It was a banner day for Kevin Harvick as he notched his first NASCAR Cup Series win at Pocono Raceway in his 39th attempt. It was also a banner run for the Toyota nameplate as four Toyota drivers earned top-10 results, three of which were top-five results, at the Tricky Triangle.
The first was Denny Hamlin. Starting third based on a random draw, Hamlin fell back to fifth through the first 13 laps. Under the competition caution, he remained on track and was shuffled back to ninth on the following restart. Under three laps remaining in the first stage, the driver of the No. 11 FedEx/Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota surrendered his track position to make a green-flag pit stop to set himself up for track position in the following stage. When the first stage concluded, Hamlin was in 36th. Under the stage break, Hamlin remained on track and gained a multitude of positions while his three JGR teammates pitted. Restarting 10th in the second stage, Hamlin slowly made his way towards the front as strategy became the theme throughout the stage and a multitude of competitors made green-flag pit stops. On Lap 60, Hamlin led his first lap of the day after passing teammate Martin Truex Jr., who peeled off to pit road. Hamlin would lead seven laps before pitting. With eight laps remaining in the second stage, Hamlin was in 10th when the caution flew. Through two late-stage restarts, Hamlin would settle in seventh in the second stage. Restarting seventh in the final stage with 48 laps remaining, Hamlin returned to the lead 11 laps later. Needing to pit to complete the race, Hamlin pitted five laps later for service. For the duration of the closing laps, Hamlin would carve his way back into second with Harvick ahead of him. Then, Hamlin started to report a bad vibration to his car. Despite the issue, Hamlin continued to narrow his deficit to Harvick with less than 10 laps remaining. With four laps remaining, Hamlin narrowed his deficit to less than half a second and was close to Harvick’s rear bumper. He was, however, unable to gain a draft to draw alongside Harvick and challenge for the win as he settled in second. With his runner-up result, Hamlin earned his eighth top-five result of this season and his 12th at Pocono to go along with his three regular-season victories this season and after leading 10 of the event’s 130-scheduled laps.
“[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.”
Next was rookie Christopher Bell, who shined the brightest of this year’s Rookie-of-the-Year Cup field at a track where he won at in the 2017 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series season with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Starting 36th, Bell gained 10 spots to move into 26th through the competition caution on Lap 13. Through the following two restarts, Bell kept his No. 95 Rheem/Leavine Family Racing Toyota intact. With three laps remaining in the first stage, Bell, like Hamlin, made a green-flag pit stop for early adjustments to his car for the next stage, thus finishing 35th at the conclusion of the first stage. Throughout the second stage, Bell worked his way into the top 10 and was running inside the top five when the caution flew for debris with 13 laps remaining in the stage. Through another caution and two late restarts, Bell concluded the stage in 11th, one spot shy of earning a stage point. At the start of the final stage, Bell remained in contention for a top-10 spot when he made a green-flag pit stop with 39 laps remaining to have enough fuel to make it to the end. From there, Bell was able to work his way up to fourth when the checkered flag flew. The fourth-place result marked Bell’s first top-five career finish in his 14th NASCAR Cup Series start and his fourth top-10 result of this season and in the last eight races. The top-five result was a satisfactory run for Bell, who had finished no higher than 21st in the first six races of the 2020 season.
“Whenever I started working with [crew chief] Jason [Ratcliff] two years ago in the Xfinity Series, well even before that, I started following him and I knew he was really aggressive on strategy to get his driver up front,” Bell said. “[It] Seems like the majority of the race tracks that we’ve been to the last couple weeks have just been, put four tires on and go, but Pocono is definitely a place where you can mix up strategy, pit early, pit before the stages and so forth. Obviously, Jason did a great job and got us up front and we had the car speed to stay up there.”
In addition, Kyle Busch rallied from his recent strings of frustration to leave the first Pocono event with a strong top-five run. Starting fourth, Busch was the highest-running Toyota driver in fourth through the first competition caution on Lap 13. Restarting in fourth, Busch outlasted through two additional restarts to finish fourth and gain valuable stage points towards the Playoffs. Under the stage break, Busch pitted with two of his JGR teammates and restarted 23rd for the following stage. In the early portions of the stage, Busch was running towards the top 15, but once a wave of competitors pitted on Lap 46, Busch was in third behind teammates Truex and Hamlin. Busch kept his No. 18 M&M’s Mini’s/Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota towards the front when a late caution in the second stage came out due to debris. Opting to pit, Busch was in 11th when the racing resumed with eight laps remaining in the second stage. Through another late-stage restart, Busch finished 10th. He restarted in eighth in the final stage and made his final pit stop under green with 40 laps remaining. As the race dwindled to its final laps, Busch was able to work his way up to fifth, where he finished after taking the checkered flag. Despite remaining winless to the 2020 season, the top-five result was Busch’s first since finishing second at Atlanta Motor Speedway on June 7 and his eighth top-10 result of the season.
“We had some speed and there were laps that I could run with [Hamlin], but he could just do it lap after lap after lap where I was pushing everything I had to keep up with him there,” Busch said. “I just couldn’t do it. I would make the tires mad and would start to fall back. We were just a little tight all day. We really fought tight early on, but we made some really good adjustments and got it a lot closer and got it a lot better. Our strategy there worked out to get us in the top-five – that was about all we could ask for out of today. We got some really good ideas for tomorrow hopefully that will help us out and hopefully get us some speed so we can keep up with those front guys.”
Finally, Martin Truex Jr. rallied from a disappointing ending last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway to add another top-10 result to this season. Starting 11th, Truex was in 14th through the competition caution, 13 laps, when he opted to make his first pit stop of the day for four fresh tires, fuel and adjustments. The pit stop dropped him back to 21st, and through two restarts, Truex could finish as high as 13th following the first stage. Restarting in 10th for the start of the second stage, Truex emerged with the lead on Lap 45. He led the next 14 laps before surrendering the lead to teammate Hamlin while making a green-flag pit stop. In the closing laps of the second stage, Truex was running inside the top five. Through two late restarts, Truex settled in third in the second stage. Restarting in third in the final stage, Truex was battling within the top five when he made a green-flag pit stop, a stop to get him to the finish. In the final laps, while battling teammate Kyle Busch for a top-five spot, Truex reported a vibration to his No. 19 SiriusXM/Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Despite the late concerns, Truex was able to cross the finish line in sixth for his seventh top-10 result of this season after leading 14 laps.
“We started in a decent spot and lost some spots early,” Truex said. “I thought we had a pretty decent SiriusXM Toyota early on and kind of had to do a little different strategy there. Stage one didn’t look too good, but I felt like we were pretty close with the car. We made some adjustments and got some track position through stage two, so we were able to get some decent stage points there. We were in a decent spot again towards the end and got a really bad vibration, so I was a little concerned that we were going to have a tire issue or something. Luckily, it held on and it wasn’t a great finish by any means, but a solid finish for sure and something we can work on for tomorrow.”
For the remaining Toyota competitors, Daniel Suarez and Timmy Hill finished 28th and 35th while Erik Jones ended his race in 38th following a late accident in the second stage, a wreck that left Jones trailing the top-16 in the regular-season series standings by six points and moving into a backup car for the second Cup Pocono race on Sunday, June 28.
The NASCAR Cup Series will return for a second race at Pocono as part of the doubleheader feature on June 28 at 4 p.m. ET on FS1.