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

What a difference 24 hours can make. On Sunday the dominant colour was grey, with low clouds and fog interspersed with drizzle and rain, making fans, crews and track all weep with frustration. But after the race was postponed to Monday, the scene that awaited the drivers for the delayed race couldn’t have been more different – bright sunshine, blue sky, picture-postcard puffy white clouds, and vibrant colours. Not a rain drop to be seen.

With Tony Stewart sent to the back for running his spare car (after crashing the primary car in practice), it was Jeff Gordon who led the field to the long-awaited green flag. But it was Jimmie Johnson who got the best start, flying around on the outside to take the lead on lap 1.

With the track so green after all the rain, everyone took it cautiously for the first twenty laps until the scheduled competition yellow. When the cars emerged back on track, it was Denny Hamlin in the lead after a terrific stop, while Johnson was down two spots in third behind Gordon after his rear tyre changer lost his footing on the slipper pit lane surface, costing the 48 valuable seconds.

Johnson once again found Gordon easy to dispatch, but Hamlin was another matter. He loves Pocono, and won here an unprecedented two times in his rookie season, and he certainly hadn’t lost the knack: it looked like the smart money would be on the number 11 again today.

As the race enjoyed some 28 green flag laps, Tony Stewart could still not rouse himself from running in the 30s, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was up running just outside the top ten until we reached the 50-lap mark whereupon he started to lose positions at an alarming rate. He opted to join the cars coming in early for their second pit stop sequence on lap 52. He was still there when the second caution of the afternoon came out, as Paul Menard’s right rear tyre shredded and the carcass rolled off the hub.

Denny Hamlin had another good pit stop and retained the lead ahead of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, while Earnhardt was among those who got the wave-around to resume the race back on the lead lap, albeit in 30th position now. He didn’t have much time to improve before the next caution for debris (a piece of a caution light was blown off by the cars’ turbulence), but it was great news for Paul Menard who now got the lucky dog.

Denny Hamlin one again sped away at the front during the next green flag stint, extending a 2s lead over Jimmie Johnson with Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya rounding out the rest of the top six.

With no sign of a caution, Jeff Gordon started the next sequence of pit stops by coming in on lap 85, but it was a very extended sequence with the last of the cars – Tony Stewart – not finally in until lap 96. By staying out so long, he had actually managed to end up in the top four – although the tyre wear was showing and he was starting to fall away at quite a pace before finally coming in.

And then, divine interruption for Stewart – with the fourth caution (for a spin by Bobby Labonte in turn 3 that nearly collected Joey Logano) coming out while he was in the pits. It was brilliant for Stewart, since the caution saw majority of the lead drivers all come in for another pit stop sequence but Stewart had no need, and had managed to stay on the lead lap himself thanks to the caution. He would start seventh ahead off Elliott Sadler, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards.

Leading the restart were those cars that hadn’t bothered to pit again under yellow – Kasey Kahne, David Reutimann, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan, Marcos Ambrose and Jamie McMurray forming the top six as the green came out on lap 102.

Stewart might have enjoyed a stroke of luck in the pits, but it couldn’t compensate for a car that was clearly not where Smoke needed or wanted it to be for race performance, and as the race got back up to speed he started to slip back. But his odd lost position here and there was nothing compared to the wholesale position bloodbath being experienced by Jimmie Johnson, with the 48 clearly off the pace and losing a bunch of places down the straightaway. The car was down on power, and crew chief Chad Knaus had no option but to call it into the pits for an emergency checkover. They seemed to find a plug wire that had been knocked loose, and ushered Johnson out again – narrowly in front of Kasey Kahne to remain on the lead lap. Initially it seemed that Johnson was back up to speed again as he pulled away from Kahne, but Johnson’s problems weren’t over and Kahne was soon past him while the pit crew admitted that they hadn’t, in fact, found the problem at all and now suspected it might be something carburetor-related.

It was looking like a poor day for Johnson either way, and sure enough, Johnson’s pace deteriorated again fast, to the point where he was 4s a lap off the pace of the leaders and the cars were streaming past. NASCAR duly issued a warning for the 48 to pick up speed to meet the minimum speed requirement.

Kyle Busch was another front runner sliding backwards, albeit not as dramatically as Johnson, and found himself 22nd on lap 120. His brother Kurt was having a better day of it, up to 4th as Hamlin finally passed Reutimann for 2nd ahead of him as another sequence of green flag pit stops loomed for those who had stayed out the last time around – Kahne among them, who pitted on lap 127 finally putting Hamlin back in the lead for the half dozen laps until it was Hamlin’s turn to pit, which allowed Kahne to retake the top spot. Those six laps of extra tyre wear showed, however, and Hamlin bore down on Kahne and finally took the lead back properly on lap 139, the two of them going on to set up a 9s lead over the rest of the field in the process.

A caution finally came out on lap 142 when David Ragan drifted up and gave the wall a fairly innocuous thump. It was a relief for Johnson, who was still running but in urgent need of a yellow flag pit stop to allow his pit crew to properly get into his engine woes. It wasn’t looking good – steam billowed out as they disassembled the engine cover. It was a masterclass in time management to limit the damage, Johnson exiting and then returning to pit lane to minimise the number of laps lost, but he was still two off the lead lap.

Another cast change at the top as a result, with Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, Jeff Burton and Sam Hornish Jr. all staying out on track for some wild three-wide racing up and down the running order, but the green flag racing only lasted three laps before the sixth caution caused when Robby Gordon spun and hit the wall in turn 3, then getting hit by David Stremme arriving at the scene for good measure. The quick yellow was a Godsend for Johnson, however, who got the lucky dog despite being two laps down. But he needed yet another lengthy session in the pits with his hood up for the crew to work on the spark plugs, and he ended up not only losing the free pass but going a third lap down as well.

Martin and Vickers led Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon into the restart. But the cars quickly reordered themselves after the restart, with Kurt taking the lead and Edwards and Kahne quickly dispatching an unusually sluggish Hamlin. Had certain cars been sandbagging, or was the balance of power genuinely shifting as the race entered its final quarter?

The yellow was out again after just five laps, and it was Robby Gordon and David Stremme once again at the centre of it. Gordon seemed to still be carrying a grudge for the earlier impact by Stremme and sent a message – getting right up Stremme’s tail and bumping a few times, before passing the number 12. Stremme saw red, moved up and hit the rear left of the 7, spinning the car off the track. NASCAR was deeply unimpressed with both cars and handed down an immediate five lap penalty for aggressive driving, although in truth it was more handbags at dawn.

Kurt Busch led the field at the restart on lap 160 ahead of Martin, Vickers, Edwards and Kahne, but the yellow was out again at lap 165 for debris, putting all the cars now within striking distance of the chequered flag at this point. That was particularly good news for Clint Bowyer, Scott Speed, Sam Hornish Jr and Juan Montoya who were already on pit road at the very limit of the fuel window when the caution came out, and now took the first four spots; while Earnhardt, Stewart and Labonte blasted their way up the running order to 5th, 6th and 7th respectively by opting for fuel-only. Kahne was now 8th, while longtime leader Denny Hamlin found himself all the way down in 14th ahead of Kurt Busch in 15th. It really was about as mixed up as it could get!

As a result, we got a fabulous four laps of three-and four-wide wild and hard racing as everyone went for it against completely out of position rivals. There were bound to be tears, and it was very nearly Kyle Busch – who got loose and had a heavy impact with the wall on lap 173, but he kept going despite the right hand side sending out smoke signals. Instead, the caution followed a lap later when Denny Hamlin got up behind David Reutimann, turned the double-zero across the track and into a heavy impact with his own team mate, Marcos Ambrose. Both cars sustained heavy damage but fortunately everyone else avoided collecting them.

Over half the field opted to come in for fresh rubber, and the caution was also a relief for Kyle Busch who could get some of that right hand body damage urgently attended to, and also Jimmie Johnson who – after three rapid consecutive yellows – was now back on the lead lap again at long last, and back up to speed.

The restart saw immediate resumption of the furious three-and four-wide racing and another multi-car incident was quick in coming, when David Ragan came up fast behind a blocked Bobby Labonte, bumping the rear of the 96 into a spin that collected first Joey Logano and then caused Reed Sorenson, Michael Waltrip, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton and David Reutimann to also sustain damage. Juan Montoya also ended up with damage to his front right tyre in a separate incident at the restart when he tried to get past Clint Bowyer for the lead. The rub sent Montoya back to 4th before the yellows came out for the main accident developing behind them.

With 13 to go, the top six now were Bowyer, Hornish Jr., Kahne, Montoya, Kenseth and Hamlin. Kahne bumped Montoya high up the track at the restart, but somehow Montoya kept it off the wall and only lost a few positions which he quickly set about making up. Meanwhile, it was the return to form of some of the early frontrunners, with Jimmie Johnson capitalising on being back on the lead lap by eating up 15 places in five laps before getting bogged down in 13th where he would finish; while at the front, Hamlin came to live and dispensed with the opposition to take the lead back from Bowyer. Montoya also dispatched Bowyer when the 33 got loose, to take up second place to make up for the disappointment of last week’s controversial drive-thru penalty that cost him the win.

And that was win. The race ran clean to the chequered flag, giving Hamlin a deserved win (and an emotional one, after the death of his grandmother on Friday perhaps giving him extra inspiration and motivation to win this one) and Montoya matched his career-best in NASCAR. Bowyer and Hornish Jr also benefited from pit stop strategy, while Tony Stewart in 10th was a respectable recovery in an off-form car.

It was a fun and exciting race, enjoyable and all the sweeter for being so hard to get underway in the first place thanks to the inclement weather.

Race result

FIN ST  CAR  DRIVER              MAKE        PTS/BNS  LAPS
1   6   11   Denny Hamlin        Toyota      195/10   200    
2   10  42   Juan Montoya        Chevrolet   170/0    200    
3   16  33   Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   170/5    200    
4   29  77   Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge       160/0    200    
5   8   9    Kasey Kahne         Dodge       160/5    200    
6   15  83   Brian Vickers       Toyota      150/0    200    
7   9   5    Mark Martin         Chevrolet   151/5    200    
8   3   24   Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   142/0    200    
9   4   2    Kurt Busch          Dodge       143/5    200    
10  1   14   Tony Stewart        Chevrolet   134/0    200    
11  12  17   Matt Kenseth        Ford        135/5    200    
12  23  29   Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   127/0    200    
13  2   48   Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   129/5    200    
14  7   39   Ryan Newman         Chevrolet   121/0    200    
15  11  16   Greg Biffle         Ford        118/0    200    
16  14  18   Kyle Busch          Toyota      115/0    200    
17  27  44   A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge       112/0    200    
18  5   99   Carl Edwards        Ford        109/0    200    
19  24  1    Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet   106/0    200    
20  20  26   Jamie McMurray      Ford        103/0    200    
21  17  31   Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   100/0    200    
22  30  6    David Ragan         Ford        97/0     200    
23  37  82   Scott Speed *       Toyota      94/0     200    
24  25  19   Elliott Sadler      Dodge       91/0     200    
25  21  07   Casey Mears         Chevrolet   88/0     200    
26  33  98   Paul Menard         Ford        85/0     200    
27  19  20   Joey Logano *       Toyota      82/0     200    
28  22  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet   79/0     200    
29  13  00   David Reutimann     Toyota      81/5     200    
30  35  34   John Andretti       Chevrolet   78/5     200    
31  31  55   Michael Waltrip     Toyota      70/0     198    
32  32  12   David Stremme       Dodge       67/0     196    
33  34  7    Robby Gordon        Toyota      64/0     195    
34  18  47   Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      66/5     192    
35  26  43   Reed Sorenson       Dodge       58/0     185    
36  28  96   Bobby Labonte       Ford        55/0     180    
37  41  36   Patrick Carpentier  Toyota      52/0     38     
38  36  09   Sterling Marlin     Dodge       49/0     36     
39  39  187  Joe Nemechek        Toyota      46/0     30     
40  40  66   Dave Blaney         Toyota      43/0     26     
41  38  171  David Gilliland     Chevrolet   45/5     24     
42  43  37   Tony Raines         Dodge       37/0     17     
43  42  64   Mike Wallace        Toyota      34/0     13     

Sprint Cup standings

It’s extremely tight for the Chase, with lots of changes of position but no one dropping out of the top 12 positions this week despite the movement.

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Tony Stewart        3188    Leader  21  0   2   12  17
2   --  Jimmie Johnson      2991    -197    21  0   3   9   14
3   --  Jeff Gordon         2989    -199    21  0   1   10  15
4   --  Kurt Busch          2751    -437    21  0   1   6   11
5   +1  Denny Hamlin        2713    -475    21  0   1   7   9
6   -1  Carl Edwards        2665    -523    21  0   0   5   9
7   +1  Kasey Kahne         2642    -546    21  0   1   4   9
8   +2  Juan Montoya        2631    -557    21  1   0   1   10
9   -2  Ryan Newman         2627    -561    21  1   0   5   9
10  -1  Mark Martin         2622    -566    21  4   4   6   11
11  +1  Matt Kenseth        2564    -624    21  1   2   4   8
12  -1  Greg Biffle         2563    -625    21  0   0   6   9
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13  +1  Kyle Busch          2462    -726    21  1   3   4   6
14  +1  Brian Vickers       2459    -729    21  5   0   3   10
15  +1  Clint Bowyer        2448    -740    21  0   0   4   8
16  -3  David Reutimann     2442    -746    21  2   1   4   6
17  --  Jeff Burton         2301    -887    21  0   0   2   6
18  --  Marcos Ambrose      2241    -947    21  0   0   2   5
19  --  Joey Logano*        2165    -1023   21  0   1   1   4
20  --  Jamie McMurray      2163    -1025   21  0   0   0   3
21  --  Casey Mears         2086    -1102   21  0   0   0   2
22  +1  Kevin Harvick       2066    -1122   21  0   0   2   3
23  -1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2062    -1126   21  0   0   1   3
24  --  Martin Truex Jr.    2038    -1150   21  1   0   0   3
25  --  Elliott Sadler      2015    -1173   21  0   0   1   3
26  +1  A.J. Allmendinger   1985    -1203   21  0   0   1   3
27  +2  Sam Hornish Jr.     1966    -1222   21  0   0   1   5
28  -2  Reed Sorenson       1941    -1247   21  0   0   0   1
29  -1  Bobby Labonte       1928    -1260   21  0   0   1   1
30  --  David Ragan         1896    -1292   21  0   0   0   1
31  --  David Stremme       1766    -1422   21  0   0   0   0
32  +1  Paul Menard         1723    -1465   21  0   0   0   0
33  -1  Michael Waltrip     1712    -1476   20  0   0   0   1
34  --  Robby Gordon        1672    -1516   21  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        1437    -1751   20  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       1419    -1769   19  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1187    -2001   20  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith          989    -2199   11  0   0   0   0
39  +1  Joe Nemechek         798    -2390   17  0   0   0   0
40  -1  Brad Keselowski      787    -2401   7   0   1   1   3
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