Five thoughts following Sunday’s Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway…
1. Three’s Company
Every NASCAR fan knows two drivers have been the best this season: Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. They’ve combined for nine wins, 50 playoff points and approximately two gazillion laps led.
Quietly, though, Martin Truex Jr. has been close all season — just not quite with “winning speed,” as he put it last week.
But now, after winning Sunday at Pocono? It suddenly looks like Truex is right there with the top two.
“I would say we had winning speed today for sure,” Truex said. “… Today was the first weekend in awhile — even though we’ve been finishing good — that everything made sense. We had a game plan and everything went the way we thought it would, and it was just a smooth weekend. It felt like we were doing all the little things right.”
Yes, clean air and track position benefited the No. 78 car late in the Pocono 400. Busch couldn’t track him down despite having four fresher tires.
But as crew chief Cole Pearn noted, Truex was running third in Stage 1 and was able to pass both Busch and Harvick for the stage win. And in the final stage, the trio was running nose to tail — just unable to make any passes because they were all so close in speed.
So to Pearn and Truex, that showed the 78 car has made gains.
“It hasn’t come without hard work, I promise you that,” Pearn said.
With 14 races down, three drivers have hogged 11 of the wins. Only Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon have gone to victory lane aside from those three (and two of those were superspeedway wins).
It’s been the Busch and Harvick show until now, but it seems they might have to make some room on the marquee.
2. Truex 2017 vs. Truex 2018
Truex being a low-key guy can kind of fool you into thinking he’s more chill about the racing than he really is. Actually, he knows what’s up.
For example: Truex was able to rattle off a stat about the number of quality passes he made in the Coke 600 (91) and knew the precise number of races where he’s had crashes vs. races that resulted in top-fives (four vs. nine).
That’s a pretty solid point that has been lost in the wake of Harvick and Busch’s dominance. Truex already has nine top-fives (every race he didn’t crash) and didn’t get his ninth top-five last year until Watkins Glen.
So in Truex’s mind, the No. 78 team’s performance hasn’t been that far off what it was in his 2017 championship season. The difference is the amount of adversity it has had to overcome in some races — like on pit stops, for example.
“We’ve had more battles this year,” Truex said. “Last year, it was almost like we couldn’t do anything wrong. This year, we’ve had to really work a lot harder for it, but I feel like we’re still right there, and today was a perfect example.”
As the summer goes on, it may turn out Truex is able to firm up his playoff points and go on a similar run to what he did last year. If it’s circumstances that have been holding him back, then watch out.
“Sometimes you can have the best of everything, and if things don’t go your way it’s impossible,” he said. “Today we did all the little things right and had a little bit of luck on our side as well, and that’s what it takes at this level.”
Cup and Xfinity used two completely different aero packages this weekend, with a speed difference of roughly 20 mph. Either way, the result was the same: Once the leader got into clean air, he was hard to pass.
Busch had four fresh tires and two late restarts to try and get the lead from a driver who was on older tires, but he couldn’t do it. Track position won out.
“It was a little disappointing the tires didn’t mean anything more than they did there at the end,” Busch said. “Guys that had 10, 11 laps on their tires were able to still outrun us and beat us (despite) us having fresher rubber. Clean air was king.”
Look, here’s the thing: As much as everyone talks about rules packages or tires or whatever it may be, it’s pretty difficult to put on an entertaining show when you’ve got a track with mind-numbing straightaways (long enough to land an airplane!) connected by turns that weren’t exactly designed to promote passing.
Maybe it’s just that Pocono, for its odd charms, isn’t conducive to great racing. Side-by-side action and passes for the lead can happen here — especially on restarts — but they’re often the exception rather than the rule.
4. More work to do
Chevrolet put three drivers in the top seven (and five in the top 11) at the Coca-Cola 600, which sparked conversation about whether the manufacturer was starting to make gains.
After Pocono? Well, hold that thought.
Kyle Larson finished second, but he was the only Chevy in the top seven. Jimmie Johnson seemed to be getting a bit closer to contention (and drove his butt off), but he still only finished eighth.
Once again, the Fords and Toyotas collectively seemed to be a step ahead of the Chevrolet teams — as has been the case all season.
However, there’s some good news for Chevy: With 12 races until the playoffs are set, four Chevy drivers are in the top 16. That’s not terrible. Kyle Larson is ninth in points, Jimmie Johnson is 12th and Chase Elliott is 13th — plus there’s Dillon’s victory that already gave him a playoff spot.
In addition to that, Alex Bowman is only nine points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the final position on points.
So even though a Chevy driver hasn’t won since the Daytona 500, the manufacturer might still end up in decent shape when it comes to potential playoff representation.
5. Up next
It’s been all about two drivers dominating the season, and now there might be three — as we mentioned above.
But wait! What if there was a FOURTH driver in the title hunt? Well, if there was someone else to challenge the frontrunners, it would be Larson (although he’s not out there saying that yet).
“I’m the only one that doesn’t have a win in the front four,” he said. “Three of those guys are definitely head over heels better than the rest of us, but I think from fourth- to sixth- or seventh-best car, it’s pretty close.”
But what if he did have a win? This seems like a good time to mention his name, because next week’s race is at Michigan — a 2-mile track. And guess what Larson’s record is in the last five races on 2-mile tracks (Michigan and Fontana)? The answer is first, first, first, first, second — including three straight wins at Michigan!
So at this time next week, the conversation might be all about how it’s four drivers who seem to be head and shoulders above the rest — not just two (last week) or three (this week).