What we learned at the Pocono 500
Another Tricky Triangle win put Jeff Gordon in contention for a fifth Cup title
Denny Hamlin finished 19th on a track he had previously enjoyed good success
Steady Jimmie Johnson placed fourth Sunday and trails Carl Edwards by six points
Jeff Gordon was back in the bright, multicolored paint scheme of longtime sponsor DuPont at Pocono Raceway. He looked like the Jeff Gordon of the past, too, running up front until taking the lead with 40 laps to go and pulling away in the familiar No. 24 Chevrolet to his second victory of the Sprint Cup season.
It was the 84th victory of Gordon's career, tying him with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for third on the all-time list, but wins have been hard to come by in recent years. Sunday's triumph was Gordon's third since the start of the 2008 season.
"The old golden boy had it in him today," said Kurt Busch, who finished second Sunday.
Gordon's primary sponsor for his entire Cup career, which began in 1992, had been DuPont until it cut back to 14 races this year. In Gordon's previous win in 2011, at Phoenix, the primary sponsor was the Drive to End Hunger. It seems more fitting for Gordon to move higher on the career win list by rewarding an old friend. The photos won't seem out of place in NASCAR's Hall of Fame.
It was a fast-paced 500-mile race. With the exception of a few wall-brushing incidents, nobody hit anybody or anything -- on the track or otherwise. There were four cautions for only 14 laps and the driver with the fastest car during the last two post-pit segments won.
Here are five things we learned at Pocono.
1. Jeff Gordon is a contender for his fifth Sprint Cup title. Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led crew have turned their season around in the past two weeks. Gordon's win at Phoenix in the second race of the season was followed by an up-and-down period of two top-fives (third at Talladega, fifth at Martinsville) and no other top-10s in the next 10 races.
"We were embarrassed by the way we were running," Gordon said. "When I came on board with Alan and his crew, I knew that they were special and amazing. Phoenix came a little sooner than we thought, but I felt like we could do that this year. 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 and you work together to get there. And that is what we did today. Awesome race car. Awesome pit stops.
"Alan Gustafson and all the engineers ... they just worked so hard to get me what I needed to go fast. This team went to work and we made big improvements and we've shown that the last couple of weeks. Today was proof that all that hard work can pay off. The balance of the car was great all weekend. The grip was there and then you follow that up with great pit stops. It all came together today."
Gordon has a chance to build momentum and bonus points for more wins with 12 races remaining to the Chase. He should be a contender in that 10-race championship playoff.
2. Denny Hamlin's Chase chances are fading. Hamlin finished 19th at Pocono, a track where he won twice in his rookie season and had four wins and an 8.2 finishing average in 10 starts. Many expected Hamlin to win his first race of the season and strengthen his position for the Chase. Instead, he's hanging on, 12th in points.
Hamlin led 76 laps early, lost the lead on a pit-stop sequence and then ran into problems.
"We were just cruising there at the beginning and just nothing really went right," Hamlin explained. "Through the day our car got a little bit tighter, we were still in contention. But then when we left pit road and had a flat tire, that is just not your day. When it did that, it sheared the tire and wrapped it around the housing and broke the brakes line, so I had no brakes. It was just a slew of problems there at the end."
3. Their four-week probation may be over, but NASCAR is still watching the Kevin Harvick/Kyle Busch feud. Kevin Harvick started 32nd and Kyle Busch 34th and they quickly began climbing. With the laps in the teens, Busch tried to pass Harvick and they raced hard side-by-side. At one point, Harvick's Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton got involved, giving Harvick a bump draft on the straight to push him in front of Busch. They played mind games for several laps with more than 400 miles of racing remaining, drafting up and around each other.
NASCAR warned them to stop the games and get back to racing. Harvick and Busch took it to heart. They don't have to be on probation for NASCAR to hand down punishment and the threat of further penalties if the conflict between Harvick/RCR and Busch escalated appeared to deter both drivers.
Busch didn't understand why Harvick was racing him so hard so early.
"I was running my own race," Busch said. "It was another car I had to pass. Seemed like he [Harvick] was trying to make it awfully difficult on me. There's a couple times where I just had to back off and wait, got back to him and tried to pass him again. Maybe kind of shows his character and who he is, how he feels he needs to race on the racetrack. But it's not my fight. He's trying to turn it into one."
Busch says he wants to put the conflict behind him. Harvick doesn't appear to have any intention of doing that.
"It's not over," he said after the race.
4. Jimmie Johnson doesn't make waves, he just keeps scoring points. The five-time Cup champion has quietly put together an outstanding season that points to him being the driver to beat, again, in the Chase. Johnson was fourth at Pocono, his fifth top-five -- including one victory and ninth top-10 -- in 14 races. The No. 48 driver shouldn't be able to sneak up on a title run, but that's what he's doing. He's second in the points, six behind Carl Edwards.
"It was a great day in the pits and on the track," Johnson said. "Man, I really thought I had a shot there on that restart at the end and kind of got stuck in the middle and lost a bunch of track position and just had to recover from that. I'm very happy to see the No. 24 [Gordon] in victory lane. Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports has been working very hard to make sure that the cars are getting speed in them and they've done that. Our engine package held up today with the abuse we gave it."
5. Kurt Busch's slump is over and the Chase is in sight. Kurt Busch went through a seven-race period where his best finish was 10th, but he's been fourth at Charlotte, ninth at Kansas -- where he led 152 laps -- and second at Pocono in the last three races. He's sixth in the points.
"They're a great two weeks," Busch said. "I feel like we've got what we need to continue moving forward. It's not all there. We still need to have A pluses in all areas of our team, whether it's the motor department, aerodynamics, pit crew, crew chief-driver communication. To run for the win the last two weeks in a row and have two poles, it's pretty solid."