While Denny Hamlin celebrated another win in the NASCAR Cup Series’ second race of the weekend at Pocono Raceway, drivers that included Erik Jones, Chase Elliott and Aric Almirola trailed the race winner from a distance, but with strong top-five runs entering the second half of this year’s Cup regular season.
For Erik Jones, a third-place result on Sunday marked a huge turnaround from 24 hours earlier. In the closing laps of the second stage on Saturday, Jones’ race came to a crashing halt when he checked up entering Turn 4, was sent into a spin with rookie Tyler Reddick and made head-on contact with the inside wall that left Jones’ No. 20 Craftsman/Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota destroyed and out of the race. On Sunday, racing in a backup car towards the rear of the field, the race started smoothly for the Michigan native as he was able to methodically carve his way through the field. Following the first stage, Jones finished 12 and in the second stage, he finished 13th. Throughout the final stage, which went green for the remainder of the race, Jones made his way into the top five in the closing laps. After making his final pit stop for fuel with 17 laps remaining, Jones was home free to make it to the end. With less than 10 laps remaining, Jones was back in the top five and he was able to gain two more spots to cross the line in third. The result marked Jones’ best finish along with his fourth top-five finish through 15 Cup races this season along with his fifth top-five result at the Tricky Triangle. The result was enough for Jones to move from 17th to 16th in the regular-season series standings as he is 14 points ahead of Austin Dillon for the final transfer spot to the 2020 Playoffs.
“Yeah, today was a lot better than yesterday for sure,” Jones said. “It’s great to rebound like that. Unfortunately, I think we could have – definitely could have had two top-fives, and really, I think our primary car was quite a bit better than this car. I thought we could have probably contended both days a little more towards the win if we had our primary, but the Craftsman Camry was good. We made good changes overnight. We actually changed a lot of stuff and tried to kind of rebalance with what we had with this backup car. It’s nice to get a solid finish. I mean, we came off a good run at Talladega and went right back to a DNF and to come back here with a third. We just need to be consistent from here and keep it rolling.”
Like Jones, a fourth-place result for Elliott was much needed coming off two consecutive disappointing weeks for the Georgia native and his No. 9 NAPA/Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team. Mired with a 25th-place result on Saturday and starting at the rear of the field due to a transmission change, Elliott was in 13th at the conclusion of the first stage. He then worked his way into the top 10 throughout the second stage before finishing 11th after being edged by Hamlin for the final stage point. With less than 50 laps remaining in the final stage, Elliott was among a handful of competitors who made a green-flag pit stop for fuel that would last to the finish. For the remainder of the race, Elliott paced himself around the Tricky Triangle and benefited when more competitors, including Brad Keselowski, pitted to move up the leaderboard and cross the line in fourth. At the end of the race, Elliott was the highest-running Hendrick Motorsports’ car as William Byron and Alex Bowman finished in the top 10 while Jimmie Johnson finished 16th in his final run at Pocono. With Elliott’s fourth-place run, it was his seventh top-five result through 14 Cup races of the 2020 season and his third at the Tricky Triangle. Elliott and his No. 9 team are already guaranteed a spot in the 2020 Playoffs based on Elliott’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.
“It was good to have a solid run for our NAPA team after yesterday being so poor,” Elliott said. “Obviously, we would’ve liked to of been a little better, but after starting in the back, I was pleased how I was able to move forward and gain a lot of that track position back. It was a good rebound. Looking forward to getting back on track at Indy.”
Lastly, Almirola had a memorable weekend as he finished fifth and capped off the Pocono doubleheader with two consecutive top-five results. A day earlier, Almirola led the field to the start, led a race-high 61 laps and came home in third. On Sunday, Almirola started 18th and after pitting in the closing laps of the first stage, he was scored in 31st. By the start of the second stage, the Florida native was able to work his way into the top 10 and in the closing laps, his No. 10 Smithfield/Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was ahead of the pack. He took the lead just before a late caution for a single-car spin and on the following restart, Almirola was overtaken by Brad Keselowski and settled in second while earning valuable stage points in the second stage. With 25 laps remaining in the final stage, Almirola was in second, but was needing to pit for a final time to make it to the end on fuel. Four laps later, he pitted for fuel to make it to the end. With 10 laps remaining, he worked his way back to sixth and then, he gained one more position in the remaining laps to finish fifth. The fifth-place result was Almirola’s fourth consecutive top-five result and his second straight at Pocono after recording zero top-five results in his previous 15 starts at the Tricky Triangle. Following two stellar runs at Pocono, Almirola moved from 12th to ninth in the regular-season standings as he is 104 above the top-16 cutline.
“Another top five,” Almirola said. “I’m so proud of [crew chief Mike Bugarewicz] and al the guys on this 10 team. That’s four top fives in a row. What a weekend we had here in Pocono, got a lot of stage points and finished third yesterday and fifth today. We’re riding a wave of momentum … We’ll go to Indy, a place that’s very similar to the tunnel turn at Pocono and felt like we were really good there this weekend. I’m excited about Indy and another top five.”
The three drivers along with their fellow competitors will return for the upcoming NASCAR Cup Series’ race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400. The race will air on July 5 at 4 p.m. on NBC.