It’s possibly the hardest track to get a handle on. Three totally different corners, three different straightaways. For the second time in less than two months, NASCAR made the trip to Pocono for the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500.
The race was delayed for over a half hour at the beginning of the afternoon because rain began falling on the track. It wasn’t heavy, but enough to where NASCAR didn’t want the cars on the track. It was practically a case of everyone having flashbacks because the same thing happened in the spring.
But, the track was dried in a very quick fashion and cars began rolling on the track. After a slight delay, the green flag waved and Tony Stewart took the lead from his pole position.
He would only hold the lead for two laps as Jeff Gordon got a great run on the start, and utilizing the draft, made the pass on lap three entering the Tunnel Turn. At that point, Gordon began checking out as Stewart started falling back.
NASCAR then threw the caution at lap 17. This was a predetermined caution because of the rain so that teams could check tire wear. All the lead cars came onto pit road for service, with a majority deciding to take on four new tires and adding fuel. Greg Biffle would be the lucky one as he took on just right-side Goodyears and got close to the front. Only problem was Gordon beat him out, and he had four fresh tires.
However, on the restart Biffle got an incredible jump and got past the No. 24.
But, the handling started going away almost immediately, and on lap 22, Jimmie Johnson made the pass for his first lead of the afternoon. That pass would begin a long stretch of green-flag laps where Johnson would be the dominating driver.
Not only that, but the action on the track began slowing down as most cars ran single-file the entire way around the 2.5-mile triangle. The field would cycle through three different rounds of green-flag stops, and each time Johnson’s lead would shrink immediately after the cycle ended. However, within a few laps, he would pull out and get an even bigger advantage on the field. At this point, the race was a big snooze for everyone.
Finally, after having a great pit stop, Gordon began running down his teammate and finally made the pass on lap 121. Almost immediately after, the caution flag flew for debris, but Gordon felt good that he took the lead under race conditions rather than on pit road.
Once again, Biffle took advantage of having stopped shortly before and took just right-side tires, putting him back out front. Also, by this time the weather was becoming a factor as most teams were looking at the radar to see whether the race would go the full distance. With that in mind, track position became critical and everyone went full tilt from that point.
Biffle had the lead on the restart at lap 126, but Gordon was extremely fast on four new tires and made the pass two laps later to get back to the front. However, almost at the same time, Denny Hamlin flexed his muscle and took advantage of the side-by-side action, made it three-wide entering the third turn, and he would then take the advantage.
Hamlin would hold his lead until lap 146 when more debris was spotted on the track. Teams then began hitting pit road again, most getting four new tires. Juan Pablo Montoya stayed on track to take the lead, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided on just right-side tires to put him in second.
The lap 150 restart would be intense as Montoya held the spot, but Gordon again came charging through and battled beside the No. 42 for five laps. Gordon would eventually get the advantage, and on lap 159 got a reprieve when Earnhardt Jr. went for a spin in turn 1.
A majority of the field stayed out as they had just pitted, but things got interesting following the ensuing restart.
While Gordon held the advantage, the action intensified behind him as everyone was racing harder than ever. While battling with Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch got a tag from behind by Johnson, sending him into the outside wall, and then down the track into the inside guard rail, tearing the front suspension apart on the No. 2 Dodge. But, it was the action behind that wreck that had everyone gasping.
Elliott Sadler was backing down to avoid the wreck in front of him, but someone behind him did not, causing him to go into a spin. Sadler slid across the backstretch grass, and plowed head-on into the inside guard rail, right where it kicked out towards the racing surface. The hit was so violent, and so intense, the front end was pushed back towards the firewall and the engine was ripped completely out of the car.
Sadler himself looked to be in pain. As he climbed out of his destroyed No. 19 Ford, his face cringed, and he collapsed right by his car on the track. In obvious despair, Sadler was able to walk to the ambulance and taken into the infield care center.
The red flag was put out so clean-up could be done, but at the same time Mother Nature decided to play a little game as she’s been known to do at this track. With the large track size, it was raining in one part of the speedway, but at the opposite end it was completely dry. Teams were soon able to re-fire the engines, and then ran a few laps under caution, trying to dry the track.
Meanwhile, teams began talking of what would be the right call to get the win. When pit road opened, the decisions made were what every driver had to live with. Some teams decided on two tires, a couple went with just fuel, while some went with fresh rubber all around.
Gordon elected the final choice, and came out in the 11th spot. Biffle, once again, went with two tires, but Sam Hornish Jr. decided to stay on track, taking a gamble on the weather.
It looked for a while that the gamble would be good as the race went back under the red flag because of the rain. But, just as quickly as it came, it left and teams were instructed to fire the engines.
With less time to get the job done, every driver was ready to go full throttle and all out to get the win.
Hornish would bring the field to green on lap 179, and got a good jump, but one lap later Biffle would make the pass for the top spot. At that point, Biffle was watching his mirror as the battle for second heated up, and was loving it.
His lead grew to over five seconds, and as the laps clicked away, it was becoming apparent that no one was catching him. With owner Jack Roush in the hospital recovering from surgery due to a plane crash earlier in the week, his driver was setting course for his first win since 2008.
Coming across the line, Biffle keyed the radio and said, “This one’s for Jack.” And indeed it was as Biffle would take the win at Pocono, the first for him in over 60 races and the first for Ford since Talladega last fall.
It’s safe to say the “Cat in the Hat” was smiling from his hospital bed. A win from one of his drivers was the best medicine he could have asked for. What a huge boost to the team, and the organization.
Next week, the high-speeds will return. But, the teams will be running clockwise and making both left and right turns. Watkins Glen International will host the Sprint Cup Series next Sunday afternoon.
ESPN has coverage of the Heluva Good Sour Cream Dips at the Glen starting at Noon ET with NASCAR Countdown. The green flag will wave shortly after 1 p.m.
RESULTS: 1-Biffle 2-Stewart 3-Edwards 4-Harvick 5-Hamlin 6-Gordon 7-Martin 8-Burton 9-Truex Jr. 10-Johnson
NOTABLE FINISHES: 15-Bowyer 16-Montoya 18-Kenseth 19-Kahne 23-Kyle Busch 27-Earnhardt Jr. 33-Kurt Busch
CAUTIONS: 5 for 31 laps. Lap 17-19 (Competition), 122-126 (Debris), 146-150 (Debris), 159-162 (No. 88 spin-T1), 166-179 (No. 2, 19, 33, 48 accident-BS [Red Flag-Lap 166, 28 Mins. 46 Sec.; Lap 177, 17 Mins. 20 Secs).
LEAD CHANGES: 19 among 9 drivers. Stewart 1-2, Gordon 3-17, Yeley 18, Gordon 19, Biffle 20-21, Johnson 22-77, Gordon 78, Edwards 79, Johnson 80-107, Gordon 108, Johnson 109-120, Gordon 121-122, Biffle 123-127, Hamlin 128-146, Montoya 147-150, Gordon 151, Montoya 152, Gordon 153-170, Hornish Jr. 171-179, Biffle 180-200.
TIME OF RACE: 3 Hrs. 46 Mins. 51 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 132.246 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 3.598 Seconds
POINT STANDINGS (Five races before the Chase): 1-Harvick, 3080 points; 2-Gordon, -189; 3-Hamlin, -260; 4-Johnson, -277; 5-Burton, -323; 6-Kyle Busch, -356; 7-Kurt Busch, -358; 8-Stewart, -361; 9-Kenseth, -398; 10-Edwards, -414; 11-Biffle, -428; 12-Bowyer, -516.