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LONG POND, Penn. — All things considered, Sunday was a challenging day for drivers and teams in the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway.
The day began with heavy fog that typically forms over the Pocono Mountains and rolls into the speedway area. After some morning sprinkles, however, rain danced around the speedway and did not interrupt the race.
That didn’t mean the race landscape didn’t change, however. For the first time in several years, NASCAR’s gear ratio rules for Pocono made it advantageous for drivers to shift gears during the race, and that choice added to the items to be considered for the long marathon run.
Then there was a spate of drivers who appeared to be strong early in the race. Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya and eventual winner Jeff Gordon all ran well in the race’s opening sequences.
There were only four cautions—none caused by accidents. The yellow was thrown only because of debris on the track—unusual circumstances for Pocono.
Gordon’s car picked up strength as the race progressed, and there was no one to seriously challenge him during the final miles. He took the lead with 19 laps to go and breezed to a 2.96-second victory ahead of Kurt Busch.
Kyle Busch was third, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Montoya, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.
Edwards appeared to have a car capable of competing for the win, but his engine lost a cylinder early in the race. He finished 37th but kept the series point lead for the eighth straight race.
The eighth-place Kenseth had the best finish by a Ford driver.
Gordon’s victory was the 84th of his Sprint Cup career, tying him in the all-time win standings with retired drivers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. Only Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105), both in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, have more wins than Gordon.
Perhaps more importantly, at least currently, Gordon got his second win of the season, putting himself in much better position to earn a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Gordon is 11th in the Cup standings. Two wild card Chase spots will go to the drivers with the most wins outside the top 10 but in the top 20. Gordon is currently the only driver in the second 10 with a victory.
The win was Gordon’s fifth at Pocono, making him the active leader in wins by full-time drivers at the track. Bill Elliott, now racing part time, also has won five at the 2.5-mile triangle.
“A lot of hard work has gone into this,” Gordon said. “We were embarrassed by the way we were running. When I came on board with Alan [crew chief Alan Gustafson] and his group [at the start of the season], I knew they were special and amazing.
“Then we went on a streak where we just weren’t competitive. What it takes is a team that believes in you and you believe in them. We never gave up today.”
Gordon led 39 laps.
FUELING THE FEUD
The early part of the race featured some on-track jousting between rivals Kyle Busch and Harvick. Harvick forced Busch low on the track during one run, and NASCAR warned the drivers to concentrate on the race and not each other.
Both drivers are under NASCAR probation for an incident at Darlington Raceway last month.
Busch said he backed off and let Harvick go until he could get in a better position to pass him. He said he wasn’t sure what Harvick had in mind.
“Maybe it just kind of shows his character and who he is,” Kyle said after the race. “It’s not my fight. He’s trying to turn it into one.”
Harvick told reporters, “He [Busch] knows he has one coming. I just wanted him to think about it.”
After the race, NASCAR said Busch’s Toyota failed post-race inspection. The left front was measured 1/16th of an inch too low to meet specifications. The car will be taken to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in North Carolina, and a penalty is likely.
A long pit stop—almost 19 seconds—early in the race cost perpetual Pocono threat Denny Hamlin, who finished 19th. He led the race at that point but returned to the track chasing new leader Montoya. He steadily cut into Montoya’s lead, but Hamlin dealt with problems, including losing his brakes in the second half of the race, much of the day.
The Montoya team tossed in a surprise halfway through the race. Enjoying a relatively comfortable lead on lap 110 when debris forced the third caution of the race, Montoya pitted and picked up only two new tires, while most of the rest of the lead group—in particular Hamlin and Gordon—took four, a typical response at that point of the race.
Five laps into the next green-flag run, Montoya had dropped to fourth—behind Kurt Busch, Gordon and Hamlin. Although Montoya led 38 laps, he couldn’t contend for the win.