By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series made their second trip of the season to Pocono Raceway for Sunday’s Overton’s 400, which led to yet another new winner in 2017. To break down the top storylines of the day, NASCAR editor David Morgan is here with his five takeaways leaving the Tricky Triangle.
Kyle Busch Wins…Finally
It may have taken 21 races, but Kyle Busch is finally a winner in the Cup Series in 2017 after a dominating day at Pocono. Busch has had a handful of opportunities to win fall through his fingers before getting to Pocono, but finally had everything go his way on Sunday to end the day in victory lane, leading a race-high 74 laps.
Without a win, Busch was primed to make the playoffs on points, but now that he has a win, he puts himself in a position to be one of the top drivers to challenge for a championship down the stretch. Not only did Busch break his year-long winless streak at Pocono, his win also crossed the track off the list of those he had not won at, leaving just Charlotte for Busch to win at.
“It’s been a frustrating year and this certainly relieves a little bit of that – I wouldn’t say all of it,” said Busch. “Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and these guys did an awesome job today. I can’t say enough about this M&M’s Caramel Camry – Toyota, this is their 100th Monster Energy Cup Series win. I can’t say enough about all of our partners and everyone on this team. All these guys, the pit crew – they do a great job each and every week. We had to rely on them on that final stop so we didn’t lose too much time to those guys because we had so much distance that we were letting them have it on us with those fresher tires that they had. It’s been a frustrating year, but an awesome day today.”
Playoff Hopes Dwindling for Logano
Since his Richmond win was ruled as encumbered in April, Joey Logano and his No. 22 team have been on a downward slide and Sunday’s race at Pocono was another example of the team shooting themselves in the foot.
Logano started the day in 10th place and held steady in the top-10 early on, but failed to finish either of the first two stages in the top-10 while battling an ill-handling car. Things only got worse during green flag pit stops on lap 124 as he was busted for speeding entering the pits, resulting in a pass-through penalty.
Adding insult to injury, Logano stopped in his pits and changed tires while serving his penalty, which is a big no-no in NASCAR’s eyes, so he had to make another trip down pit road a few laps later.
When the checkered flag flew, Logano would be scored 27th, his third finish of 25th or worse in the last five races, and dropping him even further behind in the race to make the top-16 in points as he sits 69 points behind 16th place.
Logano and his team need to make something happen, and fast, over the next month or so, or it is a real possibility that he will miss the playoffs.
We’ve got to keep learning from our results both good and bad. Just takes one race to get us in. Time to focus on @WGI
— Joey Logano (@joeylogano) July 30, 2017
Drivers Give Thumbs Up to Qualifying on Race Day
In a throwback to the days of old and the way that the NASCAR Xfinity Series deals with race day, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Pocono was shortened to two days and qualifying took place on race morning, a couple of hours before the race went green, instead of a day or two beforehand.
With the race being the first use of the condensed schedule, the drivers all had nothing but positive things to say about it going forward.
Race winner Kyle Busch was the first to rave about it, but he certainly wasn’t the last.
“I thought today was great,” said Kyle Busch. “I didn’t have any qualms about it whatsoever. I’m up at 8, 9 o’clock in the morning anyway. Might as well be doing something. So qualifying at 11:30 wasn’t bad. Getting a bite to each for lunch, a drivers meeting, changing our clothes, going back to a traditional schedule, was not that big a deal.”
“I wouldn’t mind more days like that. Obviously with my XFINITY and Truck efforts getting cut back more and more each year, that’s going to be more Fridays at home with my son. That’s going to be more fun for us drivers.”
“You’d have to ask the crew guys what they feel about shortened schedules because I know last week’s was pretty touch with really long days, long hours in the garage area, then being back early in the mornings again. Totally different lives. I’m all about the crew guys, not necessarily about the drivers.”
Second place finisher Kevin Harvick echoed Busch’s thoughts on the matter.
“I thought this weekend was really good just the way that the schedule was laid out for the teams,” said Kevin Harvick. “I know how much the guys appreciate being able to stay at home. That’s really what it’s about, it’s about quality of life for the team guys, giving them an extra day. If we can add that up 10, 15, 20 weekends, that’s two or three weeks that you can keep those guys at home and let them spend some time with their families and kids and wives.”
“Everybody is just gone so much, it’s almost becoming harder and harder — it is becoming harder and harder to hire people because it is such a grind. I thought it went well.”
Likewise, Martin Truex, Jr. also gave the new procedure a thumbs up.
“I think it’s definitely a big deal,” said Martin Truex, Jr. “One day doesn’t sound like a lot, but especially for our guys being all the way out in Denver, having to load cars a day earlier than the teams here on the East Coast.”
“I thought the schedule was really good. Cole said it was a little tough getting to the track yesterday at 3:30 mountain time, a.m., but I definitely think it was worth the extra day at home just to get more things done, you know, have a little bit more family time, especially on those travel days.”
While Pocono was the first time the new schedule was used, it will not be the last time for it in 2017. Next weekend’s race at Watkins Glen will also hold qualifying on race morning and so will Martinsville in late October.
Earnhardt Nearly Captures First Top-10 in Six Weeks
The 2017 season has certainly not gone the way Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had expected, finishing in the top-10 just four times in the first 20 races of the season, so heading into Pocono the team was antsy to be able to try and finish there again and get some momentum going their way for once. After 400 miles of racing on Sunday, they nearly pulled it off.
Earnhardt only managed a 23rd place starting spot for the race and nearly saw it end before it even began with a multi-car pileup on Lap 1. Though Earnhardt managed to avoid the crash, he got caught speeding on pit road a short time later, putting him behind the eight ball early on.
Using pit strategy to their advantage later in the race, Earnhardt was able to turn their fortunes around and found himself in the top-10 as the laps wound down and looked to be headed toward a finish inside the top-10. However a tire that was cording, causing Earnhardt to lose some speed in the closing laps and he slipped to 12th at the finish.
We lost a ton of speed the final run. Vibration! Corded a RF tire. Too much camber gain. Lucky AF. pic.twitter.com/2sJKl5dvt5
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) July 30, 2017
“We didn’t have a very fast car,” said Earnhardt. “We had about a 15th-place car/10th-place car, finished around there. I thought the strategy Greg (Ives, crew chief) used was really smart. There were runs where the balance was good. There were runs when the car drove well, but I don’t know. We were a little better here in the spring and we’ve had a gremlin in the car where it’s been so loose on entry and we couldn’t get that out, so the car is actually got a lot more wedge and stuff in it that we don’t really want in there than we had in the spring race and that is hurting us too. The crutches we have in there to try to fix this issue are hurting the car, so that is where the speed is at.”
Sitting 22nd in points, Earnhardt will need a win to be able to make the playoffs and be eligible for the championship in his final season.
In addition to Joey Logano seeing his playoff hopes dwindling away after Pocono, the race to be in the top-16 at the end of the regular season continues to heat up with five races to go. Kyle Busch’s win makes 13 drivers playoff eligible with a win, leaving three spots open for drivers to make it in on points.
The three drivers currently in are Chase Elliott (+39 over 17th), Jamie McMurray (+38), and Matt Kenseth (+17). Clint Bowyer is the first driver on the outside looking in with a 17 point deficit to Kenseth, while Logano is 69 points back.
Of course, the X-factor in all of this is a driver outside of these winning a race and dropping someone else out. Next week is Watkins Glen, so AJ Allmendinger is a real threat to make some noise, while drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also have a chance to win a race between now and Richmond.
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