** It certainly appeared that Jeff Gordon had a relatively easy day of it. He maintained his race lead after the final series of pit stops, which began on lap 174 of 200, and then pulled away to win by a comfortable margin (2.965 seconds) over Kurt and Kyle Busch.
The victory was Gordon’s fifth at Pocono and the 84th of his career, which ties him for third place with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison on NASCAR’s all-time list.
You’ll get an argument about that from Allison, who has often declared that he has 85 wins. One was taken away from him, suspiciously, when he won what was then known as a Grand National race in a “non-Grand National” car. According to Allison, his vehicle was competition-approved by NASCAR – and thus the victory should stand.
However, the record book indicates otherwise.
Anyway, Gordon earned his second win of the season, which solidified his position as a championship contender. The Hendrick Motorsports driver stands 11th in points but has a firm grip on an insurance policy.
Under the new system two “wildcard” drivers will be selected for the Chase based upon their number of victories and provided they rank among the top 20 in points.
Gordon is the only driver among positions 11-20 with any victories, thus he’s in an excellent position to claim at least a “wildcard” slot in the Chase.
Juan Pablo Montoya, still looking for his first NASCAR win on an oval track, led after the race restarted on lap 160 from a caution period. Shortly thereafter, Gordon slipped past Montoya to take the lead, which he held after the final restart on lap 182.
Gordon’s victory was accomplished through a seamless performance that saw him easily lead the final 19 laps. It appeared to be as routine as his first victory at Pocono, achieved on June 16, 1996 in the UAW-GM Teamwork 500.
The big difference, however, as that Gordon didn’t overwhelm the field to win 15 years ago. He was virtually handed the victory.
Back then Pocono Raceway had been repaved and speeds were expected to be very high due to the increased grip provided by the new asphalt.
Sure enough, 37 drivers broke Rusty Wallace’s two-year-old track qualifying record. Gordon won the pole with a speed nearly five miles per hour faster than the record.
The race evolved into a tussle among a handful of drivers, among them Gordon, Derrike Cope, Hut Stricklin, Ricky Rudd, Geoff Bodine and Wallace.
One by one, Gordon’s challengers began to fall by the wayside. The gearshift knob in Stricklin’s Ford came off in his hand while he was shifting from third to fourth gear and the transmission failed.
Cope ran into the rear of Robert Pressley’s Chevrolet, which knocked the aerodynamics of Cope’s Ford haywire.
Wallace burned out the clutch on his Ford while leaving the pits after a green-flag stop. Bodine suffered from a lug-nut problem during his final pit stop.
By that time only Rudd remained as a Gordon challenger. But he was no match. Gordon came home a very comfortable three seconds ahead to earn his second straight victory of 1996.
As it was then, it wasn’t too difficult for Gordon this time out at Pocono. And, for him, the best result is that, barring a complete breakdown, he’s assured of an opportunity to earn his fifth career championship.
** It might have been clear sailing over smooth waters for Gordon, but that can’t be said for a couple of other championship-caliber competitors.
Points leader Carl Edwards came down pit road on lap 58 and then went behind the wall with engine problems two laps later.
“There was no warning at all, it just went,” Edwards said. “Before the race we talked so much about not over revving the engine and not breaking the transmission and all these things. It is just a coincidence, I believe, that we broke something.”
Edwards was relegated to 37th place, which means his points lead has dwindled from 40 points to six over second-place Jimmie Johnson, who is bidding to win his sixth consecutive championship.
Edwards is only 10 points in front of third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., who scored yet another top-10 finish at Pocono (sixth) and 11 points in front of Kevin Harvick, who is fourth in points. Kyle Busch rounds out the top five.
** Certainly one of the pre-race favorites at Pocono was Denny Hamlin. Although he came into the race without a win in 2001, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had a sterling record at the 2.5-mile, triangular track.
Hamlin had four wins in 10 starts at Pocono, including two of the past three races.
Sure enough, he seemed to have the field covered, dominating the early stages of the race, leading 72 of the first 76 laps and thus establishing himself as the man to beat.
But he took a hit on a green-flag stop on lap 76 when he spent 18.9 seconds on pit road and was relegated to second place behind Montoya.
Then he suffered a flat left-rear tire, was forced back down pit road before the lap 160 restart and was caught back in 21st place before he finished a disappointing 19th.
“When we left pit road and had a flat tire – that is just not your day.” Hamlin said. “When it did that, it sheared the tire and wrapped it around the housing and broke the brake lines so I had no brakes – it was just a slew of problems there at the end.”