Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – Next year’s Pocono Raceway schedule will feature a longer weekend, shorter Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races but considerably more racing action at the 2.5-mile triangular track.
For the first time, NASCAR will run two points-paying Cup races on the same weekend, culminating in a 350-miler on Sunday, June 28. The day before, Cup drivers will run their first race of the weekend, with a length still to be determined.
Practice and single-car qualifying for the first Cup race will take place on Friday, June 26, and cars will be impounded thereafter. Drivers will use the same cars for both races, with the starting order for the second race determined by an inversion of the cars remaining on the lead lap at the end of Race No. 1, reporters learned Saturday during the announcement at Pocono.
“There’s a little flux here,” Pocono Raceway CEO Nick Igdalsky said of the first Cup race. “The race length is tentative at this point… We’re shooting for a 350-miler on that one, but that one may flex a little bit.”
Accordingly, the Cup cars may have to run as many as 700-miles under race conditions in the same weekend.
“After (Race 1), we will give the competitors back their cars, and they can do all their maintenance,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. “They can’t really run the 700 miles without having their cars back for general service and all that.
“So we’ll give them their cars back. They will likely change valve springs and work on any slight damage from the race and all the maintenance to prepare for 350-mile Race 2.”
Teams will keep the pit stalls they earn during Friday’s qualifying for both races.
Both Cup races will be part of doubleheaders, with the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series running a 200-mile event before Saturday’s Race 1 and the NASCAR Xfinity Series competing over 225 miles before Sunday’s Race 2.
The ARCA Menards Series will feature a 200-mile race on Thursday afternoon.
ILL-TIMED CAUTIONS SPOIL STRATEGIES OF KYLE BUSCH, KEVIN HARVICK
Inopportune cautions foiled the best laid plans of drivers Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick–and their respective crew chiefs.
Even though those two drivers arguably had the best two cars in Sunday’s Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway, neither was in position to challenge for the victory when the race went to overtime.
The winner of Stage 1, Busch stayed on the track and retained the lead for a restart on Lap 119 of 163. Unable to reach the end of the race on fuel, however, Busch came to pit road on lap 134 and fell to 26th in the running order. He spent the rest of the event working his way back up to ninth at the finish, while his joe Gibbs Racing teammates—Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr.—swept the top three spots.
Busch led 56 laps, second only to Harvick’s 62.
Harvick drove his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to a third place in Stage 1, second in Stage 2 and led the field to green to start the final stage on Lap 104. But the lost the top spot to Hamlin on the restart lap and never regained it.
The way Harvick saw it, pair of cautions in the last 10 laps deprived him of the change to win in a car that was set up for long runs.
“If the caution doesn’t come out, I think we were in good shape, but that’s the way it goes, especially at this place,” said Harvick, who was trying to double up on last Sunday’s victory at New Hampshire. “You have to have the cautions fall your way, and you have to have everything go right.
“We just had a few little things here and there that didn’t go our way and wound up sixth.”
KYLE LARSON DRIVES HIS BACKUP CAR TO A FIFTH-PLACE FINISH
For the second straight week, Kyle Larson started a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race from the rear of the field in a backup car, but his run in Sunday’s Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway was considerably more satisfying than the day he had last weekend at New Hampshire.
Larson crashed 10 minutes into opening practice on Saturday morning and had very few laps on his backup No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet before qualifying. He was 29th fastest in time trials but, under NASCAR rules, had to drop to the back of the field for the start.
At times during Sunday’s race, Larson had the fastest car on the track. By the end of the first stage, he was sixth and he remained in contention throughout the balance of the race, though his running position varied according to divergent strategies and pit stop cycles.
When the race went to overtime, Larson lined up fourth and pushed race winner Denny Hamlin out front on the final restart. Larson had a close call with the wall in overtime and lost a position when he slowed to avoid contact with the barrier.
“I didn’t hit the wall, but I got close,” said Larson, who finished fifth. “I knew I was going to be close to the wall, so I bailed out of the throttle to keep myself from hitting the wall and lost momentum. I felt bad, but it was better than ending up torn up like the last time I was aggressive on a restart.
“It was a good day. It was a lot better car than I thought I was going to have, so it just goes to show how good our team is right now and how good our cars are. Last week, I felt like we had one of the fastest cars and we didn’t get to show it (because of two wrecks during the race). Today, I felt like we were one of the fastest cars. If I could just race a primary car, who knows what we could do? I just have to clean up a little bit of what I’m doing in practice and the races, and hopefully we can get a win.”
KEVIN HARVICK-KYLE BUSCH RIVALRY HAS MATURED INTO MUTUAL RESPECT
To hear Kevin Harvick tell it, the undisguised animosity he once felt for Kyle Busch has mellowed over the years.
“Oh, man, I wanted to rip Kyle Busch’s head off for a long time, and now I enjoy being around Kyle and racing with Kyle,” Harvick said on Saturday morning at Pocono Raceway. “And the reason I think that is, for me, there’s a respect that comes with what he does on the race track, so I enjoy beating Kyle.
“I know Kyle enjoys beating me, and I enjoy racing Kyle, but I also understand that when it’s all said and done, he’s going to be one of the greatest that goes through the sport.”
Busch believes the turnaround started in 2014 when Harvick moved to Stewart-Haas Racing and when Harvick’s son Keelan was born. Busch also thinks the surge in social media has had an effect on quelling rivalries in the sport, rather than enhancing them.
“Now you have people on their computers, on their cell phones, on whatever all day long talking about it or whatever with not just one, two, three people at their job site, but hundreds and thousands on their social media platform and the voice just gets louder and becomes more annoying,” Busch said.
“Got to mind your ‘p’s and ‘q’s a little bit more and kind of let it die quietly at the race track. When it picks up, because you run into someone else, and then it picks up again, it starts all over. You try to squash it, I guess.”
In Harvick’s current view, it’s perhaps best not to make enemies in the first place. His prime example? Jimmie Johnson.
“Did Jimmie Johnson have a beef with anybody?” Harvick asked rhetorically. “I don’t think so. That’s probably why he won seven championships. He had this grudge thing figured out long before I did, so it’s a different world.”
WILLIAM BYRON TURNS ROUGH DAY INTO STRONG RESULTWilliam Byron turns a tough day into a strong result at Pocono
You’d never know from William Byron’s demeanor or his language that the 21-year-old driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet had just finished fourth in Sunday’s Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway.
“It was a struggle,” said Byron, who restarted sixth in overtime and passed both Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick to post his second top five of the season. “I felt like the guys did a good job with strategy, and being able to maximize on restarts. We got fortunate on a couple of things. We go on from it and move on to Watkins Glen.”
With five races left in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season, Byron remains 12th in the standings, but he increased his margin over Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson—the first driver currently out of a Playoff-eligible position—to 62 points.
Nevertheless, after the strong run at Pocono, Byron seemed more focused on the difficulty he faced at the Tricky Triangle, where he started 31st after his car failed post-qualifying inspection. After pitting for the last time on Lap 115, Byron saved just enough fuel to make it to the end of the race, which went three laps beyond its posted distance.
“It was a tough day,” Byron said. “We didn’t really have a lot going our way. In the first stage, and even the second stage, we were just kind of hanging on.
“We just found a way to kind of make it work. We had good strategy and just found a way to kind of settle in there in a decent spot and save the right amount of fuel. We ran out of fuel coming across the (finish) line, so that was great. We saved the right amount of fuel, and that was about it.”