Pit strategy nets Hamlin a win over Harvick at Pocono

It was a tale of two stories at the conclusion of the NASCAR Cup Series’ doubleheader at Pocono Raceway. A day after Kevin Harvick claimed his first Pocono triumph after holding off Hamlin in the closing laps, it was Hamlin who played a strategic call in the late laps that got him ahead of Harvick and the redemption to victory after pulling away and winning the Pocono 350 at the Tricky Triangle, the second of a Cup doubleheader weekend in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. The win was Hamlin’s fourth of the season, third since May amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the 41st of his Cup Series career.

The starting lineup was based on the results from Saturday’s 325-mile race at Pocono, where the top-20 finishers were inverted and the bottom 20 were left as finished. After finishing 20th on Saturday, Ryan Preece was awarded the pole position while Austin Dillon, who finished 19th, joined Preece on the front row.

Multiple competitors dropped to the rear of the field. Rookie Quin Houff, rookie Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, Joey Logano and Alex Bowman dropped to the rear after their respective teams opted to field a backup car for the second Pocono race. In addition, Chase Elliott and B.J. McLeod dropped to the rear of the field due to transmission changes along with William Byron and pole-sitter Preece, both due to engine changes.


American Muscle

Following an early delay due to lightning strikes reported near the track, the race commenced with Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch on the front row. Busch jumped to an early lead followed by rookie Cole Custer. Ryan Blaney also moved into third while Dillon slipped back to fourth. Two laps later, Blaney moved into second as Chris Buescher overtook Austin Dillon for fourth. 

Soon after, the first caution flew due to rain. Under the caution laps, rookie Tyler Reddick radioed power steering issues to his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. After running the next few laps on the track under caution despite the rain, the pace truck led the field down to pit road, where the race was red flagged and the jet dryers went to work to dry the track. 

Approximately 51 minutes later, the red flag was lifted and the caution flag was displayed as the field proceeded back on the track. Soon after, light sprinkles hovered around the track, but the cars proceeded in running on the track under the caution laps. Under caution, Reddick’s crew continued to address power steering issues to Reddick’s car. By the time he returned on the track, he was five laps behind the leaders and in 40th, last of the field. 

When the race restarted under green on Lap 11, Kurt Busch retained the lead and was able to stabilize his advantage by a car length over Blaney the following lap. DiBenedetto moved into third followed by Buescher and rookie Christopher Bell, who went three-wide a lap earlier to gain a load of positions. 

On Lap 15, as the racing intensified behind the leaders and towards the middle of the pack, the caution returned when Michael McDowell spun after he cut a right-rear tire and made hard contact with the outside wall on the driver’s side in Turn 2. The cut tire was a result of an earlier contact with Elliott in Turn 4. The damage was too severe for McDowell to continue as he took his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford to the garage and retired a day after notching his best Cup result on a non-superspeedway track. Under caution, a number of competitors like Joey Logano, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson, Preece, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez and rookie Quin Houff pitted while the rest remained on track.

The race restarted on Lap 18, and Kurt Busch and Blaney battled dead even before Busch retained a small advantage in Turn 2. Behind the leaders, Buescher moved into third followed by rookies Custer and Bell. By Lap 20, Harvick, who started 20th and who was coming off his first Pocono triumph on Saturday, made his first appearance in the top five.

With five laps remaining in the first stage, Kurt Busch was still ahead by two-tenths of a second over Blaney with third-place Buescher trailing by over a second. Bell was in fourth while Harvick was in fifth, two seconds behind the leaders. Two laps later, Blaney drew himself right to the rear bumper of Busch’s No. 1 Monster Energy/Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in an attempt for the lead while Bell challenged Buescher for third. Behind, strategy started to play into factor of the race when several competitors like Johnson, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Hamlin made a green-flag pit stop. 

At the front, Kurt Busch was able to hold off Blaney to win the first stage on Lap 30. Blaney finished second followed by Bell, Harvick and Brad Keselowski. DiBenedetto, Buescher, Truex, Kyle Busch and Custer rounded out the top 10. Johnson, who was lapped prior to the conclusion of the first stage, was the beneficiary of the free pass and return on the lead lap after being tabbed the first car a lap down when the caution flew. Under the stage break, Kurt Busch and Blaney remained on track along with others while a majority of the field behind the leaders, led by Bell and Harvick, pitted. DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie pitted for two tires while Harvick was the first to exit on four fresh tires.

The second stage commenced on Lap 36 and Blaney received a push from teammate Keselowski on the inside lane to challenge Kurt Busch on the outside lane for the lead. By Turn 3, Blaney took the lead and led the following lap while Kurt Busch battled Keselowski for second. Soon after, Truex and Erik Jones started challenging Kurt Busch for position as more jostling for positions ensued behind the leaders.

On Lap 39, the caution returned when Bell spun entering Turn 2 and made heavy contact with the outside wall. The damage to the rear end of Bell’s No. 95 Rheem/Leavine Family Racing Toyota was too severe for the Oklahoma native to continue as he took his car to the garage and ended his race with a DNF, a day after notching his first top-five career finish in the Cup Series. Under caution, some that included Blaney, Truex, Logano, Kyle Busch and Harvick remained on track while others led by Keselowski pitted. Following the pit stops, Ty Dillon edged Keselowski to exit first after taking only fuel to his No. 13 GEICO/Germain Racing Chevrolet. Prior to the restart, drivers like Kurt Busch, Stenhouse, Byron and the Dillon brothers pitted again to top off with fuel.

The race restarted on Lap 44, and Truex challenged Blaney for the lead through Turn 1 before Blaney rocketed on the outside lane through Turn 2. Two laps later, Buescher slipped in Turn 3 and made contact with the outside wall, thus drawing another caution. With Buescher coming back across the track and straightening his car with rear end damage, the field scattered to avoid making contact with Buescher’s No. 17 Fastenal/Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Under caution, a majority of the leaders remained on track while others like Almirola, Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez, rookie John Hunter Nemechek and LaJoie pitted.

When the race restarted on Lap 49, Truex made another attempt for the lead, but Blaney retained it through the Long Pond Straightaway. Behind, Kyle Busch was in third followed by Wallace and Hamlin with DiBenedetto falling back to sixth. Six laps later, Blaney was ahead by a second over teammates Truex, Kyle Busch and Hamlin. Harvick was in eighth while battling Elliott and Logano for position. Two laps later, Blaney surrendered the lead to make a scheduled green-flag pit stop. Blaney’s move allowed Kyle Busch to move into the lead followed by teammates Hamlin and Truex with Wallace, DiBenedetto, Harvick and Elliott trailing by more than four seconds. The following three laps, Truex, Kyle Busch and Wallace made a green-flag pit stop while Hamlin moved into the lead. Two laps later, Hamlin was leading by five seconds over Harvick while his fourth Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Erik Jones, was in sixth after passing Logano.

Three laps later, Logano made a green-flag pit stop. By the time Logano returned, he was lapped by Hamlin. When the field reached its halfway mark of the 140-mile race and the sun was shining to its dwindling moments, Hamlin, who had just lapped Wallace, was leading by three seconds over Harvick, eight seconds over DiBenedetto and nearly nine seconds over Elliott. Meanwhile, drivers like Kyle Busch, Blaney and Truex were trapped outside the top 20.

With 10 laps remaining in the second stage, the caution flew when Kyle Busch, who was battling Blaney, was bumped by Blaney entering Turn 2, spun and made hard contact with the inside wall as he crumbled the front nose of his No. 18 M&M’s/Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, thus ending his day on the wrecker and winless for another week to the 2020 season. 

“I don’t know,” Busch said after exiting the infield care center. “The [pit] guys did an amazing job from yesterday to today. I guess it proves that you get a little bit of practice time in and we’re gonna be a force to be reckon with. So hopefully, life gets back to normal, eventually. We’re in [year] 2020, so it doesn’t surprise me to get crashed out of the lead. The M&M’s Camry was pretty fast there. [Crew chief] Adam [Stevens] and the guys did a great job. It’s just very frustrating, unfortunate. I know what happened, but it doesn’t make any sense to talk about it because it will come across as a bad way.”

Under caution, a majority of the leaders, led by Hamlin, pitted and Harvick exited first. Under the pit stops, Bowman was penalized for equipment interference after interfering with Blaney’s pit stop. Keselowski, Almirola, Stenhouse, Newman, Austin Dillon and Truex remained on the track.

With six laps remaining in the second stage, Almirola assumed the lead over Keselowski, but the caution quickly returned when Preece spun in the middle of Turn 2. No one else made contact with Preece as Wallace went all the way below the apron to dodge Preece. Preece was able to return to the pits for fresh tires. Under caution, drivers like Jones, Wallace, Logano and LaJoie pitted.

The race restarted with two laps remaining in the second stage and Keselowski reassumed the lead from Almirola. Keselowski was able to claim the second stage on Lap 85 by more than a second over Almirola. Newman finished third followed by Truex and Stenhouse while Harvick, Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, DiBenedetto and Hamlin rounded out the top 10.

Under the stage break, a handful of competitors that included Truex, Austin Dillon, Almirola, Stenhouse, rookie Brennan Poole, Suarez and Preece pitted for four tires.

When the final stage started with 51 laps remaining and the sun was slowly setting, Keselowski retained the lead as Kurt Busch charged into second. Four laps later, Harvick moved into second as Kurt Busch was left in a battle with Hamlin for position. Another three laps later, Keselowski surrendered the lead to pit for fuel, giving the lead to Harvick with Hamlin trailing by over a second and Elliott by six seconds.

Soon after, Logano and Newman made a green-flag pit stop. Logano, however, was penalized for driving through too many pit stalls. During his green-flag stop to change only his right-side tires, Johnson clipped a tire from one of his crew members while exiting his pit stall. With the tire rolling out of his pit box, Johnson was penalized for an uncontrolled tire violation. Other drivers that pitted under green included Blaney, Kenseth, DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch and Elliott.

With 35 laps remaining, Harvick made a green-flag pit stop for two fresh tires and enough fuel to complete the race. Hamlin returned to the lead, still needing to make a final green-flag pit stop, as Bowyer also pitted while Jones moved into second. Soon after, Bowman pitted followed by Wallace. With 30 laps remaining, Hamlin, who was still attempting to stretch his fuel tank to its fullest, was still leading by nearly nine seconds over Jones and 17 seconds over Almirola while Harvick was in 13th and less than 30 seconds behind the leaders. Aside from the top three, other drivers still racing on the track on low fuel included Truex, Byron, Stenhouse, Wallace, Custer, Austin Dillon and Nemechek.

With 26 to go, Jones made a green-flag pit stop as Almirola moved into second. The following lap, Custer also pitted. By then, Harvick had carved his way up to sixth and was more than 33 seconds behind Hamlin, who was still leading by nearly 17 seconds over Almirola.

With 20 to go, Hamlin pulled into his pit stall and pitted for four seconds of fuel and a two-tire pit stop with the driver and crew chief Chris Gabehart banking on exiting pit road and getting up to speed in front of Harvick. By the time Hamlin exited pit road, he was able to fire off ahead of Harvick, who was still nearly three seconds behind and tucked behind Stenhouse. During Hamlin’s stop, Almirola also made a green-flag pit stop as Truex assumed command. With 15 to go, Truex pitted and Hamlin returned to the lead by more than two seconds over Harvick.

With ten laps remaining, Hamlin stabilized his lead by three seconds over Harvick despite encountering lapped traffic. At that time, Keselowski was in third followed by Elliott and Jones while Almirola was in sixth, trailing by nearly 22 seconds. In addition, Austin Dillon and Stenhouse surrendered their runs in the top 10 to pit. As the laps and the sun continued to dwindle around the Tricky Triangle, Hamlin continued to lead while Harvick was unable to narrow his deficit to Hamlin and as Keselowski slowly started catching Harvick for second. Behind, Jones moved into fourth after passing Elliott.

With four laps remaining, Keselowski made a green-flag pit stop after running out of fuel, which allowed Jones, Elliott and Almirola to move into the top five. It did not change anything at the front as Hamlin was able to start the final lap of the race. For one final lap, Hamlin was able to stabilize his gap from Harvick and cruise to the checkered flag for another win to this season.

With his sixth win at Pocono, Hamlin, who won after starting 19th, tied Jeff Gordon for the most wins at the Tricky Triangle track. In addition, Hamlin recorded his 60th win across NASCAR’s three major division series and he recorded the 350th victory for Joe Gibbs Racing across the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series. The victory was Hamlin’s 10th with crew chief Chris Gabehart.

“A lot of adversity early,” Hamlin said. “We got some nose damage, had to fix that. We just worked on the car and got it better and better. I mean, it finished the race there a lot better than what we finished yesterday, and I thought we had a race-winning car yesterday. We knew after yesterday’s race and showing the speed we had, just don’t mess it up and we got a good shot today, and that’s what we did. You got to work [the pit strategy], but ultimately, the two fastest cars finished one, two both days. I think that there’s no secret there and this team’s been strong every week. We were in contention to win every single week and that’s all you can ask for as a racecar driver, and we’re just on a roll right now. We’re gonna keep getting better, keep getting faster racecars and giving me a bigger box to work in. If we don’t have the exact race setup or the handling’s not perfect, we’re still going out there winning races because we got decent car speed. We’re just continuing to make our stuff a little bit better and it’s making that room for error just a little bit bigger.”

Harvick finished second, trailing Hamlin by three seconds, as he came one position short in winning back-to-back races at Pocono in the same weekend.

“Yeah, we just pitted too early today and gave up too much time in lapped traffic,” Harvick said. “Yesterday, we won the race pitting that way. Just really proud of everybody on our Head for the Mountains Busch Beer Ford Mustang. Great two races and we’ll go to the next one.”

Jones finished third followed by Elliott and Almirola. DiBenedetto and Byron finished sixth and seventh while Bowyer rubbed and edged Bowman to finish eighth. Truex rounded out the top 10. Keselowski settled in 11th following his late pit stop while Johnson finished 16th in his 38th and final start at Pocono.

The race capped off an eventful day at Pocono, where all three of NASCAR’s major division series raced on the same day at the exact venue for the first time in the sport’s history. It also capped off a three-day race span at Pocono featuring five stock car division series races and five different winners.

There were 12 lead changes for eight different leaders. The race featured eight cautions for 32 laps.

With his finishes of first and second this weekend, Harvick retains the lead in the Cup Series regular-season standings by 52 points over Blaney.

Results.

1. Denny Hamlin, 49 laps led

2. Kevin Harvick, 11 laps led

3. Erik Jones

4. Chase Elliott

5. Aric Almirola, four laps led

6. Matt DiBenedetto

7. William Byron

8. Clint Bowyer

9. Alex Bowman

10. Martin Truex Jr., five laps led

11. Brad Keselowski, 13 laps led, Stage 2 winner

12. Matt Kenseth

13. Kurt Busch, 35 laps led, Stage 1 winner

14. Austin Dillon

15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

16. Jimmie Johnson

17. Cole Custer

18. Ryan Newman, one lap down

19. John Hunter Nemechek, one lap down

20. Bubba Wallace, one lap down

21. Corey LaJoie, one lap down

22. Ryan Blaney, one lap down, 21 laps led

23. Ty Dillon, one lap down

24. Joey Logano, one lap down

25. Ryan Preece, one lap down

26. Daniel Suarez, one lap down

27. Brennan Poole, two laps down

28. J.J. Yeley, two laps down

29. Timmy Hill, three laps down

30. James Davison, four laps down

31. Quin Houff, four laps down

32. Garrett Smithley, four laps down

33. Joey Gase, four laps down

34. Josh Bilicki, four laps down

35. Tyler Reddick, five laps down

36. Chris Buescher, five laps down

37. B.J. McLeod, seven laps down

38. Kyle Busch – OUT, Accident, two laps led

39. Christopher Bell – OUT, Accident

40. Michael McDowell – OUT, Accident

The NASCAR Cup Series’ next destination is at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400. The race will air on July 5 at 4 p.m. on NBC.


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