Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Teardown Tuesday: Breaking Down the Extended NASCAR Race Weekend at Pocono Raceway

Miss any of the on and off-track action at Pocono Raceway? Every Tuesday our Amy Branch breaks down the big storylines from the weekend.
Rain and fog caused delays and cancellations at Pocono.
Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images

Precipitation postpones Pocono

The adage seems true: "If you want rain, bring NASCAR to town."

Rain and heavy fog forced NASCAR to postpone the Axalta "We Paint Winners" 400 at Pocono Raceway until Monday afternoon. Much-improved weather that day allowed the teams to race 400 miles at the Tricky Triangle. Pocono is a technical track, a "driver's track," with each of the three turns having different characteristics.

The first half of Monday's race showed more passing than in recent years, including passing for the lead, proving yet again the success of this year's lower-downforce package and Goodyear's tires. As sometimes happens in three-hour-long chess matches at 200 mph, Monday's event turned into a fuel mileage race.

Credit: Charlotte Bray/Skirts and Scuffs

Stock Car Racing: Hard Mode

Can you imagine your favorite football team winning without its coach? Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger all had to attempt that as their crew chiefs were suspended this weekend due to infractions in Charlotte last week.

In her Five Questions column this week, Kristen Schneider asked, "Will suspended crew chiefs make a negative impact on their drivers’ weekends?"

Schneider was of the opinion that the driver who managed the disadvantage the best would overcome it. She wrote, "With his strong start in 2016, Kurt Busch will handle the absence the best."

Well, the No. 47 team of AJ Allmendinger took him from starting 32nd to finishing 16th. Biffle lined up 15th but ended up 26th. A mixed bag, it appears. But wait ...

Kurt Busch, driver of the Stewart Haas Racing No. 41, managed to win an epic fuel mileage battle without crew chief Tony Gibson. Johnny Klausmeier, who had only been atop the pit box once before, earned his first win with Busch.

Schneider was right on the nose: Busch handled the disadvantage the best.

"When you have a new guy or somebody different and you're not at your full strength, there's something that happens to everybody on the team," Busch said after the race. "Everybody pulls harder. Everybody digs in a little bit deeper, and not having Tony Gibson here today, I know everybody gave that much more, and this is a win for Gibson."

Turns out, it takes more than a crew chief to win a race. If anything proves this is a team sport, winning without your crew chief does.

Credit: Beth Reinke/Skirts and Scuffs

Has anyone seen a Sunoco station nearby?

Who would run out of fuel first? That was the question on everyone's minds during the last laps of the race. Brad Keselowski, who hovered behind Chase Elliott's No. 24 for quite a few laps, saved enough fuel that his crew chief told him not to hold back. Elliott struggled to conserve and didn't know if he had enough. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was also unsure about his fuel, was able to keep his position, but couldn't risk racing hard to try to catch the leader, Kurt Busch.

No one was saving more than Busch. He'd been told he was two laps short. He's been desperately seeking his first win of 2016, with fast cars and several potential wins, but bad luck has plagued the team. Not anymore.

"We had a great setup to maintain speed, and when he says 'you're two laps shy,' I'm like, great, all right, well, let's see what we can get, and I knew he was going to gamble. I knew I needed to do my best to preserve the fuel and to deliver the win," Busch said.

Busch locked himself into the Chase by saving Sunoco fuel for all he was worth, coasting around the turns while maintaining his lead. Keselowski, although he had enough fuel to last, in the end couldn't get by Earnhardt Jr. They finished third and second, respectively.

Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Rookies vs. Champions

Much has been said and written about the rookies of 2016, and with good reason. Both Elliott and Ryan Blaney, driver of the Wood Bros. No. 21, are currently eligible for the Chase by points. Both have had spectacular seasons, running up front and competing for wins.

Elliott came this close Monday. In a daring move, he passed reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch. At one point, the rookie was holding off five former and present champions, all of them tight on on his bumper, and they could not catch Elliott. His restarts were flawless; he shot like a rocket to the lead every time. He blocked and held off the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.

On the final restart of the day, after a caution caused by Johnson spinning, Elliott restarted second next to Earnhardt Jr on Lap 128. After the green flag waved, the young rookie raced his teammate hard as they battled for the lead. As the two Hendrick Motorsports drivers fought to gain the advantage over each other, though, Kurt Busch passed them both and took the lead. Elliott fell to ninth but rallied back to finish fourth.

"We certainly had, I feel like, one of our best days of the year personally," Elliott said. "I thought for us to be able to contend and lead laps all day and have a car that could fight for the lead the majority of the day I thought was great.  Obviously I made a big mistake there behind Dale in the tunnel after that restart.  I wish I had been a little more patient and given ourselves a better chance, but you live and you learn."

Blaney struggled most of the race, but brought home a respectable 10th-place finish.

These rookies are on fire, and watching them hone their craft is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fans to see future champions in the making.


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