Through the Gears: Four things we learned in Pocono
Jimmie Johnson isn’t the only driver this season that’s made a specialty of serving up wins for someone else. For Kasey Kahne, this year has been a long line of should-have-beens, as top 5s were the result in a car capable of outright domination out front. One of the best cars on intermediates this season, he’s instead on the Chase bubble through no fault of his own. Three restrictor plate wrecks — none of them completely of his making — combined with a wreck at Darlington while leading had him searching for a summer of redemption.
Sunday offered that opportunity once Johnson’s flat tire — another bad luck moment for the No. 48 — left Pocono’s race wide open for someone else. But for Kahne, these days are still bittersweet. He seized an opportunity for a second victory, putting the rubber stamp on his season and rising back to the top after encountering adversity. One of his closest friends, the late Jason Leffler, killed in a Sprint car wreck earlier this summer died before ever getting the chance, his NASCAR opportunities few and far between after a few years of struggle.
“Jason, I thought about it on my way up here on Friday,” said Kahne. “I was like, man, the last time I was here he flew with me here (driving the No. 19 car, finishing last) and flew back with me. Just me and him. We spent a bunch of time together and then that happened that Wednesday. So it was tough.”
Racers are a rough breed; they have to be, considering the risks and rollercoaster results they encounter. But when it comes to tragedy, the same type of passion that drives them on the racetrack causes them to purposefully never forget. It’s notable that at a time of great joy, Kahne’s first thoughts were sitting with someone else, the mark of an athlete who cares about more than just the checkered flag.
Meanwhile, the rest of the competition will spend Monday caring about catching one organization in particular. Let’s go “Through the Gears” and find out who …
FIRST GEAR: Hendrick Motorsports is hot. Red hot.
Kahne’s win, a brilliant drive highlighted by a power move past Jeff Gordon on the penultimate laps, was another case of Hendrick vs. Hendrick. The teammates were there to capitalize on Johnson’s misfortune, joining Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart-Haas’ Ryan Newman in putting four HMS chassis and engines inside the top 5. Only Kurt Busch broke up the monopoly, with Brad Keselowski in sixth seemingly the only car that could compete up front with the Chevys.
But the Hendrick push has been no one-week wonder. On the contrary, since Memorial Day Weekend it’s far more than the No. 48 car that’s been in control of the field. Five of the last nine races have been captured by HMS-powered cars, with Johnson giving away two of the other four at Michigan and Kentucky, respectively. All four HMS team cars are inside the top 10 in points, putting them in position to pull a “Chase sweep” for a second straight year. Tony Stewart and Newman, from the heavily aligned Stewart-Haas Racing shop, are competing to make it as “wild cards;” in a best-case scenario, that will mean half of the 12-car field has Hendrick horsepower under the hood.
Meanwhile, the rest of the field looks haphazard at best. The Gibbs cars, still thought to be Hendrick’s main rivals, have won just once since May; even then, Kenseth took advantage of late-race strategy and a Johnson mistake at Kentucky rather than running up front all day. Kevin Harvick, solidly in the Chase field, has spent two straight races outside the top 10. Roush Fenway Racing, with Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, simply struggle to stay consistent week-to-week. Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., possible entrants from Michael Waltrip Racing, top 10 you to death. That’s not gonna do it in the postseason.
Five races remain for the rest of the field to figure something out. But right now, each week isn’t just Johnson’s race, and in theory, championship to lose. It’s Hendrick’s.
SECOND GEAR: Second place really is the first loser.
Sunday was setting up to be a storybook afternoon for Jeff Gordon. On his 42nd birthday, he took advantage of a late debris caution to blow past Kahne on a lap 153 restart. A top-5 car all day, it seemed this race, just like the year before, would be the one where the No. 24 car put itself in strong position to make the Chase.
Instead, a late spin by Kenseth led to a final restart with two laps remaining where Gordon fell short. Out-accelerated and simply outraced by Kahne through the treacherous Tunnel Turn, he fell to second and now must wonder if that’s his last chance to get a win down the regular-season stretch.
“We had them,” Gordon said. “But, man, he got a killer run and blasted on the outside of me. Caught me by surprise.”
Based on past history, the fourth member of the HMS stable should still be just fine. Ninth in points, he’s won at every remaining track on the schedule and has three consecutive top-10 results. But the bad luck bug seems to have followed Gordon for three years. Five DNFs (four for wrecks) are what have him sitting on the postseason bubble; all it takes is one more and a winless Gordon gets punted out of the playoffs.
THIRD GEAR: Missed opportunities.
Plenty of drivers were also shaking their heads on Sunday. Brad Keselowski spent the first half of the race with a car that could compete with Johnson. But as the race went on, the No. 2 team’s pit strategy, combined with letting the track get away from them, found the defending champ in sixth. Still winless and outside the top 10 in points, Keselowski’s Chase berth is far from guaranteed.
Kurt Busch, who was a strong third, sits in the same spot after another week of close, but no cigar. The No. 78 was the strongest non-Hendrick car, in position to mix it up heading to the final pit stop. But once again, a crew that’s had their share of inconsistency cost him ground, leaving Busch too far behind to be a real factor (unless he wanted to wreck Gordon or Kahne on that final restart). That leaves him 13th in points, 11 outside the top 10 and still on the outside looking in without a victory.
“Kahne probably moved himself into a pretty good spot with two wins now,” Busch said of the evolving “wild card” race. “But there is still a lot of see-saw going on with guys. Like Biffle with one win, Stewart with a win, Truex with one win, and me and Jeff are winless — but here we are finishing second and third, so it's tight.”
For at least one of these superstars, Victory Lane will be the difference when they’re sitting at Chicagoland this September without a shot at the championship. They have to get there in the next five weeks to feel safe.
FOURTH GEAR: Danica’s rough road.
After a hot start in Daytona, the Danica Patrick story has quickly faded into the rearview mirror as the Cup season trudges on. And over the last month, it seems that the rookie is struggling more than at any other time this season. A wreck at Loudon, one she started with some ill-timed braking, was followed by an awful 30th at Indianapolis, a Cup track where she arguably has the most productive experience (albeit in open wheel). Never a factor, she was a lapped car on a day when teammate Ryan Newman won the race.
Pocono marked another low point. In a reasonable position to score a top 20, her first at an unrestricted track since Michigan in June, Patrick misjudged the triangle’s tricky Tunnel Turn. Collecting Travis Kvapil, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard, and in the process suffered her second DNF in three weeks (35th).
“I didn’t feel like I went in any more ‘hero-like’ that time,” Patrick said. “We were tight in the race and so we had freed it up a little bit and it was better. But then, when they’re outside of you, you just get loose.”
A rookie mistake, for sure. But the sport’s most scrutinized new driver in several years is sure making a lot of them.
Pocono, a track that had such a great first race after an early 2012 repave, has been running into potholes. A mysterious debris caution with 10 laps left is the only thing that kept it from a Kahne runaway; even the restarts, fantastic for two laps led to cars getting spread out quickly. Is it the car, the tires or the track? I still think the first two. … Denny Hamlin, who was dead last after wrecking on his own at Pocono now has seven straight races without a top 15. That’s the longest stretch of his career. … Johnson quietly fought back to 13th after an outside wall hit that would have left most teams in the garage. Even on their worst days, they show they’re still the car to beat come November. … With Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wrecking Sunday, Timmy Hill was quietly the highest-finishing rookie. Driving for underfunded FAS Lane Racing, he tied a career best with 27th place.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles