Five things we learned at Pocono
Greg Biffle's win at Pocono snapped his, Ford, and Roush Fenway's losing streaks
Jeff Gordon (pit strategy) found yet another way to lose a race this season
After a horrific accident on Lap 165, Elliott Sadler is lucky to be alive and walking
The first 100 laps at Pocono provided about as much action as bingo night at the senior center. The last 100? You got whisked straight from the boredom of hearing "B 12" to the excitement of a roller coaster on steroids.
What a crazy tale of two races in one, punctuated by a near-tragic crash, a shocking pit call that kept a legend drowning in the desert of a winless season, and an ending with an upset that warmed the heart of an ailing car owner. That feel-good story leads off this week's Five Points to take from Pocono Raceway:
1) Greg Biffle put on that Cinderella slipper one more time.
One hundred and twenty laps into the race on Sunday, it looked like yet another dismal weekend for Ford. With just one driver inside the top 10 (Carl Edwards), teammate Biffle was running 12th and seemed destined for a mediocre day. He joined all of Roush Fenway's four-car fleet in running like junk, the worst possible outcome five days after owner Jack Roush nearly died in a Wisconsin plane crash.
But in one of several "it's meant to be moments," a debris caution bunched up the field and gave Biffle the chance to gain important track position. Last week at Indy, he had one of the fastest cars but lost the race with a four-tire stop. So Sunday came with a direct change in philosophy for the No. 16 team: don't get beat by spending too much time on pit road.
"We knew that putting two on, we weren't going to get the lead, but we were going to jump ourselves up from the teens up into the top 5 and then see how our car drove up there," he said, vaulting right into contention with the move. "And late in the race, I don't know what happened to it ... but [the car] simply took off."
That allowed Biffle to stay inside the top-5, setting himself up for a second two-tire stop that left him second behind Sam Hornish, Jr. with 25 laps to go. A gut-wrenching, 17-minute red flag for rain ensued, with thunderstorms exploding like popcorn all around the 2.5-mile speedway. For a moment, the IndyCar convert looked like he'd pulled one of the All-Time great steals in NASCAR history.
But Mother Nature had other ideas. The race got back underway, and Biffle shot out of a cannon, blasting by Hornish, then coasting to a 3.5-second victory that ended both a 64-race winless streak and Ford's 0-for-20 start to 2010. But perhaps most important of all, it brought a smile to a car owner still recovering from a crash that had his team giving 110 percent top-to-bottom.
"In Victory Lane, he told me that he had never met somebody that had the will to win like I do," Biffle said after speaking with his car owner via cell phone. "Kind of put goosebumps on my arms."
"I'm glad he thinks of me like that, and I'm just so thankful to put Roush Fenway back in Victory Lane."
That also leaves this team a surprising darkhorse in the Chase race, just three weeks after a blown engine at Chicago left them precariously close to the bubble. But we've seen this from Biffle before; in 2008, he barely squeaked in only to win the first two races and give Jimmie Johnson a run for his money. Could a Cinderella surge happen again? If you ask the guys at Roush Fenway, they're confident a new front suspension package they rolled out this weekend is the key to catching up to Hendrick and Gibbs.
"I know that things are in good hands [while I recover]," Roush said in a statement. "This is just the beginning of the rewards that have resulted from all of the [organization's] hard work."
2) Jeff Gordon has found every which way to lose this season.
One veteran's gain was another one's loss, Jeff Gordon reeling from his team snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory -- again. Just like with Biffle, tires were the story for the No. 24, whose driver seemed in control of his own fate until a four-tire stop during that extended final caution dropped him from first to tenth.
"You are a sitting duck when you are first and you look at the guys you are racing," Gordon said afterwards. "If you know if nine guys are going to take two tires, then it is an easy call to take two. But, when you don't know and the guys around you are going to take four, then you take four."
Crew chief Steve Letarte made that gamble for fresh rubber, and failed, making it the second race in a row a dominant leader (Juan Pablo Montoya, Indy) has dropped back in traffic then eventually given up the ghost. At least in this case, Gordon brought it home sixth instead of wrecking out at the finish.
"All it takes is two laps of battling with other guys on four tires and it lets everybody spread out," he said. "[That call] pretty much took our chances away."
"But it just seems like when we get ourselves in position to win the race, we can't catch that break."
It's true. And what should have been a feel-good weekend for this team -- Letarte was signed to a long-term extension while adding former Kyle Busch spotter Jeff Dickerson, whom Gordon loved on the radio -- turned into another day filled with "What could have been." And you can only have so many of those before your season turns sour...
3) Elliott Sadler is lucky to be alive.
On Saturday, Elliott Sadler was on top of the world. A Truck Series victory was his first in NASCAR's top three divisions since 2004, leaving him hopeful he'd carry momentum over to Cup.
Twenty-four hours later, he was simply happy to be carried out to the ambulance in one piece. During a wreck that started when Jimmie Johnson tapped Kurt Busch on Lap 165, smoke clouded up the straightaway before Pocono's second turn. Unable to see through the smoke, teammate A.J. Allmendinger hit the back of Sadler's No. 19 Ford, sending him on a wild ride that ended with a hit so hard the engine of his car was torn apart and thrown towards the racetrack.
"It knocked the breath out of me pretty good, but it's definitely the hardest hit I've ever had in a race car," he said. "These new cars are built to be safer and if I can get out of that and walk [away from] that, I think it did its job."
Fellow drivers weren't so warm and fuzzy though about the inside guardrail itself, set to have SAFER barriers added next year. During an SI roundtable in the magazine last month, several drivers questioned whether Pocono was safe enough, and the ugliness of the wreck did nothing to calm their fears.
"I think that there are times where we've got to step up the technology and safety at certain facilities," said Gordon. "We've seen two incidents here this year [at Pocono, referring to this Kasey Kahne near-flip in June]. I think it is going to be a wake-up call for some improvements. It is a great track, we love coming here, but, there are definitely some areas where it could be improved."
As for Allmendinger, it's simply a racing deal that shouldn't get skewed considering his recent history. After blocking Kahne into that June wreck and entering into a shouting match with owner Richard Petty in July, it's been a tumultuous summer for the man RPM still thinks is the lynchpin to their future. But this was accidental contact, albeit negative PR in the midst of a crucial negotiation period for his contract.
"Everyone was checking up in front of me and there was tons of smoke. I had nowhere to go," 'Dinger told SI after the race. "I really hate it for Elliott and those guys. You hate to see anyone wreck, especially as hard of a hit as that. I'm really glad he's OK."
4) Momentum is swinging to the guys in the back half of the current Chase field.
Just like the NFL has teams who coast into the playoffs, NASCAR's postseason system is no different. While championship leaders Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Gordon, Johnson, and others can pursue a win it-or-wreck it philosophy, guys running eighth, ninth, tenth on back have to make every finish count to earn their spot. That leads to a frantic push for consistent, top-5 performances, often shifting momentum their way as the regular season comes to a close.
We've seen this happen the last two weeks, with the current top 6 in Cup points going schizophrenic while Chase bubble contenders Biffle, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards put together an average finish of 3.5. On Sunday, they ran 1-2-3 to increase their cushion over 13th place to well over 100 points.
"I don't know what next week's going to bring or the week after, but it's nice to have a little momentum," said Stewart, who's in a unique position to compare the two positions -- he led the points this time one year ago. "We've had some strong runs here recently, so hopefully that trend's going to keep building. And if it does, then obviously I'd much rather be leading this situation than leading the points when it doesn't get you anything."
The lone exception in this bubble group is Matt Kenseth, who struggled to 18th despite running a newer chassis package that has benefited the rest of Roush Fenway Racing. Dropping to ninth in the standings, he's only 152 ahead of 13th and is clearly the most vulnerable to falling out.
5) Mark Martin stopped the bleeding. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? Not so much.
After struggling for much of the past three months, Hendrick's No. 5 team is finally getting their act together despite an uncertain future. Despite a circuslike atmosphere of distractions, Martin has now put down runs of 11th and 7th in the books, good enough to close his Chase deficit to just 34 heading to Watkins Glen, a track where he once won three in a row in the mid-1990s.
"We're turning the corner," he said afterwards. "We cut our point deficit almost in half. If we keep running in the top 10 every week, we can make the Chase. That's what we're trying to do."
But that momentum doesn't carry over to the other side of the 5/88 Hendrick shop. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran like junk all day long, spinning out and then experiencing engine trouble en route to a 27th-place finish. Now 129 points behind Clint Bowyer in 12th, chances are he'll be on the outside looking in on the playoffs a second straight year.
Race Grade: C. Maybe both Pocono races should be shortened after all. In each one this year, fireworks didn't start until the last 50 laps, leaving patient fans loving the finish, but the rest so disgusted they changed the channel by the end of the first 150. Perhaps a 400 or even a 300-mile event in the future would be best; considering NASCAR's new rules on wave arounds that minimize the impact of running strong early, that would be perfect in helping increase the action from start to finish.
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