NASCAR: Round 21 – Sunoco Pennsylvania 500, Pocono – August 3

The Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 ended up being a tense affair, interrupted by rain and ultimately coming down to some knife-edge fuel strategies.

Jimmie Johnson led the field away at the start of the race. Because of the wash-out of Saturday’s practice sessions, NASCAR scheduled a competition yellow for lap 20 to check how things were going. But it didn’t make it that far before the first caution came out, on the very first lap, which saw Kevin Harvick spin after Joe Nemechek clipped the rear of his car. There was a lot of smoke and avoiding action, but no lasting harm done and the green flew three laps later.

Which lasted until lap 7, when it was Kurt Busch’s turn to lose it down the home straight of this bizarrely named ‘trioval’ (to the rest of us – a triangle with rounded apexes) and bring out the second yellow. But any fears that it was going to be a long and frustrating afternoon quickly dissipated, with the green then out until that promised competition yellow.

The competition yellow taken care of, Johnson headed the field again as the race started a 41 lap stint of green flag racing. But Johnson was overtaken for the lead by Mark Martin on lap 36, and Martin was the dominate player through to the next yellow (for debris), whereupon is was Carl Edwards who emerged to lead the restart on lap 70.

Now it became a closely fought duel between Johnson and Edwards for much of the rest of the race, Edwards looking early on as though he had the faster car – Johnson’s handling seemed to go off the longer the race went on – but Carl seemed broadly content to let Johnson cut the air in front and stayed stalking him in second.

That is, until Edwards suddenly jumped into top gear and passed Johnson for the lead on la 111. The reason? The radar showed that rain was imminent, and it was vital to be in front in case the race was stopped and called. The rain duly arrived on lap 126 – and on the back straight it was pretty heavy, even while the sunshine continued on other parts of the circuit. The top five when the yellow came out were Edwards, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon.

What to do now? It was clear to Edwards and Johnson that the rain wasn’t heavy enough or prolonged enough to mean the race would be called, so they switched their sights to the longer term. That meant a pit stop to tank right up with fuel, even if it meant ceding the lead to Kahne who opted to stay out, along with Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle and Martin.

The rain increased in intensity at that point, and the red flag was brought out – not what Edwards and Johnson were hoping for. There was a rain delay of about 40 minutes with the cars idle in pit lane and the drivers anxiously watching the skies more intently than a bunch of UFO spotters.

Finally though the rain stopped, the rain shone, and the track quickly dried out. The yellow flag was out, and three laps later Kahne led the field away as the race resumed with 66 laps to run.

Now we had two groups on totally different fuel strategies: Kahne et al adamant that a stop under the yellow was too early to get them to the end on a single stop, while Earnhardt and Johnson (dumped back to 15th and 16th respectively) convinced that they could, and that ceding track position for the red flag was the right call. Who would be proved right? The single stoppers badly needed some yellow flags to conserve enough fuel to make it, that was for sure.

They got an immediate boost when Joe Nemechek and Paul Menard got together in Turn 2 on lap 138 damaging both cars; and the restart was further delayed by a brief spell of light rain falling in the vicinity of Turn 3. When the green flag came out there were only 55 laps left to run; would that give Earnhardt, Johnson, Edwards et al the edge they needed?

Juan Pablo Montoya blew his engine very messily, but it wasn’t enough to bring out another yellow. Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin all hit pit road on lap 155, and Greg Biffle followed on lap 157 leaving Kurt Busch in front. Busch stayed out, pushing his fuel to the absolute limit … and beyond it. On lap 162 his engine died as the fuel ran out, and he just about managed to coast to the pits. Reed Sorenson suffered a similar indignity.

Finally, down to the end game, with Kyle Busch the first of the hopefully single stoppers to come in to the pits with 35 to go. Busch had been having a mixed day, clearly not all that happy at the idiosyncratic Pocono track and at times appearing to overdrive the car, several times nearly losing it and once brushing the wall rather forcefully. At best he had a top 10 car, but he wasn’t going to win it.

Carl Edwards pitted a lap later, and Jimmie Johnson the lap after that – the two of them still carefully stalking each other, convinced that the win was between the two of them. But had they stretched the fuel long enough to make it to the end? It was a knife edge.

The drivers on a two-stop strategy after the red flag, led by Kahne, returned to the pits for the final time around lap 185, leaving Edwards in the lead with Tony Stewart now featuring in 2nd ahead of Johnson, Earnhardt Jr and Kyle Busch. Edwards was having to throttle back to save fuel, however, and the warning signs were there for all to see when Kyle Busch – the first of the single-stopped to pit – ran out of fuel with an agonising 2 laps to go, and ended up stuck on pit road.

Edwards managed to stretch it. Just. Behind him, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all ran out of gas on the final lap, although Johnson managed to stagger across the finishing line in 3rd. Kahne – the leader of the two-stopped – ended up in 7th; another lap or two and his gambit may have been the right one and gifted him the race.

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER              MAKE        PTS/BNS LAPS STATUS
1   15  99  Carl Edwards        Ford        190/5   200  Running
2   20  20  Tony Stewart        Toyota      170/0   200  Running
3   1   48  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   170/5   200  Running
4   21  29  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   160/0   200  Running
5   16  6   David Ragan         Ford        160/5   200  Running
6   30  07  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   150/0   200  Running
7   7   9   Kasey Kahne         Dodge       151/5   200  Running
8   2   8   Mark Martin         Chevrolet   152/10  200  Running
9   41  26  Jamie McMurray      Ford        143/5   200  Running
10  4   24  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   134/0   200  Running
11  5   17  Matt Kenseth        Ford        135/5   200  Running
12  12  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet   132/5   200  Running
13  9   16  Greg Biffle         Ford        129/5   200  Running
14  6   12  Ryan Newman         Dodge       121/0   200  Running
15  17  1   Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet   118/0   200  Running
16  19  28  Travis Kvapil       Ford        115/0   200  Running
17  34  45  Chad McCumbee       Dodge       112/0   200  Running
18  18  70  Tony Raines         Chevrolet   109/0   200  Running
19  31  84  A.J. Allmendinger   Toyota      106/0   200  Running
20  37  21  Bill Elliott        Ford        108/5   200  Running
21  39  31  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   100/0   200  Running
22  33  5   Casey Mears         Chevrolet   97/0    200  Running
23  14  11  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      94/0    200  Running
24  35  00  Michael McDowell *  Toyota      91/0    200  Running
25  36  01  Regan Smith *       Chevrolet   88/0    200  Running
26  26  77  Sam Hornish Jr. *   Dodge       85/0    200  Running
27  29  19  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       82/0    200  Running
28  8   83  Brian Vickers       Toyota      79/0    200  In Pit
29  40  66  Scott Riggs         Chevrolet   81/5    200  Running
30  28  44  David Reutimann     Toyota      73/0    200  In Pit
31  24  22  Dave Blaney         Toyota      70/0    198  Running
32  25  10  Terry Labonte       Dodge       67/0    198  Running
33  11  43  Bobby Labonte       Dodge       64/0    198  Running
34  3   38  David Gilliland     Ford        61/0    198  Running
35  32  41  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       58/0    198  Running
36  27  18  Kyle Busch          Toyota      55/0    198  Running
37  38  7   Robby Gordon        Dodge       52/0    197  Running
38  10  2   Kurt Busch          Dodge       54/5    197  Running
39  43  96  J.J. Yeley          Toyota      46/0    196  In Pit
40  13  42  Juan Montoya        Dodge       43/0    146  Out of Race
41  23  78  Joe Nemechek        Chevrolet   40/0    138  In Pit
42  22  15  Paul Menard         Chevrolet   37/0    137  Running
43  42  55  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      39/5    24   Out of Race

Championship standings (top 40):

Pos +/- DRIVER              POINTS  BEHIND  STARTS/POLES/WINS/TOP 5/TOP 10
1   --  Kyle Busch          3059    Leader  21  2   7   12  13
2   --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2883    -176    21  1   1   7   12
3   +2  Carl Edwards        2874    -185    21  0   4   9   15
4   --  Jimmie Johnson      2859    -200    21  3   2   7   11
5   -2  Jeff Burton         2833    -226    21  0   1   4   11
6   --  Jeff Gordon         2678    -381    21  2   0   8   10
7   +2  Kasey Kahne         2592    -467    21  2   2   3   11
8   -1  Greg Biffle         2589    -470    21  2   0   6   9
9   +1  Tony Stewart        2569    -490    21  0   0   7   10
10  -2  Denny Hamlin        2547    -512    21  1   1   6   10
11  +2  Kevin Harvick       2520    -539    21  0   0   4   7
12  --  Clint Bowyer        2512    -547    21  0   1   4   10

CHASE FOR THE SPRINT CUP - top 12 cut-off

13  -2  Matt Kenseth        2501    -558    21  0   0   4   12
14  --  David Ragan         2466    -593    21  0   0   4   7
15  +1  Ryan Newman         2339    -720    21  1   1   2   7
16  -1  Brian Vickers       2309    -750    21  0   0   3   5
17  --  Martin Truex Jr.    2264    -795    21  0   0   2   6
18  --  Kurt Busch          2135    -924    21  0   1   3   4
19  +1  Jamie McMurray      2116    -943    21  0   0   0   5
20  -1  Bobby Labonte       2084    -975    21  0   0   0   1
21  --  Elliott Sadler      2041    -1018   21  0   0   2   5
22  +1  Travis Kvapil       2016    -1043   21  0   0   0   3
23  +3  Mark Martin         1965    -1094   16  0   0   2   7
24  +1  Casey Mears         1964    -1095   21  0   0   1   4
25  -3  Juan Montoya        1952    -1107   21  0   0   1   2
26  -2  David Gilliland     1936    -1123   21  0   0   1   2
27  --  David Reutimann     1863    -1196   21  0   0   0   1
28  --  Paul Menard         1804    -1255   21  1   0   0   0
29  +1  Dave Blaney         1696    -1363   20  0   0   0   2
30  -1  Robby Gordon        1688    -1371   21  0   0   0   2
31  --  Reed Sorenson       1666    -1393   20  0   0   1   2
32  --  Michael Waltrip     1636    -1423   21  0   0   1   1
33  --  Sam Hornish Jr.*    1607    -1452   21  0   0   0   0
34  --  Regan Smith*        1584    -1475   20  0   0   0   0
35  --  Scott Riggs         1488    -1571   19  0   0   0   0
36  +1  J.J. Yeley          1263    -1796   17  0   0   1   1
37  -1  Patrick Carpentier* 1230    -1829   17  1   0   0   0
38  --  Joe Nemechek        1223    -1836   18  1   0   0   0
39  --  Michael McDowell*   1112    -1947   16  0   0   0   0
40  --  A.J. Allmendinger   1096    -1963   13  0   0   0   1
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