NASCAR: Round 14 – Pocono 500, Pocono – 7 June

Tony Stewart staged an impressive comeback from last place to challenge for the Pocono 500 win against Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson. But it all came down to fuel strategy, and one of the three would find they had stretched their luck beyond breaking point …

At the start, Jimmie Johnson quickly took up residence in the top spot, dispatching Jeff Gordon who had himself inherited pole after Tony Stewart had been sent to the back of the field for having to replace his entire care after a practice crash. As qualifying has been rained off, the running order was set by Sprint Cup standings so it was no shock that the usual gang were running close behind Johnson, including Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman. But Johnson was still able to pull out a comfortable 1s lead as everyone complained of various aspects of ill-handling (mostly being too tight) on the opening laps.

Two quick yellows (both for Denny Hamlin, who lost all electrical power in his number 11) allowed us an early chance to see the new side-by-side restart procedure, with the lapped cars sent to the back and odd- and even-positioned cars lining up in two lanes for the restart with the leader choosing on the spot whether to run to set the inside or outside lane for the rest of the field to fall into line.

Jimmie Johnson got really loose on lap 38 and lost the lead to Carl Edwards from Greg Biffle. At the same time, Tony Stewart broke into the top ten after having fought his way from the back of the pack. The race was well and truly on.

Lap 45 saw green flag pit stops commence and they proceeded without major incident (although Dexter Bean wiped out the traffic cone marking the speed limit line that caused Michael Waltrip much consternation when he pitted a lap later, to the extent that he spun the 55 overreacting) and Edwards continued in the lead.

The race continued running through to the next set of pit stops, also under green, that commenced on lap 75. Once again Edwards emerged in front, but there was bad news for the leader: the fuel hadn’t gone into the car properly – a lot of it had spilt into the pit box area – and he had to pit again, on lap 101 some 15 or more laps earlier than he would have done normally, surrendering the lead to Greg Biffle in the process.

Edwards’ stop seemed to confuse some of the other drivers, with Burton in for a quick half-stop the next lap, and then Jimmie Johnson also made for the pits – just as the yellow came out for debris on lap 107 after 89 laps of green flag running. Technically the pits were closed as Johnson crossed the commitment line, but it was too late for him to do anything about and he would just have to take the penalty – putting him back to 26th.

The yellow was perfect for Edwards and Burton who found themselves at the front after pit stops. The race went green again on lap 108 but it didn’t last long, with David Stremme hitting the wall and bringing out out the fourth yellow on lap 113. Many cars came in for some further adjustments, but the top five – Edwards, Kenseth, Biffle, Stewart and Martin – all stayed out on track; but Ryan Newman and David Stremme both got caught speeding on pit lane and sent to the back of the lead lap.

Edwards led the double file restart on lap 118, but this time he wasn’t as dominant as he had been and Matt Kenseth passed him for the lead, Tony Stewart briefly usurping second spot as well before Edwards stamped down. Four laps later and Edwards muscled his way back to the lead.

Going down: Jeff Gordon was dropping back fast out of the top 20, after getting a fender damaged in the bump and grind of the pack; and Kurt Busch was in for an emergency green flag pit stop on lap 130 with power steering failure resulting from a broken water pump which put him 17 laps off the lead in 37th position, a disaster for his Sprint Cup hopes. But on the happier side, Jimmie Johnson was charging back, up to 10th place by lap 123 after being sent to the back of the lead lap just 15 laps earlier; and Ryan Newman was finally on the mend after multiple pit stops to fix an engine problem finally tracked down to a bad plug. By lap 126 he was back to 17th.

Pit stops started up on lap 138 with Edwards in from the lead. Stewart was now in second, followed on lap 150 by Kenseth, Biffle, Martin and Johnson as the field got very stretched out before a caution for debris in turns 3 and 4 came out on lap 157 to close everyone up again and give everyone an opportunity to come in for what was just a touch too early to be their final pit stops of the day.

Jeff Gordon initially opted to stay out and take the lead, while Tony Stewart beat Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson out for second place; Gordon’s decision to stay out seemed predicated on the arrival of light rain over Pocono. Admittedly it looked like the briefest and lightest of showers, with blue skies also in evidence, but it certainly focussed the minds of the drivers as they lined up in the new side-by-side restart formation for the final showdown and Gordon’s decision to stay out in case it wasn’t possible to go to green was worth a shot. When it was clear that conditions were quickly improving, Gordon pitted on lap 163 sending him back to 18th place. That put Tony Stewart in the lead: a lot could come down to whether there were any more cautions or rain delays.

In this closing period of the race, the star performer was Kasey Kahne, last year’s winner at Pocono, and he rose to second spot behind Stewart on lap 190. But five laps earlier a series of cars had come in for a splash and dash pit stop to get them to the end – since there had been no caution periods and no prospect of a return of rain showers to help them eke out the fuel to the end of the race – and Kahne had to follow suit on lap 191, his run for the win seemingly blown.

Could Stewart, Edwards, Johnson and the rest at the front manage to last the final few laps on fumes? That’s what it was coming down to, and they were saving fuel big time as the laps clicked down. The frustration of racers not able to race was palpable.

Stewart leaned off and practically crawled his way around the final lap, picking up a draft wherever he could find it form lapped traffic, fearing the engine dying at any second. But luck was on his side, and he took the chequered flag, capping an amazing run from a back row starting position to take victory. The fuel proved not to be as dire as through, as he proceeded to stage plenty of burnouts without problem. Edwards was also able to gasp over the finish line, but Johnson wasn’t so lucky: the 48 ran out of fuel coming off turn 3 and he would roll past the finish line in 7th.

Race result

                                
FIN ST  CAR DRIVER              MAKE        PTS/BNS LAPS
1   1   14  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet   190/5   200 
2   11  99  Carl Edwards        Ford        180/10  200 
3   13  00  David Reutimann     Toyota      165/0   200 
4   2   24  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   165/5   200 
5   5   39  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet   160/5   200 
6   20  47  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      150/0   200 
7   3   48  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   151/5   200 
8   15  42  Juan Montoya        Chevrolet   142/0   200 
9   10  31  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   138/0   200 
10  26  77  Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge       134/0   200 
11  9   16  Greg Biffle         Ford        135/5   200 
12  16  33  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   127/0   200 
13  22  26  Jamie McMurray      Ford        129/5   200 
14  21  07  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   126/5   200 
15  14  9   Kasey Kahne         Dodge       118/0   200 
16  8   17  Matt Kenseth        Ford        120/5   200 
17  32  55  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      112/0   200 
18  19  1   Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet   109/0   200 
19  12  5   Mark Martin         Chevrolet   111/5   200 
20  25  43  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       103/0   200 
21  17  83  Brian Vickers       Toyota      100/0   200 
22  6   18  Kyle Busch          Toyota      97/0    200 
23  23  20  Joey Logano *       Toyota      94/0    200 
24  24  29  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   91/0    200 
25  27  19  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       93/5    200 
26  31  6   David Ragan         Ford        85/0    200 
27  18  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet   82/0    200 
28  28  96  Bobby Labonte       Ford        79/0    200 
29  33  98  Paul Menard         Ford        76/0    200 
30  30  44  A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge       73/0    200 
31  34  7   Robby Gordon        Toyota      70/0    200 
32  37  82  Scott Speed *       Toyota      67/0    200 
33  42  78  Regan Smith         Chevrolet   64/0    198 
34  29  12  David Stremme       Dodge       61/0    198 
35  35  34  John Andretti       Chevrolet   58/0    198 
36  43  51  Dexter Bean*        Dodge       55/0    196 
37  4   2   Kurt Busch          Dodge       57/5    182 
38  7   11  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      49/0    178 
39  36  09  Sterling Marlin     Dodge       46/0    56  
40  41  66  Dave Blaney         Toyota      43/0    37  
41  39  87  Joe Nemechek        Toyota      40/0    36  
42  38  71  David Gilliland     Chevrolet   37/0    34  
43  40  36  Patrick Carpentier  Toyota      34/0    32  
* Denotes Rookie 

Sprint Cup standings

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  S   P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Tony Stewart        2043    Leader  14  0   1   7   10
2   --  Jeff Gordon         1972     -71    14  0   1   7   9
3   --  Jimmie Johnson      1940    -103    14  0   2   6   9
4   +1  Ryan Newman         1840    -203    14  1   0   5   8
5   -1  Kurt Busch          1819    -224    14  0   1   4   7
6   +5  Carl Edwards        1762    -281    14  0   0   3   7
7   +2  Greg Biffle         1753    -290    14  0   0   4   7
8   --  Matt Kenseth        1745    -298    14  1   2   4   6
9   -3  Kyle Busch          1731    -312    14  1   3   4   5
10  --  Jeff Burton         1725    -318    14  0   0   2   6
11  +2  David Reutimann     1701    -342    14  2   1   3   4
12  -5  Denny Hamlin        1679    -364    14  0   0   2   4
======= CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  -1  Mark Martin         1678    -365    14  3   2   3   7
14  --  Kasey Kahne         1619    -424    14  0   0   1   4
15  --  Juan Montoya        1617    -426    14  1   0   0   5
16  --  Clint Bowyer        1576    -467    14  0   0   3   4
17  --  Brian Vickers       1536    -507    14  2   0   2   5
18  +2  Marcos Ambrose      1469    -574    14  0   0   1   3
19  --  Martin Truex Jr.    1447    -596    14  1   0   0   3
20  -2  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1434    -609    14  0   0   1   3
21  --  Casey Mears         1432    -611    14  0   0   0   2
22  --  Jamie McMurray      1418    -625    14  0   0   0   3
23  +3  Sam Hornish Jr.     1371    -672    14  0   0   0   3
24  +1  Reed Sorenson       1362    -681    14  0   0   0   1
25  -2  Joey Logano*        1357    -686    14  0   0   0   3
26  -2  Kevin Harvick       1352    -691    14  0   0   2   2
27  --  Elliott Sadler      1309    -734    14  0   0   1   1
28  --  Bobby Labonte       1292    -751    14  0   0   1   1
29  +1  A.J. Allmendinger   1275    -768    14  0   0   1   2
30  -1  David Stremme       1267    -776    14  0   0   0   0
31  --  David Ragan         1265    -778    14  0   0   0   1
32  --  Michael Waltrip     1265    -778    14  0   0   0   1
33  --  Paul Menard         1176    -867    14  0   0   0   0
34  --  Robby Gordon        1101    -942    14  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*         984    -1059   13  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti        862    -1181   12  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland      807    -1236   13  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith          734    -1309   8   0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek         555    -1488   11  0   0   0   0
40  --  Brad Keselowski      479    -1564   4   0   1   1   2
41  +2  Dave Blaney          471    -1572   11  0   0   0   0
42  -1  Aric Almirola        451    -1592   7   0   0   0   0
43  -1  Scott Riggs          448    -1595   8   0   0   0   0
44  --  Bill Elliott         346    -1697   4   0   0   0   0
45  --  Max Papis*           317    -1726   5   0   0   0   0
46  --  Travis Kvapil        292    -1751   4   0   0   0   0
47  --  Jeremy Mayfield      288    -1755   5   0   0   0   0
48  --  Tony Raines          205    -1838   5   0   0   0   0
49  --  Mike Bliss           200    -1843   5   0   0   0   0
50  +1  Sterling Marlin      169    -1874   4   0   0   0   0
51  -1  Todd Bodine          123    -1920   3   0   0   0   0
52  --  Terry Labonte         91    -1952   1   0   0   0   0
53  +8  Dexter Bean*          55    -1988   1   0   0   0   0
* Denotes Rookie 
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