Lacking no shortage of peculiar moments or drama, a little bit of everything transpired during Sunday’s NASCAR race at Pocono Raceway.
On a track where cautions are usually a rarity, the proceedings saw four yellow flags within the opening 30 laps, which took an hour to complete. Included was a 20-minute delay allowing track workers to repair damage to pit a road wall after Kasey Kahne was involved in a savage crash off Turn 3. The accident thankfully produced no injuries even though the impact was so substantial it sent crew helmets situated on the wall shooting into the sky like missiles.
“I saw the people and I thought to myself, ‘Those guys need to take off running and get out of the way,'” Kahne said. “I hadn’t done anything like that before so it was kind of crazy the way it all happened.”
Then there was defending Sprint Cup champion and current series points leader Kevin Harvick, a paradigm of consistency this season, blowing an engine just 50 miles into a 400-mile race. Or when Ricky Stenhouse Jr., not seeing the slowing Sam Hornish Jr. ahead, plowed right into the back of the No. 9 car in an accident that resembled something you’d see on any freeway in America.
And in a moment that will garner countless replays, Brad Keselowski sent his crew guys scurrying as if they were bowling pins when he overshot his pit stall. One tire carrier deftly barrel rolled onto the hood of the No. 2 Ford, while the jack struck another in the head. Again, thankfully, no injuries.
This was NUTS. (Good news: Everyone was okay) http://t.co/3SAXFo5Arh
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) August 2, 2015
The drama portion of the afternoon occurred over the final 35 laps thanks to the kind of long green-flag run that had been absent earlier. This turned the Windows 10 400 into a fuel-mileage affair, leaving crew chiefs scrambling to crunch numbers and formulate strategies where their drivers could finish without having to pit.
For many the attempt to save gas was in vain. Beginning with three laps to go, the tanks of the three leading cars of Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. all hit empty. Matt Kenseth, admittedly poor at conserving fuel, was the beneficiary in winning his second race of 2015.
“I never thought I’d ever win at Pocono,” Kenseth said. “And I never ever thought I’d win a fuel mileage race so we did both today.”
Because they already had scored victories this season, Logano, Truex and Kenseth took calculated risks in trying to stretch their fuel. If it failed, which it did, they were out nothing. Each already had earned a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth.
Yet for Busch, who still must move into the top 30 in the standings to make the playoffs after missing 11 races with injuries, the ramifications were greater. Had he raced more mindful of his situation and saved fuel, he would’ve advance above the points cutoff Sunday.
Instead Busch finished 21st. And though he gained 10 points, is a mere 13 behind the 30th position currently held by David Gilliland and will in all likelihood qualify easily for the Chase, the possibility exists that Busch losing sight of the big picture could have consequences later.
“Ah, we’re fine,” Busch said. “If I would’ve won, we’d be in and celebrating a win and a Chase berth.
“We got greedy. I don’t know how greedy, but that’s the position we’re in. If it came down to other things and we haven’t had the success that we’ve had here lately, we would’ve had to have pitted and just made the best finish that we could. But, we went for broke today and come up a little bit short so can’t fault the team.”
But just as Busch fell short, others emerged from the craziness that was Pocono in a far better position than they entered.
Coming off a disappointing and potentially disastrous 42nd-place result the week before at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon finish third even though he ran in the mid-teens for much of Sunday. As others hit pit road for fuel, he nursed his car home.
“I thought we were trying to get maybe 10th or 12th and all of a sudden (his crew) said you’re third,” Gordon said. “I think I was probably the most shocked person out there on the racetrack when I found that out.”
That provided a much-needed points cushion for Gordon, who is provisionally holding a Chase wild card spot despite being winless in his final year before retirement. With five regular-season races to go, he sits a somewhat-comfortable 43 points ahead of 15th-ranked Clint Bowyer and 58 clear of Kahne, who dropped to 16th after his collision with the pit road wall.
“This more helps make up a little bit for what we lost last week, but we can’t afford to let that happen again,” Gordon said. “It’s that fine line and balance between fighting as a team, as a driver, being aggressive, but yet not putting yourself in position to cost you everything, and so this is not the way we want to be in the Chase.
“Hopefully we can just continue to make gains and get ourselves in.”
Tense already because of the stakes involved, the final five regular-season races offers another layer of intrigue because of what’s ahead.
The next five weeks will consist of two short tracks, a road course, NASCAR’s oldest and most challenging speedway, and a high-speed intermediate oval. Drivers also must contend with three widely diverse aerodynamic packages.
Thus the real possibility exists that what unfolded at Pocono may soon not even register as a blip on the oddity and excitement scales.