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Jeff Gordon lucks into stormy Pocono win

Green flag pit stops were packed into laps 47-49, with Kurt Busch alone in staying out a few laps longer before handing the lead back to Johnson on lap 53, who had a good 3s lead over the off-sync Keselowski in second. Keselowski found himself easy meat for Matt Kenseth, the #2 losing second place to the #17 on lap 55 while Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle watched on from behind. When Keselowski came in for his pit stop it bumped Jeff Gordon into the top six.

That left just the one Hendrick car unaccounted for: unfortunately for fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr., the #88 was to be found in the garage with a transmission problem that would dump him 19 laps off the lead.

"We don't have third or fourth gear, so we're going to have to change the transmission," he said as his pit crew sprang into action. "We put it in yesterday and during qualifying it was fine and when we restarted it was kind of aggressive.

Then a bit of a vibration and the car was just really out of time and it just kind of started missing some shifts and difficult to get in gear and things like that and then finally in third and fourth coming out of the tunnel, it didn't didn't have any fourth," he continued. "And then I went to third and I didn't have third. We had a good run going ... But it was one of those things. I'm sorry for all the guys in the shop."

As the midpoint of the race approached, the issue of the weather started to dominate. All the weather radar data was showing a rapidly advancing storm system bearing down on Pocono, so it was a matter of when - not if - the weather was curtailed by rain. If it happened before lap 80 then the race would have to resume at some point - even if that meant coming back on Monday. But if it happened after lap 80 then the race would be 'official' and a red flag would mean the result being declared without requiring a restart.

With this in mind, it was no surprise when the cars streamed for their green flag pit stops just before the midway point. As the crossed flags declaring the race had met its minimum distance requirement were shown to the leaders, it was Jimmie Johnson back out in front of Matt Kenseth followed by Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle. The rest of the top ten was comprised of Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr.

Keselowski's off-sync strategy put him at most risk of running dry before the race was stopped, but even Jimmie Johnson was being warned to save fuel to make sure that they wouldn't be forced back onto pit lane at a crucial moment.

Having run caution-free for 65 laps, the yellows were back out on lap 87 when Kurt Busch managed to follow his brother into the wall, this time slightly further along the triangular circuit at turn 2. With rain looking so imminent there were few takers for pit road, although Mark Martin was one of just nine cars to come in for a quick stop in the hope that - if the rain held off longer than expected - it might leave him in the lead if everyone else had to pit again.

Realistically, however, the next restart was likely to be the crucial one, and the man to beat was Jimmie Johnson. As long as he pulled away smoothly, he looked set to have this race in the bag after leading 44 laps, well over twice as many as anyone else. Did anyone have it in them to take the fight to the #48?

It turned out that Johnson's worst enemy at the restart was his own car: he got loose in turn 1 and slammed into Matt Kenseth who was punted into the outside wall.




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