Jeff Gordon was declared the winner at Pocono as rain stopped play after 98 of the scheduled 160 laps. Four-time champion Gordon was due a hefty slice of luck; his season so far being littered with problems beyond his control that have left him dependent on securing a Wild Card spot in the Chase, so no-one could begrudge him his first win since last September at Atlanta.
Having started a lowly 27th, Gordon restarted in sixth place under dark clouds, with heavy rain imminent. All at once a path cleared before him, as long-time leader Jimmie Johnson slithered into Matt Kenseth, delaying Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski and leaving Gordon free to inherit the lead, which became victory when thunderstorms hit soon afterwards. Kasey Kahne, who lost a place to Gordon in the shuffle, suffered a cut tyre in the melee but was able to continue under caution at low speeds to finish second, while Martin Truex Jr. leapt up from eighth to third
“You can’t ever give up, it doesn’t matter where you’re at, you just have to go out there and win races,” said a jubilant Gordon in the impromptu victory lane celebrations. “For all the things that have gone wrong for us this year, I still can’t believe what just happened. I think this is the one that makes up for all the ones that have gotten away. You don’t want to win them like this, but we’ve earned it because of all the things that we’ve done this year.”
“I’ve never seen the seas part like that,” he reflected. “I don’t know what happened to the 48 [Johnson]. I just saw he got loose, and when he got loose, it took everybody that was in front of us up the race track or into the wall. I just made it right to the bottom, stood in the gas and drove out … and we were leading.”
“We could have just as easily lost six positions as we did make up four or five.”
Hendrick Motorsports had been the class of the field all day, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. wresting the lead from Denny Hamlin in the early stages after pole-sitter Juan Pablo Montoya dropped back. Point leader Earnhardt led for 17 laps before transmission maladies cut his afternoon short, finally putting an end to his record of completing every lap in the season so far. As Earnhardt fell, Jimmie Johnson picked up the mantle from where he left off last week atIndianapolis and preceded to dominate the race.
However Johnson had reckoned without the Goodyear tyres throwing up more surprises. Kyle Busch was an early casualty and lightly brushed the wall with a flat left rear tyre. He would later retire with spent brakes. Next, it was his elder brother Kurt’s turn to suffer a puncture, except the 2004 champion hit the wall with enough force to end his afternoon there and then.
Then came the all-important restart. With rain on the way, most of the front-runners elected to roll the dice and stay out, including Keselowski, who was running on fumes.
“The big thing is, nobody took tires,” said Truex Jr. “We were all trying to save fuel, because we knew the rain was coming. A lot of guys had stuff all over their tires. Everybody was throwing rubber off their tires trying to get them cleaned up before we took the restart. So all that stuff combined into those guys going off into Turn 1; all of them looked like they took off up the track. Fortunately, I was the third guy that didn’t slide.”
Johnson blamed a cut tyre for the incident, although Kenseth claimed that Johnson didn’t lift: “I could hear his pipes” and that he had simply made a misjudgement.
“When I was cooling my tires down through the tunnel [turn] coming to the green, I noticed that something didn’t feel right,” said Johnson, who was eventually credited with a 14th place finish, one ahead of Biffle. “I kept trying to clean the tires off, and it got a little better, so I just assumed I had trash on my tires. But when I got down into Turn 1, I realised that I had a right-rear flat. It’s unfortunate that we lost the lead there and we got a couple of cars in the process. I shouldn’t feel bad about that, but not much you can do with a right-rear flat.”
Having been pushed into the wall by Johnson, Kenseth rebounded back across the track and was T-boned by Denny Hamlin, who complained of stomach pains, but was later released by the circuit’s medical centre. The crash was Kenseth’s second non-finish in as many weeks, having been blamelessly eliminated by Joey Logano at Indy last week.
“He drove in really, really far and spun out underneath me and I got wrecked,” said a disappointed Kenseth, who as a result missed out on the chance to overhaul Earnhardt in the standings. “It’s just a bummer when it takes you out after you are running top three all day and finish 22nd or wherever we are. That is very disappointing and it is hard to look at the bright spot in that.”
Keselowski survived the wreck to be classified fourth, ahead of Stewart-Haas team-mates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, with Carl Edwards the first Roush man home in seventh. Clint Bowyer, Regan Smith and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top-10, while Mark Martin was left to rue his decision to pit for four-tyres under the last caution, which gave him an unrepresentative 12th place finish.
Sadly, lightning strikes at the circuit after the race was called resulted in the death of a fan, while nine others were also injured – one remains in a serious condition. Gordon later expressed his sorrow for those affected by the tragedy.
“We were walking down pit road, the umbrellas weren’t doing any good, and there was a huge, huge crack from lightning,” Gordon said. “You could tell it was very close. I mean, that’s the thing that’s going to take away from the victory, is the fact that somebody was affected by that. I mean, the fans here are so loyal and avid. Certainly our thoughts are with them. I hope everything is OK there.”