Can Pocono pick up where NASCAR's Indy ending left off?
More than two thirds (110 of the scheduled 160 laps) into the Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR's races was set to be little more than a snoozer. Kyle Busch had dominated the event, preventing any on-track passes for the lead while the current Cup Series aero package created single-file racing almost instantaneously. The sport seemed destined for another bad day in a series of them so far this season.
It was then, for the first time in ages, Lady Luck dealt NASCAR an ace at the Blackjack table.
After a caution, Martin Truex Jr. started alongside Busch and got loose on a restart. He lost control, making contact with Busch and both men couldn’t save their Toyotas. Before you could blink, the top two cars were wrecking, a ball of fire erupting as Truex hit the wall.
Both men were out of the race. In an instant, the seas had parted and the Brickyard 400 was wide open.
What followed was part strategy, part Demolition Derby, part wild NASCAR overtime. When the dust cleared, over the final 50 laps more than a dozen cars wrecked out of the race. The lead kept bouncing around, from Matt Kenseth to Trevor Bayne to Brad Keselowski. In the end, it was Kasey Kahne pulling the upset, launching his future in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet front and center mere hours after his car owner said, “We’ll discuss that another day.”
A controversial caution call punctuated the end of the race as darkness was creeping into Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Kahne was awarded the win, the caution lights flying a mere eternity after a hard wreck broke out behind him. NASCAR chose to wait, letting him cross the Overtime line thinking ending under yellow would be better than wrapping on account of darkness.
They were right. Ratings for the Brickyard were up more than 10 percent, a NASCAR best for this year and deflected from an anemic audience in the grandstands. Instead of talking about a single-file snoozer, one might make the argument it was one of the better stock car endings in this race’s roller-coaster history.
Can the sport continue the momentum? Pocono sits next on the schedule, a track known for weird weather, wacky strategy, and unconventional endings. Just last year, Chris Buescher picked up his first and only Cup victory when rain left his underfunded No. 34 up front at the right time.
Another surprise like that, say a Dale Earnhardt Jr. surge to the front, would bring chaos to NASCAR’s Playoff Picture and ratchet up the drama. Too bad members of Truex’s team can’t share in those good vibes. Two members of his pit crew (provided by Joe Gibbs Racing) were suspended following a Brickyard 400 confrontation with Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens.
If anything, NASCAR brass should be sending Busch, Truex and everyone involved a thank you card. Their wreck may have stopped the ship that is the 2017 Cup Series season from sinking.
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Pocono Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Drivers with Careers on the Line
Sunday’s Brickyard 400 read like a Who’s Who of Who Needs A Ride. The winner was Kahne, ending a victory drought of nearly three years at the sport’s highest level amidst rumors Hendrick Motorsports will buy out his contract. Kahne capitalized on a late caution that ruined the chances of Matt Kenseth, in position to win the race on speed once Busch and Truex had their tussle. Kenseth, still rideless for 2018, wound up finishing fifth.
Even Danica Patrick, whose 2018 future remains murky, somehow snuck through the carnage en route to 11th. It was her best stock car finish at Indianapolis, the track that built her career and her third straight top-15 result (a career best).
Who’s at the Back: Chase Elliott
Elliott’s motor blew just 43 laps into the Brickyard, leaving him 39th out of 40 cars. It was the first engine failure of his entire career with Hendrick Motorsports, an admirable stat but that bad luck came paired with bad timing. With teammate Kahne winning, other drivers on the bubble running well and Elliott’s DNF, he slid to 15th among the 16 drivers in playoff position. A bad race Sunday combined with another upset win could leave this sophomore on the outside looking in.
It’s been a busy week in NASCAR’s Silly Season carousel. Team Penske announced this week they’d re-signed lead driver Brad Keselowski, pairing that contract with an extension for crew chief Paul Wolfe. It cements one of the longest active driver/crew chief pairings in the sport (that’s been around in Cup since the start of the 2011 season).
But Penske wasn’t done. Wednesday, they unveiled plans to expand to three Cup teams next season with Ryan Blaney taking the wheel of their No. 12 Ford. Sponsorship will be announced in the coming weeks but at least a few races should be backed by Menards Home Improvement Stores. Why? Paul Menard brought his family money and sponsorship over to the Wood Brothers No. 21 Blaney is vacating for 2018.
Those moves leave the No. 27 for Richard Childress Racing an unsponsored car. But Childress, despite reported layoffs stood firm Wednesday in claiming his team would retain all three charters for the 2018 season. Grandson Ty Dillon, running as a rookie with Germain Racing might be brought into the fold with Menard departing.
Target announced Friday they’re leaving as primary sponsor of Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet following the season. Choosing to leave motorsports entirely, the company claimed they’ve been working on the transition with Chip Ganassi Racing for more than a year. CGR claimed a new primary sponsor that also is new to NASCAR will be announced to replace the department store in the coming weeks.
TriStar Motorsports owner Mark Smith passed away Monday after a long battle with cancer. He was 63. His No. 72 car, driven by Cole Whitt will remain in operation under the guidance of his son, Bryan.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Finishing position for underdog Timmy Hill at the Brickyard 400, a career best in his 200th career NASCAR start. Hill was driving for an unsponsored, underfunded No. 66 team that only runs a part-time schedule.
Laps led by Kasey Kahne since the start of the 2016 season before Sunday’s Brickyard 400 triumph.
Cars who failed to finish Sunday’s race, a season high.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to sleep on Kyle Busch after he led 100 laps in the June Pocono race. While Busch has never won at the track they call the “Tricky Triangle” he enters this weekend motivated after the Brickyard 400 debacle. Busch has led more than 1,000 laps this season, showing speed at every type of track and it’s difficult to see him going through the entire season winless.
Looking for an alternative? How about brother Kurt? His average finish in the last three Pocono races is 5.0. That also includes a win in June 2016 that pushed his No. 41 car into the playoffs.
On paper, picking Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Pocono seems pretty awful. He once finished 42nd and 41st in back-to-back races held at the 2.5-mile track. Through nine career starts, he has yet to earn a top-10 finish.
But Stenhouse has been improving steadily at every track on the circuit this season. He ran a quiet 11th in the June race and now has three straight top-20 finishes here. Momentum is on his side to put the No. 17 Ford in a Pocono place it’s never been before – up front.
If you’re seeking consistency, try Austin Dillon. He’s run 13th in three out of the last four Pocono races, earning six top-20 finishes overall in seven starts. A run of 13th to 19th should be exactly what you get if you can’t take the risk of a “boom-or-bust” driver in this tier.
Yes, Chris Buescher enters this race the defending champ. But the second-year driver has been struggling, a top-10 finish at Indy notwithstanding, so I recommend the Cup rookies instead. Erik Jones had a career best third-place finish at Pocono in June; rookie rival Daniel Suarez was 15th. Add in an 18th from Ty Dillon and it’s a solid trio of youngsters to choose from.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch had the edge Friday, courting 7/2 odds in Las Vegas while Martin Truex Jr. was right behind at 9/2. A handful of drivers, including rivals Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson stood at 7/1 odds.
What I Think
A weird year gives us another weird winner on Sunday. I’m going to say freshman Erik Jones shocks the world and breaks through with a surprising victory, launching his first-year No. 77 team into the playoffs.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)