NASCAR Cup Series

Denny Hamlin wins pit strategy game and Pocono 350

4 Mins read
Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The NASCAR Cup Series‘ rain delays in 2020 have reached the point where the author of this article is failing to come up with any weather-related puns. But by the checkered flag, another writer for The Checkered Flag suggested a new nickname for Denny Hamlin: the “Prince of Pocono”.

Sunday’s Pocono 350 at Pocono Raceway capped off the premier series’ inaugural doubleheader weekend (that was scheduled in advance, unlike those created due to COVID-19). After being plagued by rain delays in the first stage, the final segment saw a game of pit strategy to beat the darkness. In a reversal of Saturday’s race, that day’s runner-up Hamlin used a different playbook than winner Kevin Harvick to score his fourth win of the year and record-tying sixth at the track.

The top-twenty finishers from Saturday’s Pocono Organics 325 were inverted to determine Sunday’s starting order, which would have placed Ryan Preece on the pole for the second time in 2020 had he not been sent to the rear for an engine change. William Byron (engine), Chase Elliott, and B.J. McLeod (transmission) went to the back after changing their respective parts. Alex Bowman, Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, and Quin Houff changed to backup cars and were also subject to a starting position relegation, though all but Preece and Byron were already starting no better than twenty-fifth.

With Preece at the back, Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch comprised the front row for the green flag.

Stage #1

A lightning delay pushed back the start of the race. Presumably to the relief of fans, the start was clean with no incidents on the opening lap, unlike the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck and Xfinity Series races earlier in the day.

Busch led the first four laps before the rain arrived for the ninth weather delay of the 2020 Cup season. Reddick had lost his power steering shortly before the red flag, dropping him to last and five laps down when racing resumed.

The drivers remained in their cars during the wait before NASCAR attempted to get the race back underway. Despite initial reports about the rain persisting, the event resumed with Busch continuing to lead.

On lap 15, Michael McDowell—who scored a top ten in Saturday’s race—made contact with Chase Elliott that cut down his right-rear tyre and sent him spinning into the turn one wall.

Busch would lead all 25 laps to win the opening stage, ahead of Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Matt DiBenedetto, Chris Buescher, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Cole Custer.

Some drivers like Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Aric Almirola, Denny Hamlin, and Bubba Wallace elected to pit before the green-checkered flag and stay out between stages.

Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Stage #2

Busch and the other leaders also chose to not pit, which kept them in front as the race resumed.

Blaney took the lead from Busch on lap 36. Four laps later, Bell spun and hit the wall after getting loose in the tunnel (turn two). Buescher wrecked in turn three for a caution on lap 46, but continued the race.

As the stage wound down, green-flag stops began that placed drivers like Blaney, Bubba Wallace, and Hamlin in front.

On lap 76, with ten laps before the end of the stage, Blaney collided with Kyle Busch, sending the former into the inside wall. It has been a year for the reigning champion so far, who has yet to win a race or record a playoff point in 2020. Blaney also suffered damage in the incident.

“We’re in 2020 so it doesn’t surprise me to get crashed out of the lead,” Busch said in an interview with FS1. “[…] I know what happened but it doesn’t make any sense to talk about it. Just come across as a bad way.”

Harvick won the race off pit road, while Kurt Busch changed two tyres to jump up by eleven spots into second. Bowman received a penalty for equipment interference.

Keselowski and Almirola led the field to the restart on lap 80, though racing only lasted a lap before Preece spun and hit the inside wall, with Wallace narrowly squeezing by and getting slightly airbourne on a lumped piece of asphalt.

Fox commentator Jeff Gordon quipped, “That’s what happens when you go off-road racing at 190 miles an hour.”

Play-by-play announcer Mike Joy added, “If he pits, it’s to change shorts. […] No tyres, no Nomex.”

The final restart of the stage came with two laps left. Keselowski took the lead and held off Almirola for the segment win.

Ryan Newman, Truex, Stenhouse, Harvick, Dillon, DiBenedetto, and Hamlin also received stage points. Hamlin had edged out Elliott to finish tenth.

Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Stage #3

Keselowski and Newman held the front row as the final stage began.

With darkness looming and Pocono not having lights, the teams began gearing up for stops under green in the event that the race was cut short. Keselowski pitted on lap 95, which cycled Harvick to the lead. On their stops, Logano and Johnson received penalties for driving through too many boxes and an uncontrolled tyre, respectively.

Harvick hit pit road with 36 laps to go and Hamlin inherited first. Hamlin chose to operate on a different strategy than his peers, with his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Jones also staying out before finally pitting with 26 remaining. The Daytona 500 winner, on the other hand, continued to stay on track.

Hamlin pitted with 20 laps left, changing two tyres. Almirola and Byron followed suit, the former only adding fuel on his stop. Truex claimed the lead as a result, while Hamlin beat Harvick to remain ahead.

Truex pitted five laps after Hamlin, shuffling the latter back into the lead. Despite questions over the radio about pushing his car due to making a two-tyre stop, his lead over Harvick ballooned to over three seconds with ten laps remaining. Meanwhile, Harvick reported a possible loose wheel. Keselowski pitted for fuel with four to go.

With their roles from Saturday swapped, Harvick was unable to close the margin with Hamlin as the latter secured his fourth victory of the season. It is Hamlin’s sixth career Cup win at Pocono and the second consecutive season with a victory at the “Tricky Triangle”; the six wins ties Gordon for the most at the track.

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