Sunday’s Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway was one marked by pit strategies and fuel conservation. By the end, Denny Hamlin saved his gas just enough to hold off the field in overtime for his third Monster Energy Cup Series victory of the 2019 season.
Kevin Harvick started on the pole, his fourth of 2019 and first at Pocono, alongside Joey Logano. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Darrell Wallace Jr. were sent to the rear for backup cars (Larson and Elliott) and an engine change, respectively. Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, William Byron, Ross Chastain, Jimmie Johnson, Michael McDowell, Corey LaJoie, and Reed Sorenson all failed pre-race inspection and joined the three at the back.
Stages #1 and 2
Pit strategy has always been crucial at Pocono, and the Gander RV 400 was no exception as green-flag stops began on lap 15. As the stage progressed, Harvick continued to stay out on an alternate strategy from much of the other leaders, finally doing so on lap 40 with ten laps remaining in Stage #1.
After Harvick’s stop, Kyle Busch became the new leader and kept the position to the green-checkered flag to take his eighth stage win of the year. Harvick chased down Logano but could not pass him, settling for third. Behind the three were Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Larson, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, and Clint Bowyer.
Harvick and Hamlin led the field to the start of Stage #2, with the former quickly pulling ahead. Kyle Busch eventually took second from his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate, while Johnson pitted on lap 64. Busch would pass Harvick for first on lap 72.
After Harvick pitted on lap 79, Hamlin did the same from second three laps later. Shortly after, Elliott blew a right-front tyre while in sixth to bring out the first incident-related caution of the day and end his race.
The race resumed on lap 88 with Busch and Harvick on the front row. After three laps, a light sprinkle led to a caution for rain, which was eventually lifted to set up a five-lap run to the stage finish. With two laps to go, Blaney made contact with Daniel Suárez and spun. In the midst of the chaos, Johnson took the stage win, his first since Stage #2 at Sonoma Raceway‘s 2017 Toyota/Save Mart 350. Tailing him were Harvick, Logano, Truex, Hamlin, Dillon, Jones, Brad Keselowski, Alex Bowman, and Larson.
Stage #3 and Overtime
Harvick briefly led the opening laps of Stage #3 before Hamlin took the position. On lap 114, Ryan Preece slid up the track into the outside wall to produce a yellow flag. Busch stayed out under caution while Jones was the first to exit pit road to join his JGR ally on the front row for the restart.
David Ragan hit the wall on lap 123, though no caution was called and he safely arrived on pit road. As fuel mileage became a critical aspect of the race, Busch pitted on lap 135, dropping him out of the top twenty as Jones inherited the lead.
Hamlin took first place from Jones on lap 144 and began to establish a safe margin over second-placed Truex. However, said margin evaporated after Josh Bilicki‘s driveshaft broke with eight laps remaining. The leaders stayed out during the yellow as they prepared for what turned out to be the final restart.
A strong restart by Hamlin pushed him ahead of Truex. Moments later, Kurt Busch was clipped by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. from behind, turning the former into McDowell and leading to the #1 and #34 spinning. With the caution, overtime rules were used to set up the finish.
Another run by Hamlin elevated him to the top as overtime began. With the leaders running single-file on the final lap, Hamlin maintained his remaining fuel to hold off Jones for his third win of 2019. It is Hamlin’s fifth win at Pocono but his first since 2010.
“I was real worried, really worried (about running out of fuel),” Hamlin said in a post-race interview with NBCSN. “We just did a great job with the car once we just lost the track position to the #19 and the #20, I thought it’s over. We weren’t able to pass them. I started to thank Pocono for putting in this PJ1 (traction compound used to provide an additional racing groove) because I was able to use it there and get around those guys.”