COVID-19 has forced the NASCAR Cup Series to run a number of doubleheaders, but the one long planned before the pandemic has finally been realised: Saturday saw the Cup Series’ Pocono Organics 325 at Pocono Raceway, the first in a two-race weekend at the three-turned track and long planned in advance. In a race based on pit strategy, Kevin Harvick held off Denny Hamlin for his first victory at the “Tricky Triangle”.
For the fourth time since the start of random draws to set the grid, Aric Almirola started on the front row, though it is his first pole of the season. He was joined on the front row by last Monday’s winner Ryan Blaney, while Brennan Poole (failed inspection twice) and Josh Bilicki (unapproved adjustments) were sent to the back.
Yet again, rain threatened to interfere with the race as the field ran multiple uncounted pace laps in sprinkles. Weather had already forced the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race scheduled for earlier in the day to be moved to Sunday morning, leading to NASCAR’s first one-day tripleheader.
When the race finally began, Almirola took off. Chase Elliott, who started fifth, fell out of the top ten after just five laps; over the radio, he explained there was “nothing abnormal, just got in a bad spot.”
By the competition caution on lap 16, the pole sitter had led every lap. Much of the leaders stayed out during the yellow.
On lap 17, Quin Houff spun off turn two and hit the inside wall for the first race-related caution. He eventually exited the race after reporting a left-rear vibration.
“We got alongside another car and the air sucked the @ManenTail #00 car around,” his StarCom Racing team tweeted. “We will be back with renewed vigor for tomorrow’s race!”
Under the doubleheader format for the weekend, Houff will have to start at the rear for Sunday’s Pocono 350 as he moves to a backup car. StarCom mechanic Charlie Langenstein tweeted photos of the damage and noted the #00’s backup was scheduled to run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway race next Sunday.
As the race resumed with five laps remaining in the stage, various drivers like Hamlin, Harvick, Christopher Bell, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. elected to pit shortly before the conclusion, which would allow them to be in front for Stage #2.
At the front, Joey Logano took the lead and the eventual stage victory. Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Elliott, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Brad Keselowski, Alex Bowman, and Erik Jones also scored stage points.
Logano chose to stay out between stages as the others pitted, with Tyler Reddick suffering a speeding penalty on his stop.
Almirola beat out Logano to hold the lead on lap 31. After eight laps of racing, Blaney was the first to hit pit road under green, with others following suit. Logano pitted from second on lap 45 and Almirola from first a lap later, which cycled the top spot to Martin Truex Jr. Hamlin took the lead from his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate on lap 61.
Four laps later, a pair of drivers who go by JJ had their misfortunes: on pit road, Jimmie Johnson missed his stall when he tried to avoid an exiting Bilicki, while J.J. Yeley brought out a caution after cutting a left-front tyre in contact with John Hunter Nemechek as they raced through turn three. During the yellow, Ty Dillon was penalised for speeding.
Almirola and Logano once again held the front row as the race resumed with eight laps left in the stage. A push from Elliott propelled Almirola ahead, but the former quickly found himself losing positions. Meanwhile, Daniel Suárez went to the pits.
On lap 72, just two laps after the restart, Jones and Reddick wrecked together on the frontstretch. Like Houff, Jones was forced to exit the race and go to a backup, while Reddick remained on track. During the yellow, Stenhouse’s car stalled on the track after losing fuel pressure; the issue placed him a lap down, which he regained via free pass between stages.
The caution set up a two-lap sprint to the green-checkered flag and another Almirola/Logano front row. This time, Logano provided a longer battle before Almirola cleared him exiting turn one. Logano and Truex could not catch Almirola as he took his first stage win of 2020.
Behind the three were Blaney, DiBenedetto, Bowman, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Hamlin, and Elliott.
During the stage break, Elliott suffered an uncontrolled tyre violation, which he used to return to pit road to make further adjustments as he was going to restart at the back anyway. James Davison, making his Cup début and first-ever stock car start on an oval, received a penalty for driving through too many pit boxes.
Yet again, Logano and Almirola comprised the top two as the final stage opened on lap 83. However, Logano was quickly overwhelemed as Harvick, DiBenedetto, Truex, and Hamlin passed by to drop him out of the top five.
With 40 laps remaining, the final scheduled green-flag pit cycle began with Team Penske‘s Blaney and Logano; Penske ally DiBenedetto did so three laps later from third. The top two of Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Almirola and Harvick followed suit, which shuffled the lead to Hamlin. Ryan Newman inherited first when Hamlin pitted.
Newman operated on his own pit strategy before finally pitting with 20 laps to go; he led 13 laps, the most since he led 15 in February’s Daytona 500. Michael McDowell claimed first before also hitting pit road, which cycled the position to Chris Buescher. Buescher, who won his maiden Cup race in 2016 at Pocono, arrived in the pits with 18 laps left.
With the cycle complete, Harvick took the lead. Two laps later, Bowman had a right-rear tyre go down, forcing him to pit. The same fate befell Logano’s left-front with seven laps to go.
Hamlin attempted to chase down Harvick using the draft, but a vibration hindered his progress while third-placed Almirola was over fourteen seconds behind. Although Hamlin caught him, he could not make a pass as Harvick held him off for his first career victory at Pocono and third win of the season.
“Great to finally check Pocono off the list,” Harvick said in his post-race interview. Kentucky Speedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval are now the only Cup tracks that Harvick has yet to win at.