Prior to the start of the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway, the big talking point - apart from who punched who, and who was fined how much for doing what exactly - had been about the changes to transmission gear ratios and rear-end gear ratios mandated by NASCAR for the race.
It certainly added a little spice to a long-distance event (the race lasted almost three and a half hours, only a little shorter than the entire rain-affected span of the Canadian F1 Grand Prix) that frankly has lacked excitement in recent years.
Previously Pocono - a 2.5-mile triangle - had been classified as an oval event, a decision that mandated settings which essentially invalidated third gear and frankly meant shifting was all but useless;- many drivers no longer bothered shifting anymore. But this year NASCAR reconsidered that and announced settings treating Pocono more like a road course event, and drivers had to consider exactly what that would mean
"I think that we're really only shifting in one corner, in turn 1," said Denny Hamlin who has won at Pocono twice in the last three years. "I do think it's going to be tough on the reliability of these race cars for 500 miles. Shifting takes its toll on engines, for sure. Somebody will break one."
Fuel economy could be another factor, if the race comes down to fuel conservation as we've seen at Charlotte and Kansas. "I think you use more fuel shifting and getting into third gear and then lifting and standing on it again going into fourth you burn more fuel shifting," pointed out Carl Edwards.
Brett Bodine, NASCAR's research and development director of competition, thought it would have more impact: "To me, it does have the potential to make the action from turn 2 to the third turn more interesting. [It] adds an element for mistakes, which would allow some drivers to capitalise on those mistakes."
But when it came down to it, no one could be sure until the green flag fell for the start of the race at 1.20pm exactly what was going to happen or who the new settings would most benefit.
Kurt Busch led to the green flag but he was rapidly pushed aside by Denny Hamlin who surged into the lead from the second row of the grid. He opened up a 2.3s lead by lap 9 despite complaining that his clutch pedal wasn't feeling right with the gear shifting; at which point a caution for debris came out. It didn't stop Hamlin from continuing to lead in the next short stint before a second debris yellow came out on lap 18.
Juan Montoya took over the lead for the restart after opting for only two tyres during the round of pit stops, but was quickly overwhelmed by Hamlin who screamed back to the lead from fifth place and simply would not be denied.
Further back, Kyle Busch had been powering through the backmarkers to 12th place after qualifying in the 34th spot, but it was clear that trouble lay in store for him: Kevin Harvick was conspicuously stalking him over the race track, repeatedly crowding him as they battled for position and then later following Busch to the inside and staying glued to the #18's bumper. NASCAR told both teams to stop fooling around and concentrate on the racing, which infuriated Busch.
"The #29 is all over me!" Busch retorted, and his crew chief Dave Rogers sought to calm his driver down by agreeing. "Keep your composure in that race car, bud," Rogers replied; "I've lost mine about four times already."
When Harvick backed off, it seemed that the word had gone out to his team mate Jeff Burton to take over: clearly the Richard Childress Racing team were carrying on their boss's vendetta with Kyle onto the track. "He knows he has one coming," Harvick told ESPN.com. "I just wanted him to think about it."
Busch, though, was trying to keep away from all the mind games and resisted being lured into retaliation. "I was running my own race – it was another car I had to pass," Busch said after the finish."Seemed like he 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," Busch said of Harvick's aggression. "But it's not my fight. He's trying to turn it into one."
Once NASCAR handed the warning to everyone involved, the feud simmered down and racing got back to the business at hand; Harvick himself ended up on pit road early after failing to get a full shot of fuel during his previous stop, which helped put some track distance between #29 and #18.
Before the green flag pit stops came around on lap 47, Hamlin's lead had grown to almost 4s ahead of Juan Montoya and Kurt Busch, with Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon closest to him. Hamlin quickly picked up the lead again after the stops cycled through and continued to lead for the next 27 laps with only Juan Montoya managing to hold on despite his two-tyre gambit as Hamlin stretched his command of the race; Kurt Busch by contrast was fighting a loose #22.
Pretty soon Carl Edwards was not among those in pursuit: he took the #99 onto pit lane on lap 60 reporting that the car's engine had a terminal problem. "One of the valves got in an argument with something in the engine and lost," Edwards explained. "We broke one valve. We don't think it was from an over-rev or anything. We just think it was a parts failure."
He said it didn't seem to be related to the return of the need for drivers to shift gears during the Pocono event, following that change NASCAR made to gear ratio settings for the race. "No, I don't think that had anything to do with it. I was trying really hard to be easy on the engine and only shifting in one and two and I was short shifting into fourth. I didn't want to over rev it."
Edwards' retirement would have major consequences for the Sprint Cup championship. He'd arrived at Pocono walking away with the lead by 40pts, but afterwards his lead would be slashed to just 7pts following his classification in 37th place here. "That is racing I guess. What good is the point lead if you don't use it? We are using it today and we are going to need every bit we can to get out of here with the lead today."
While Edwards wondered off and took up residence as an unexpected addition to the TNT commentary team, among others failing to make race distance were Sam Hornish Jr. - returning to Cup racing for the first time this year - and Marcos Ambrose.
"Obviously that's not how we wanted our day to go," admitted former Indy 500 champion Hornish. "The car was loose but we were working on trying to get it better when the oil line went. So obviously we lost a bunch of time in the garage getting that repaired. It's disappointing, of course. But, it was good to be back in a Cup car this weekend and hopefully I'll be back again soon."
For his part, Ambrose reported a series of problems with the #9. “I had a vibration in third gear for about 25 laps and we tried to save it but we lost third gear and then trying to leave the pits in fourth gear we lost the clutch too. It is just a bad day.”
Hamlin was still in the lead for his next green flag pit stop on lap 77, but a sticking lugnut cost him valuable seconds and when he came back out on track it was in second place to Montoya. Hamlin was faster on track but first had to overcome a 7s deficit to the Colombian; he was also cutting back on the gear shifts in order to make his fuel last, the team thinking fuel strategy even before the midway point of the race.
After an overcast few days at Pocono, finally the sun decided to put in an appearance, and immediately the increased track temperature had an effect: Matt Kenseth found his car suddenly much more to his liking, while Kasey Kahne was also happier but at the same time keeping a wary eye on his temperature gauges. Paul Menard reported that his car's behaviour was swinging wildly even as heavily affected as the sun going in and out of the clouds; but Brad Keselowski was reporting that the #2 had developed a nasty case of the shakes and the team tried to decide whether this was indicating a tyre problem or problems with the driveshaft or shock absorbers.
The race neared halfway point without any more cautions and it was time for pit stops again; Hamlin's stop was much better this time but he still came out from his stop behind Juan Montoya. It was an even less happy outcome for Brian Vickers who was given a drive-thru for speeding in pit lane ... and then, irony of ironies, a second drive-thru for speeding on the first.
After the pit stops - and past the halfway point - the leaders were Montoya, Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson despite some problems on pit road for the #48. SHortly afterwards drivers reported fluid on the track at turn 2 which may or may not have been related to Jamie McMurray heading to the garage with a broken third gear around the same time, and then the yellow went out for debris on lap 111 which gave AJ Allmendinger the lucky dog as he had just been passed by the leader.
Montoya opted for two tyres again at the pit stop in order to preserve his lead, but Denny Hamlin was among the overwhelming majority of those who went for four. Sure enough, Montoya struggled at the restart and lost positions to both Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon as well as Hamlin at the restart on lap 116 but just about clung on to fourth place for the time being, ahead of Johnson and Tony Stewart.
"It was a bad decision," admitted Montoya's crew chief Brian Pattie. "I figured more people would take two just to get the track position from the back. I was trying to gap us with some others who I thought would take two and the guys who I thought were going to take four tires further back ... It probably cost us two or three spots in the end."
"We took two tyres and that kind of hurt us. But once we got going again, we were OK," insisted Montoya of the fumble that likely cost him a shot at the eventual race win. "I thought our Target Chevy ran good all day long ... We were really good on the long run. We just need a little more pace in our race cars, you know?"
Polesitter Kurt Busch was finally back where he had started the race - in the lead - and he liked it so much that he decided to stay there for the next 22 laps with Gordon in support; surprisingly, Hamlin was some way off their pace having dialled in too much rear brake during the pit stop.
At least he was better off than Tony Stewart, who radioed in to his pit crew on lap 126 that he had lost third gear, as the shifting and gear ratio changes did indeed start to take a mounting toll on the cars. "I had a vibration in third gear for about 25 laps and we tried to save it but we lost third gear and then trying to leave the pits in fourth gear we lost the clutch too. It is just a bad day," he said.
There had been problems in the #14 from even earlier: a broken sprint meant that every time he wanted to roll off the throttle, the pedal wouldn't retract unless Stewart had pulled it back manually by hooking his foot into the toe loop and doing it himself. It was not Stewart's best day, and a lot of effort resulted in a disappointing 21st place by the end of the day.
His team mate Ryan Newman also lost third gear, but later in the race where he was more able to massage the car to the end and stay in the top ten. "With 21 laps to go, we lost third gear in the transmission,” said Newman's crew chief Tony Gibson. “And we thought we were going to be OK, but the transmission started running hot and started pumping fluid out. We didn't know it at the time. It smoked a little bit in the corners, but then it cleared up and went away and we ran the last 15 laps with no smoke.
"I think what happened was it just kind of dumped all the fluid out of the transmission. It just got hot and started pumping it out. So, we were just very, very lucky today to finish this race. For once, a break went our way."
Newman briefly ran as high as second behind Kyle Busch as the next round of green flag pit stops cycled through after lap 140, but once everyone had been in the leaders remained the same - Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin with plenty of space back to Juan Montoya back in fourth.
A belated caution finally materialised on lap 156 after drivers reported some metal debris in turn 2, and the drivers came in for another round of stops - Montoya once again deploying the two-tyre strategy and coming out in the lead. But the strategy didn't work out any better this time around, and on the restart he fell back to fourth behind Jeff Gordon who got an excellent restart and took the lead for the first time outside of pit stop sequences despite having run the entire afternoon around the top five, followed by Kurt Busch and his bother Kyle who were quickly ahead of Montoya.
What about Hamlin? His winning prospects has suddenly soured, after a flat tyre blamed on a missing valve stem ended up doing some serious damage before Hamlin could limp back for a costly green flag pit stop. "When [the tyre blew], it sheared the tyre and wrapped it around the housing and broke the brake line. So I had no brakes," Hamlin said. "It was just a slew of problems there at the end." The blown tyre had done some major damage to the bodywork and left Hamlin limping around for the remainder of the race, no longer a factor in the race result.
There were no further cautions for the rest of evening despite incidents such as a spin for Greg Biffle out of turn 3 on lap 167, but he kept it off the wall and made it into pit lane without the need for a yellow flag so the track was still green as they hit lap 175 which was the trigger point for many to come in for their final pit stops on the evening.
Montoya came in a little earlier - this time conceding the need for four tyres - in an effort to pull off a little magic in the pits, but Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch were in four laps later for four tyres and maximum fuel and came out ahead of the #42, with the lead now held by Landon Cassill who had yet to pit. Gordon won the battle for the lead with Kurt in second and Kyle Busch in third, while Montoya was struggling with a malfunctioning third gear and lost fourth place to Jimmie Johnson while Dale Earnhardt was moving up to sixth place behind him and it was only a matter of time before he further demoted the #42.
Gordon put his foot to the floor and stretched the lead up to 2.6s with four laps to go: no one had enough to go with him. Sure enough, he was untouchable and there were no dramas as he took first the white and then the chequered flag for his second win in 2011 and his 84th career victory in his 631st race in Sprint Cup. It's also his fifth Pocono victory in 37 races here, tying him with Bill Elliott's track record.
He was clear that it was the pit stop that had been the decider for him: "You guys won that one in the pits," Gordon radioed to his crew after crossing the finish line. "Way to go!" he added.
"I'm just so excited to be a part of this sport," said Gordon, pointing out that he was practically a senior citizen in NASCAR terms these days with a significant birthday coming up on August 4: "I'm going to be 40 this year. I'm an old man now!"
Kurt Busch was disappointed not to have been able to put up a better fight at the end. "I thought we could gain on him after 15 laps into the run. We were able to do that most of the day. We were able to do that again at the end, but we just couldn't close the gap far enough. The old 'Golden Boy' had it in him today."
Gordon becomes only the fourth driver with more than one win in the 2011 Cup season, putting him in a strong position when it comes to the Chase - if the points don't work out, then one of the Chase wildcards for drivers with the most wins not otherwise qualified should be a dead cert.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch had escaped his early on-track dramas with Kevin Harvick only to fall foul of the post-race technical inspection, which found that the #18 had a height issue on the left-front which was 1/16th of an inch lower than allowed. The car was removed to the NASCAR R&D Center for further investigation and serious penalties could follow - previous infringements for cars have seen points deducted and crew members suspended as a result if intentional wrong-doing is suspected.
"It's disappointing," Busch's pit chief Dave Rogers said. "I can't tell you a whole lot right now. ... I don't have any excuses for you. We're going to go back to the shop and try to figure it out." He speculated that race damage might be to blame. "There is a lot of damage if you look at the left-front fender. You can see we bottomed out," said Rogers. "We got into the fence on the right side a little bit. There is plenty of damage, but nothing that I could look at and say, 'Hey, NASCAR, here's a problem.'
“I didn't present anything to tech that hasn't been through tech before—several times. These days, bump stops control your attitude. Every car out there is sitting on bump stops, so you don't expect to go through tech too low," said Rogers. He said that it was a "huge surprise", describing how "My boy is here, and I walked him through tech to show him the process—smiling, happy with a third-place finish" before getting the nasty shock.
Life is never dull around Kyle Busch, it seems; but the atmosphere was definitely happier in the #24 garage around Jeff Gordon, who with 84 career cup wins is now tied in third place the NASCAR record book along with Darrel Waltrip and Bobby Allison - only Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty have won more.
"I'm so excited to get that win and see what we've been working on," said Gordon. "We've had fast racecars at times, then the strategy didn't fall our way or the cautions don't fall our way or we didn't have the fastest racecar. So today to see it all come together, to have a fast racecar, great pit stops, calling the race right, good restarts, those types of things, I was so caught up in that, I was so excited, plus I have my family here to celebrate it with - I didn't even think about 84 till they reminded me!
"I really can't even express in words what it means to tie Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison at 84 wins because I just never thought it would ever happen for me, or really when I got in this sport for anybody to win that many races is amazing."
Of course, now all he wants is the 85th win - maybe next week at Michigan?Full race results