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)