“Man, I don’t know where the speed is that the front three or four have,” he said on pit road after the race. “They’ve got it every week. We don’t have that, and we’re not going to find in that garage on Friday or Saturday. If we don’t show up with it, we’re not going to find it. That’s somewhere in the shop.”
Earnhardt said it was probably only a matter of time before Busch started matching Truex’s speed, given the information-sharing arrangement between alliance partners JGR and Furniture Row Racing.
But he’s not sure where the speed is coming from, and that’s concerning.
“It’s nothing you can visually see,” he said .”We’re all in the garage together. We can see under their cars, see the springs they’re running, stuff like that. But it’s not in anything like that.
“They’ve got a lot of speed somehow. They’ve got a lot more speed than everybody else. Gotta give ’em credit.”
4. Season slipping away for Logano
Joey Logano’s season of misery just keeps snowballing as the playoffs approach all too quickly for his team’s liking.
Sunday was another race where everything seemed to go wrong.
Not only did the team lack the speed it needed to be competitive, but both Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon made mistakes on pit road.
Logano was caught speeding with 36 laps to go and had to serve a pass-through penalty under green, but then locked up his tires coming to pit road. When Logano told the team he hurt his tires enough to possibly incur a flat, Gordon quickly made the call to pit for four tires.
But that was a no-no, because pitting while serving a penalty requires another pass-through down pit road. By the time it was all over, Logano finished 27th and one lap down.
The result was Logano’s eighth finish outside the top 20 in the 12 races since he won at Richmond but had the win ruled to be encumbered. He’s now 69 points behind the cutoff with just five races until the playoffs begin.
I caught up with Logano as he was walking glumly away from his car on pit road and asked whether he’s ever faced such a stretch of adversity in his career.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
But Logano said his team “still knows how to do it” and added “we’ve just got to built some momentum back up.”
The thing is, momentum might not be necessary. It just takes one great race (or one good race where everything falls into place) to make the playoffs, and Logano is certainly capable of doing that.
There’s not much time left, though.
5. Sunday doubleheader (kind of)
Qualifying on the same day as the race was kind of weird, even though there were a lot of positives on paper.
The flow of race day seemed all messed up, and the laid-back atmosphere that qualifying brings took away from the typical Sunday morning vibe — where the anticipation builds in the hours before the event.
Maybe I’ll get used to it (a similar schedule will be tried again next week), and I hope that’s the case — because there definitely some good sides of it. Fans get added value with on-track activity before the race itself (some of whom never get to see a Friday session at the track because they don’t come for the whole weekend) and drivers/teams get an extra day at home (after all, the Cup Series really doesn’t need to be at some of these tracks for three days).
I just wish the schedule could be tightened up a bit. After qualifying, there was roughly a 45-minute gap until the drivers meeting, then a 90-minute gap until the green flag.
Lunchtime quietly rolled by without much fanfare, and the sun started to shift in the sky before the race finally went green at 3:21 p.m. ET. People were just milling around waiting for it to start.
But come on — this is NASCAR! Big-time auto racing, right? It shouldn’t feel like waiting for the leaders to tee off at a golf tournament.
By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:
IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.
14. Chase Elliott +39
15. Jamie McMurray +38
16. Matt Kenseth +17
17. Clint Bowyer -17
18. Joey Logano -69
(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)
I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission.
Last race’s results: Played $9 Brake Pad contest and finished 17,400th out of 50,400. Won $0.
Season results: $64 wagered, $72 won in 16 contests.
This week’s contest: $4 Brake Pad game (single entry).
— Kyle Busch ($10,700): The polesitter seems to have the fastest car in Pennsylvania. He’s going to lead a bunch of laps early in the race and could be your hammer overall.
— Matt Kenseth ($9,200): With the Toyotas looking fast at Pocono, why not go with a guy who starts 15th and could pick up some positions en route to a top-five finish?
— Kurt Busch ($8,500): He starts 18th and should finish better than that. Again, I’m going heavy on position differential here because there aren’t many laps available to lead at Pocono, so it could make a big impact.
— Ryan Newman ($7,600): Once more, I’m looking for value picks who can offer upside in position differential. Newman fits the bill because he starts 20th but may be the best of the Richard Childress Racing group today.
— Daniel Suarez ($7,200): This is the riskiest pick of the bunch, and it came down to Suarez or Kasey Kahne. The reason I went with Suarez is the Toyotas look to be strong today, although it makes me nervous he qualified so high (eighth) and doesn’t have much of a high ceiling. Kahne qualified 12th, if you’re thinking of going that direction.
— Ty Dillon ($6,600): Dillon’s average finish this year is 20th. He starts 30th. Take the potential gain from position differential at an affordable price and don’t tell anyone.
Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway…
1. Blaney breaks through
When young Cup drivers face numerous challenges in a single race, they often fail to win. That’s because a lack of experience or poise typically trips them up at some point; even if they overcome one problem, the next does them in.
But at Pocono, Ryan Blaney had to survive three tough moments to score his first career Cup victory.
First of all, Blaney couldn’t talk to his team on the radio all day because his helmet microphone wasn’t working. The team worked out a series of hand signals as a substitute, and it made communication about changes to the car very difficult.
Jon Wood, through the Wood Brothers Racing Twitter account, tweeted late in the race: “If you could listen in for just like 20 seconds, you’d agree it’s just flat-out amazing that we are even on the lead lap at this point.”
After enduring that stress, Blaney found himself starting fourth on the final restart — and the first driver on four new tires. But although he was faster at that point, Blaney had to deal with extremely aggressive blocking from Kyle Busch, which could have easily ended in a wreck for one or both of the drivers. Blaney stayed patient, raced Busch cleanly and made the pass.
After that, he had Kevin Harvick approaching quickly. Harvick stayed on his back bumper in the final laps, waiting to pounce if Blaney made the slightest mistake.
“The way I passed people all day was waiting for him to slip up off the bottom, and he never slipped off the bottom,” Harvick said. “Ryan did a good job of not slipping a wheel with the amount of laps that he had left.”
Blaney drove flawlessly at the end — and throughout the race. He truly earned the win.
2. Silver lining for Dale Jr.?
Pocono was the low point of the season so far for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his fans. Earnhardt missed a pair of shifts this weekend that resulted in blown engines — and offered no excuses for the mistakes.
Though fans were eager for a reason to blame crew chief Greg Ives or the team (surely the shifter must be set up differently!), Earnhardt acknowledged nothing in the car has changed.
This was simply driver error.
“I wish I could blame it on something else, because this feels awful,” he told FOX Sports 1. “It’s just my fault. … I wish I could say the shifter is different.”
There isn’t much good to say about the day — or the season so far. Earnhardt clearly isn’t confident in his cars right now and isn’t having the fun he had been the past few years.
But there might be one positive. As noted by Justin Bukoski, an Earnhardt fan from Portland, Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne appeared to have brake failures (as did Jamie McMurray). And Earnhardt had earlier been complaining of brake problems.
So if Earnhardt had not blown an engine, was it only a matter of time before his brakes led to a Johnson-like hit into the wall? If so, that might have been the end of Earnhardt’s career — or worse — given his concussion history.
3. Another scary moment
Maybe it’s just a heightened sense of awareness since the Aric Almirola crash, but it feels like there have been a lot of hard hits lately, doesn’t it? And there were two more on Sunday.
With four laps left in Stage 2, Johnson and McMurray suffered simultaneous brake failures going into Turn 1 — and both crashed hard.
They were each frightening in their own right. Johnson’s hit was violent — and he initially seemed headed straight for the wall, nose-first — while McMurray’s was fiery.
Johnson seemed shaken and said, “We got away with one there.” He knew it could have been a lot worse.
The burning car was the most worrisome part about McMurray’s wreck. Though it was nice to see the automatic extinguisher put out the fire in the front of the car, the back end was still in flames for quite awhile.
It appeared there were approximately 20 seconds between the time McMurray’s car stopped and when the safety crew put the first bit of extinguisher on the flames. Could the response time have been faster? Before you answer, consider what would have happened if McMurray had not been able to get out of the car (what if he had an Almirola-like injury?). That would have been ugly.
Either way, it’s just another reminder of how dangerous this sport is. And I think we’re all good on reminders for awhile.
4. New blood on TV
I was moving cross-country this weekend and missed the drivers-only Xfinity Series broadcast. That really bummed me out, because I wanted to know how it went.
Fortunately, many Twitter followers were able to fill me in. I received 115 replies to a tweet asking whether people enjoyed it or not.
The consensus: An overwhelmingly positive response to the broadcast, with many comments urging FOX Sports to try it again sometime. I’d say 95 percent of the responses were raving about it; people really seemed to enjoy seeing different faces on the broadcast.
Hopefully, that emotion from the fans was noticed by FOX executives. There appear to be many capable drivers who could fill on-air roles at the moment, some who will be retiring within the next few years. A career full of TV interviews and commercials and appearances has helped drivers become very polished on camera.
If that’s the case, why not stock the on-air booths with the most relevant analysts possible? FOX should do everything it can to keep its talent fresh.
5. Another race, another new winner
That’s now 10 different winners in the first 14 races — which is quite impressive considering drivers like Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have yet to go to victory lane.
But it’s also a whopping eight different teams that have won races, thanks to new faces like Wood Brothers Racing (first win since 2011), Richard Childress Racing (first win since 2013) and Roush Fenway Racing (first win since 2014).
Joe Gibbs Racing has not won yet and certainly will before the regular season ends, so that will be nine.
How does that compare to last year? Well, only seven different teams won a race in all of 2016.
Though it’s still tough to say whether this is a sign of real parity or just unique circumstances producing different winners, it’s always good when no single entity — driver or team — is dominating the season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is probably relieved today, since — let’s face it — he wanted no part of running a Philadelphia Eagles car next week at Pocono Raceway.
The diehard Washington Redskins fan already tried to plead his case several months ago to boss Rick Hendrick, who basically told him to get over it. After all, major Hendrick Motorsports sponsor Axalta had an important teachers initiative to promote — and this is how it chose to do so.
But now, thanks to a stupid NFL provision, the paint scheme won’t run at all. It’s the kind of policy corporate lawyers come up with just because they’re bored and want to justify their high salaries.
The NFL’s official reasoning, per the Eagles: There rules “states that club marks cannot be used in connection with the promotion or presentation of another sport.”
That seems like a stretch on the NFL’s part. It’s not like the Pocono race is called the “Philadelphia Eagles 400” or something. The logo was going to be on one race car for one race on a broadcast televised by NFL partner FOX Sports — during a time of year when the NFL isn’t even on TV!
— Anthony Bonagura (@BonaguraEagles) April 5, 2017
It’s hilariously sad that some dork in the NFL corporate office actually got upset enough about this to nix the entire thing.
The Eagles are going to be on the most popular NASCAR driver’s car in order to promote teachers who concentrate on STEM education? Send them a cease and desist immediately!
“Without doubt, we are deeply disappointed that the Axalta All-Pro Teachers car will not run,” a statement from Axalta said. “As a primary sponsor of Dale Earnhardt Jr., we were thrilled about plans for him to drive a car that gave the Axalta All-Pro Teachers program and STEM education more visibility by promoting the program on the track.”
The Eagles also said they were bummed.
“Having been reminded of the NFL’s policy, we understand and respect their point of view,” the team said. “While we are disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to increase the visibility of the Axalta All-Pro Teachers program through the Pocono 400 this year, we remain committed to supporting STEM curriculum and the educators who inspire our youth through our relationship with Axalta.”
So lame. The NFL is on top right now, so apparently officials feel they don’t need any additional publicity. But that won’t last forever, and disrespecting $4 billion companies like Axalta might make the journey much more painful on the way down.
UPDATE: Here’s what Earnhardt had to say about the NFL’s decision.
“I was disappointed because the opportunity to honor the teachers was going to be pretty cool learning about that connection that the Eagles have with that was going to be col. We are still going to have some teachers at the race and some of the Eagles guys are going to come out. Everything is kind of as is, except for the car.
“I do like the Axalta car we are going to run. It’s going to look good out there and it’s really just unfortunate for Axalta and a good cross over promotion. That would be pretty cool even though obviously, we joked around being Redskins fan and all that. But it was going to be a pretty fun promotion and we are still going to try to maximize what opportunity we can with it.”
— Axalta (@Axalta) April 5, 2017