Harvick benefits on strategy, outduels Hamlin for first Pocono triumph

In his 39th attempt at a track dubbed the Tricky Triangle, Kevin Harvick scratched Pocono Raceway off of his bucket list. Harvick exited ahead of teammate Aric Almirola with 37 laps remaining following a two-tire pit stop, inherited the lead twenty laps later and held off a late challenge from Denny Hamlin to win the Pocono Organics 325, the first of two Pocono Raceway events this weekend, for his third NASCAR Cup Series win of the season and the 52nd of his career.

The starting lineup was based on a random draw. Almirola, coming off his third-place result at Talladega Superspeedway backwards, drew the pole position and was joined on the front row with Ryan Blaney, who won at Talladega. Rookie Brennan Poole started at the rear of the field after his car failed pre-race inspection twice along with Josh Bilicki due to unapproved adjustments.

Delayed by scattered rain, the field ran extra pace laps under caution. When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Blaney made an attempt for the lead on the inside lane, but he got loose entering Turn 1, which allowed Almirola to clear with the lead through the Long Pond Straightaway as Kyle Busch moved into second. On the fifth lap, Blaney retook second and was followed by teammate Joey Logano while Kyle Busch slipped back to fourth. 


American Muscle

At the front, Almirola was able to maintain his advantage by a second over Logano and above two seconds over Blaney through the competition caution on Lap 13. By then, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Matt DiBenedetto, both of whom started 14th and 21st, moved up to 10th and 11th while Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick, both of whom started fifth and ninth, had fallen back to 12th and 15th. Under caution, the top-eight competitors remained on track while a majority led by Jimmie Johnson pitted for early adjustments. When the pit stops cycled through, 14 competitors remained on track while Johnson was in 15th, the first car on fresh tires.

When the green flag flew and the race resumed on Lap 17, a handful of competitors running in the middle of the pack fanned out in racing five- to six-wide past the start/finish line before settling into side-by-side racing through Turn 1. Meanwhile, Almirola retained the lead followed by Logano while Blaney and Kyle Busch battled for third. The caution returned when rookie Quin Houff spun in Turn 2 and made contact with the inside wall.

The following restart, on Lap 21, Logano, who was lined up with teammates Blaney and Brad Keselowski, was able to race alongside Almirola entering Turn 1 before he took the lead through the Long Pond Straight. By then, Chase Elliott, who was racing on fresh tires, moved into the top five after passing Kurt Busch. Two laps later, drivers like Denny Hamlin, Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and rookie Christopher Bell pitted under green as part of a strategic move for the following stage. While most of the battling for track position occurred just outside the top 10, Logano was able to cruise to the first stage win. Almirola finished second followed by Blaney while Kyle Busch and Elliott finished in the top five. Kurt Busch, DiBenedetto, Brad Keselowski, Alex Bowman and Erik Jones finished in the top 10.

Under the stage break, some led by Logano remained on track while others like Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Johnson, Clint Bowyer, rookie Tyler Reddick, Ryan Newman, Jones, Bubba Wallace, rookie Cole Custer, Ryan Preece, Michael McDowell and Daniel Suarez pitted. Following the pit stops, Reddick was assessed a pass-through penalty for speeding on pit road.

The second stage started on Lap 31, where Almirola was able to return to the lead after restarting on the bottom lane. Logano dropped to second while Elliott moved into third after passing Blaney. By then, DiBenedetto moved into the top five while Bowman, Austin Dillon and William Byron were running seventh through ninth. 

By Lap 35, Hamlin was in 13th followed by Harvick and Kyle Busch while Johnson was in 20th. Over the next 10 laps, Blaney, Kurt Busch, Logano, DiBenedetto and Bowman made a green-flag pit stop. A lap later, on Lap 46, Almirola pitted under green along with Elliott. Their pit stops allowed Truex, who last pitted on Lap 14, to take the lead followed by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hamlin and Kyle Busch, all of whom were running with distinct pit strategies. Byron was in fourth followed by Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher and Jones.

By Lap 55, Truex was ahead by three-tenths of a second over Hamlin with Kyle Busch trailing by nearly two seconds. Behind, Harvick was in seventh, Matt Kenseth was in ninth and Bell was the highest-running rookie in 10th with Nemechek and Reddick in 12th and 13th. Johnson was in 14th followed by Wallace while Bowyer was in 20th. Almirola was in 24th followed by Logano, Blaney, Elliott, Kurt Busch and DiBenedetto, all of whom trailed the leaders by 28 seconds.

Over the next five laps, Nemechek, Buescher and Austin Dillon made a green-flag pit stop. On Lap 60, Hamlin passed teammate Truex to inherit the lead. At the same time, Byron made a green-flag pit stop. Shortly after, Truex pitted along with Kenseth as his two teammates, Kyle Busch and Jones, moved into second and third. By then, Harvick and Bell were in the top five while Almirola was in 14th. A lap later, Johnson made a pit stop, but nearly made contact with the lapped car of Bilicki while trying to enter his pit box.

With 13 laps remaining in the second stage, J.J. Yeley blew a left-front tire following contact with Nemechek the previous lap entering Turn 4 and drew a caution when the tire shredded and debris scattered from Yeley’s car. Under caution, nearly the entire field led by Hamlin and Kyle Busch pitted with Hamlin exiting first on four fresh tires. Following the pit stops, Ty Dillon was assessed a pass-through penalty for speeding on pit road. When the field cycled through, Almirola remained on track and returned the lead followed by Logano, Blaney, Elliott, Truex, Kurt Busch, Bowman, DiBenedetto and Byron.

The green flag returned with eight laps remaining in the second stage and Almirola was able to fend off teammates Logano and Blaney to retain the lead through Turn 1. By then, Hamlin wasted no time carving his way to seventh. Two laps later, Jones lifted off the throttle entering Turn 4 and Reddick made contact with Jones’ No. 20 Toyota as both slid towards the inside wall with Jones pounding the wall head-on and Reddick sustaining heavy damage to the right side of his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. The caution fell following the wreck. Jones retired, moving him into a backup car for Sunday’s second Cup Pocono race, while Reddick continued. Under caution, a handful of competitors, including Kurt Busch, Byron, Austin Dillon, Johnson and Custer, pitted. On the track, Stenhouse stalled his car due to low fuel pressure and pitted to address the issue.

With two laps remaining in the second stage, Almirola and Logano raced dead even through Turn 1 before Almirola cleared Logano on the outside lane through the first turn. With a majority of competitors jostling for positions in the two-lap dash, Almirola was able to win the second stage by three-tenths of a second over Logano for his first stage win of the 2020 season and gain crucial points towards the Playoffs. Truex settled in third followed by Blaney and DiBenedetto while Bowman, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Elliott finished in the top 10. 

Under the stage break, only a handful of competitors that included Blaney, Elliott, Ty Dillon and Byron pitted while the rest remained on track. Elliott spent extra time in his pit box to have his right rear fender repaired. In addition, he turned down a bungee chord to hold his car in fourth gear, which popped out, as he will manage the gear himself for the remainder of the race. To make matters worse, he was penalized due to an uncontrolled tire violation and restarted towards the tail end of the lead lap car.

The final stage commenced with 48 laps remaining as Almirola received a push from DiBenedetto to retain the lead. On the Long Pond Straight, Harvick went three wide with Logano and DiBenedetto to move into second. Logano fell back to sixth as DiBenedetto, Truex and Hamlin passed him.

Eight laps later, Almirola was still ahead by six-tenths of a second over Harvick with DiBenedetto trailing by nearly four seconds. Truex, Logano and Hamlin were running fourth through sixth while Bowman, Newman, Kyle Busch and Bell were running inside the top 10. Shortly after, the following competitors of Blaney, Logano, Keselowski, Truex, Kyle Busch, Byron and Johnson made a green-flag pit stop. Over the next two laps, Bowman pitted along with teammate Elliott, Wallace, Bowyer and DiBenedetto.

With 37 laps remaining, teammates Almirola and Harvick made their green-flag pit stops, but Harvick exited ahead of Almirola following a two-tire stop. Their services gave the lead to Hamlin followed by Newman, Michael McDowell, Buescher and Preece. Others competitors that pitted during this time included Nemechek, Kurt Busch, Bell, Austin Dillon and Kenseth. Five laps later, Hamlin surrendered the lead to pit for two fresh tires as Newman moved into the lead. By then, the top-seven competitors were still racing out on old tires and low fuel while Harvick, the first with fresh tires and a full tank of gas, was in eighth.

With 23 laps remaining, Ty Dillon pitted for fuel while the top-six cars led by Newman continued running on the track as the leaders on low fuel and worn tires. Three laps later, McDowell passed Newman to move into the lead. Buescher was in third behind McDowell and Newman followed by Preece and Stenhouse. Shortly after, McDowell, Newman and Stenhouse pitted, giving the lead to Buescher. Another lap later, Preece pitted as Harvick moved into second, trailing Buescher by more than 11 seconds.

Six laps later, Buescher pitted and Harvick assumed the lead with Hamlin, Almirola, Truex, Bell and Kyle Busch trailing. Another two laps later, Bowman made an unscheduled pit stop to address a flat right-rear tire and minimal damage to the right side of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The race remained under green-flag conditions with no debris reported on the track from Bowman’s car.

With the laps dwindling, Hamlin, who reported vibrating issues to his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, started to narrow his deficit from Harvick, who was approaching lapped traffic. With 10 laps remaining, Harvick was ahead by less than a second over Hamlin with Almirola trailing by nearly 13 seconds, Bell by nearly 16 seconds and teammates Kyle Busch and Truex by approximately 18 seconds. 

Three laps later, with seven to go, Logano made an unscheduled pit stop after blowing a left-front tire, but the race remained under green. By then, Elliott was lapped by Harvick, who was still a second ahead over Hamlin and more than 12 seconds ahead of Almirola. Another three laps later, Harvick, who had lapped Wallace, stabilized his lead to more than a second over Hamlin, who continued reporting vibrating concerns to his car. The following lap, Hamlin decreased his deficit to less than half a second to Harvick as the battle between the two veterans ignited. Though Hamlin nearly drew himself to the rear bumper of Harvick in the Long Pond Straightaway, Harvick gained a huge run entering Turn 4, which stalled Hamlin’s progress.

When the final lap started, Harvick was ahead by three-tenths of a second over Hamlin. In the Long Pond Straight, Harvick was able to increase his lead by another three-tenths of a second after he broke Hamlin’s draft towards Harvick, which gave the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford the advantage and the gap he needed to claim his first elusive checkered flag at Pocono.

Coming into this weekend’s doubleheader, Harvick’s previous best result at Pocono was second four times. With his first win at the Tricky Triangle, Kentucky Speedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval remain the only active Cup tracks where Harvick has yet to fill in a win column. In addition, Harvick joined Hamlin as the only three-time winners of this year’s Cup season with 14 races completed as he also recorded the third Cup victory of 2020 for Stewart-Haas Racing and the eighth for the Ford nameplate.

“[I] Just gotta thank everybody on our Head for the Mountains Busch Beer Ford Mustang,” Harvick said on FOX. “We weren’t where we needed to be to start the start. Lost a bunch of track position. Came back, made some great strategy calls and we were able to get out front and make some good laps. It’s great to, finally, check Pocono off the list. Everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing has done such a great job with all of our cars every time we’ve come here over the last seven years. I guess we just need special paint schemes to get to Victory Lane. Just glad it didn’t rain all day. I think in the end, it’s gonna come down to strategy and what you need to do [on Sunday].”

Hamlin finished second, more than seven-tenths of a second behind Harvick, for his eighth top-five result of this season followed by Almirola, who led a race-high 61 of the event’s 130-scheduled laps and earned his third consecutive top-five result this season. 

“[The vibration]’s bad,” Hamlin said. “It was like someone loosened all the [lug] nuts on the car. It’s unfortunate. We got there and we came there from a long way back. Had a strong FedEx Camry. With about 15, 20 to go, the vibration just got really, really bad. Still, it would’ve been tough to pass. Even though we got there, it was gonna be tough to get around [Harvick]. Man, our car was extremely, extremely fast. [I’m] Optimistic for tomorrow’s race, for sure.”

“We opted to score a lot of points [in the stages], and that probably hurt us on strategy a little bit, but I’m really proud of [crew chief Mike] Buga [Bugarewicz] and these [No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford] guys,” Almirola said. “They’ve been bringing some awesome race cars. I felt like we were tit-for-tat there with [Harvick] when we were on older tires and in clean air. We’re trying to keep the momentum going. Three top fives in a row. I’m really proud of my race team.”

Bell and Kyle Busch finished in the top five. Truex, Bowyer, McDowell and Keselowski finished sixth through ninth while Buescher passed Kenseth with two laps remaining to finish 10th. Ryan Preece finished 20th and will start on the pole position for the second Pocono race on Sunday, where he will share the front row with 19th-place finisher Austin Dillon. Melbourne, Australia’s James Davison finished 34th, five laps behind the leaders, in his Cup debut.

There were 10 lead changes for eight different leaders. The race featured six cautions for 21 laps. Only 21 of the 40-car field finished on the lead lap.

With his victory, Harvick stabilized his lead in the Cup Series regular-season standings by 29 points over Blaney and 47 over Logano.

Results:

1. Kevin Harvick, 17 laps led

2. Denny Hamlin, 10 laps led

3. Aric Almirola, 61 laps led, Stage 2 winner

4. Christopher Bell

5. Kyle Busch

6. Martin Truex Jr., 14 laps led

7. Clint Bowyer

8. Michael McDowell, one lap led

9. Brad Keselowski

10. Chris Buescher, three laps led

11. Matt Kenseth

12. Ryan Blaney

13. Matt DiBenedetto

14. William Byron

15. Ryan Newman, 13 laps led

16. Cole Custer

17. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

18. Kurt Busch

19. Austin Dillon

20. Ryan Preece

21. Jimmie Johnson

22. Bubba Wallace, one lap down

23. Corey LaJoie, one lap down

24. John Hunter Nemechek, one lap down

25. Chase Elliott, one lap down

26. Ty Dillon, one lap down

27. Alex Bowman, one lap down

28. Daniel Suarez, two laps down

29. Brennan Poole, three laps down

30. Tyler Reddick, four laps down

31. J.J. Yeley, five laps down

32. Josh Bilicki, five laps down

33. Garrett Smithley, five laps down

34. James Davison, five laps down

35. Timmy Hill, five laps down

36. Joey Logano, six laps down

37. Joey Gase, nine laps down

38. Erik Jones – OUT, Accident

39. BJ McLeod – OUT, Transmission

40. Quin Houff – OUT, Accident

The Cup Series’ second Pocono race as part of the doubleheader feature will air the following day, June 28, at 4 p.m. ET on FS1.


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