Five things we learned at Pocono
Joey Logano stole the show after a late-race scuffle with Kevin Harvick
Richard Petty Motorsports might be the most disorganized team in NASCAR
An exciting finish doesn't mean much if the events leading to it are dull
They say not to judge a book by its cover. But on Sunday, it was the cover, the first 10 chapters and a bunch of soggy pages in a NASCAR novel that nearly put us to sleep. Between a two-hour rain delay and some mind-numbing dominance by Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, the worst race of the season was seemingly at hand ... and then, a small piece of metal brought out the yellow on Lap 155.
Who knew one piece of debris could launch the race into total chaos? With the yellow bunching up the field, the last 125 miles turned into an episode of the Twilight Zone, with a little bit of everything: fuel strategy, fierce rivalries and, heck, even wreck-o-rama Sam Hornish, Jr. in position to win. When the smoke cleared from a green-white-checkered, the best car (Hamlin) took the trophy, but other than that signature victory, hardly anything else wound up the way it should have.
So, who's mad at whom, who grew up before our eyes and who still needs to learn a lesson in confidence? We cover all that and more in Five Things to take away from a shocking last 50 laps at Pocono:
1. Joey Logano took a step toward growing up. As noted earlier, teammate Hamlin won the race, but Logano stole the show after a late-race scuffle with Kevin Harvick turned into a Jerry Springer episode. Fighting for fifth, Logano appeared to give Harvick room entering Turn 3 before the No. 29 slammed into his left-rear quarter panel, spinning out the No. 20 and turning his day toward disaster. In case you've forgotten, these two banged fenders at Bristol in March. Logano got the short end on that deal, too, another in a long line of incidents in which the 20-year-old nicknamed Sliced Bread gets squished into bread crumbs by peers acting more like bullies.
"It's been a situation where he's been a young guy, and he's been knocked around some," owner Gibbs said after the race. "You hate to see that."
Until now, Logano had struggled in handling those confrontations, backing off and taking the high road. He's told me a Mark Martin-style of racing is the ultimate goal, preferring to let on-track finishes, not his fists, do the talking. But Sunday we saw basic human instinct take control on a public stage: you can only be punched so many times before you start punching back. So Logano let his temper get the best of him. Parking in front of Harvick's car postrace, he jumped out of his car and took off in a mad rush towards the point leader. Restrained by his crew and the No. 29, the mild-mannered sophomore still threw out more expletives than we've heard his entire career before taking shots at his rival on national television.
"Racing the 29, and he let me go in the middle of the straightaway and decided to dump me in the next turn," he explained. "I don't know what his deal is with me. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do, so it's probably not his fault.
"It's just ridiculous. I don't know what I've ever done to piss him off, but he is apparently stupid."
Wow. Them's fightin' words! Harvick didn't pull any punches either, claiming, "You can't talk to him. He's 20." Later, he tweeted, "Well after his TV comment I don't know if he wants to fight me or @delanaharvick... my money's on her!"
But this incident is more about Logano than either the point leader or who's really at fault. After two years of Logano getting pushed around, Kyle Petty summed it up best: "You gotta man up with these guys, because you're going to be pushed around until you do."
Sunday was the first step toward Logano making clear he's going to be respected on the racetrack, that he's not going to sit and take it. He may need to go one step further and spin Harvick out at some point, but yelling and screaming was certainly better than nothing. Now, drivers know they'll get an earful if they mess with him.
2. Joe Gibbs Racing is the best team in NASCAR right now. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Harvick's lead was cut to 19 over Busch as JGR continues to perform at peak level. While Hamlin's third win wasn't a big surprise -- leading 88 laps, he's now won two straight and four overall at the tricky triangle -- his teammate's run came out of nowhere. Pocono is Busch's worst track on the circuit, a place he's led just two laps the last five years. But he paced the field for 32 circuits Sunday, coming home a career-best second in a runner-up finish that felt more like a win.
"I went from an 'F' at knowing how to get around here to about an 'A'," he said, the second straight week he stared adversity in the face and didn't flinch. Add in Hamlin's four-win season, leaving him the Chase's top seed as of now, and suddenly JGR has itself a 1-2 punch for the season championship.
"I feel like we're one of four or five guys that really are legitimate week-in, week-out, up-front guys," Hamlin said. "That's a good feeling right now. Your performance always comes in waves, but I'm definitely very confident in what we have planned for the Chase. Right now we are being conservative, believe it or not; it's all about peaking at the right time. People would say, 'you're peaking now,' but I feel the best is yet to come."
3. Richard Petty Motorsports might be the most disorganized team in NASCAR right now. Even the new FR9 engine couldn't solve Ford's recent woes, with just one car finishing inside the top 10. And even that didn't come without controversy, RPM's A.J. Allmendinger ran teammate Kasey Kahne into the grass, a last-lap wreck that took out eight cars, sent Kahne launching into the air and left tempers frayed on a team already in turmoil. With tensions high after Kahne's decision to bolt into the arms of Rick Hendrick next season, things have reached full-fledged soap opera status after its two top drivers tried to take each other out.
"I don't know what A.J. was doing there," said Kahne. "I don't ever really talk to him much, but you can bet I will be talking to him this week."
"Kasey had such a run on me and I went to defend," countered the 'Dinger. "By the time I defended, he was in the grass. That is my bad; I feel bad about that, I really do. It is what it is though."
Sounds like a guy who's not itching to apologize, the latest blow to a four-car team that hasn't scored a top-5 finish since Texas in April. The supposed future of this organization should know better than that; Kahne won't be there next season, but a callous attitude towards the incident sours the relationship between the two cars in the shop. Greg Biffle had it right when he said, "You can't run your teammate down onto the grass. That is horrible. I don't know what his deal is."
4. Clint Bowyer could have pulled the upset ... until he lost his confidence. In the race's first half, the forgotten man from three-car Richard Childress Racing was on a rail, leading 59 of 98 laps while on track for his first win since Richmond in May 2008. But, after a caution for debris in Turn 2, Bowyer fell apart on the ensuing restart. Dropping out of the lead on pit road, he then got snookered by Harvick in a four-wide maneuver that had him sarcastically jabbing on the radio, "What are teammates for?" Letting it ruin his rhythm, Bowyer wound up losing the handle in dirty air and slapped the wall shortly thereafter. While he held on for a ninth-place finish, his Sunday was a wasted opportunity in a year when teammates Jeff Burton and Harvick have been running circles around him.
5. Tony Stewart has never been more frustrated as a driver/owner.
Last week, I took a look at the difficult road ahead for Stewart to make the Chase the second half. And while the organization took a step forward on the strength of a third-place finish Sunday, its owner took a step backward in letting outward frustration show more than ever. On Friday, Stewart cut down a reporter attempting to ask a question about his season, singlehandedly strong-arming a press conference into self-promotion for his Prelude to the Dream charity race this week. Sunday he went off about the final 100 miles and the performance of his team in a short postrace presser after finishing third.
"Not a very stellar day," Stewart said. "I'm happy where we ended up because of [fuel strategy]. But we still got a lot of work to do. There's light at the end of the tunnel, but it's still a long ways away."
He then turned his complaints to the rest of the Sprint Cup field. "Restarts were idiotic today," he exclaimed. "I've seen some of the worst driving I've ever seen in my life in a professional series right here today. So for anybody that's looking for drama the next couple races, start looking 'cause I can promise I'm going to start making the highlight reel the next couple of weeks."
Hefty words from a guy who has trouble controlling his temper, ones that might resonate the wrong way with a team he manages, one that's giving 110 percent to turning things around. He claims the highlight reel is his next stop on the circuit; I just wonder if he'll be on it for all the right reasons.
Final Grade: B-. The ending of the race was an A+, but none of the excitement came until the final 50 laps. How many people were asleep by then? There's also the small matter of NASCAR's suspicious debris caution that bunched up the field at just the right time. Hamlin said after the race drivers expect late-race yellow flags nowadays, leaving them little or no incentive to race early on. So, if you know the excitement doesn't come until the final half-hour, what's going to make you tune in for the first three? It's a growing problem that may not go away anytime soon.
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