Tuesday August 4th, 2009

Five things we learned on Monday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in the rain-delayed Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500:

1. Denny Hamlin Delivered.

Hamlin has always performed well at Pocono. He swept both races here in 2006 and had two third-place runs at the 2.5-mile tri-oval before Monday's race. That's why he targeted this event as a must-win at the beginning of the season. Last week Hamlin told reporters that if he were going to make a charge at the championship, it needed to start at Pocono.

"At the beginning of the season, we had issues finishing races where we should [have]," Hamlin said. "I felt like we had the best car, but we weren't winning....We're getting closer. Week in and week out, it's a Hendrick car winning. Pretty much, they are taking all of the top-five spots. We feel like we've got a mountain to climb. We're three-quarters of the way there. I feel like we're the closest to those guys on a weekly basis."

On Monday, Hamlin wasn't just close to the Hendrick boys; he drove away from them. In winning his first race in 50 starts, Hamlin essentially cemented his spot in the Chase -- he's fifth in the points with five races left in the regular season -- and made a statement that he's a credible title contender. After all, if this team can avoid problems on pit road and quirky mechanical failures -- two issues that plagued Hamlin for the past two seasons -- Hamlin has shown he has the raw speed to run nose-to-nose with the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.

Monday's win was emotional for Hamlin. A few days earlier his 91-year-old grandmother, Thelma Clark, passed away. Though her vision was poor, Clark would watch the races on television with her face within inches of the screen.

"That's how she could see me, see my car," Hamlin said after the race." She had a bear, FedEx No. 11 bear she always had. She always wore her No. 11 socks. She would always tell me she put out a prayer to St. Jude for us this weekend. So she was a big fan of mine. I mean, she's been to a couple races this year. She understands the competition of the sport and she understands how much she means to me. Like today, she's pretty proud."

2. The quality of racing at Pocono was excellent.

If there's one race drivers dread each season, it's the summer Pocono event. It's a marathon (500 miles and usually in excess of three-and-half hours), and it typically features little passing. On Monday, with the race not even at midpoint, Johnson complained over the radio to crew chief Chad Knaus that the race was just plain too long.

Then something unexpected happened: The double-file re-starts after cautions turned into all-out, white-knuckled sprints for a few laps. Drivers banged hard into each other in the turns. They fought for track position as if their chances to make the Chase depended on it. And they weren't afraid to dump other drivers into the wall. The laps after the restarts were stock car racing at its best, which begs the question: Why, suddenly, did Pocono produce such a riveting show?

I think there are two major factors. One, the pressure to make the Chase is greater than ever this season. Sponsor money won't be easy to come by next year, and the best argument a driver can put forth to a potential sponsor is that he made the Chase. So all of the drivers on the Chase bubble are being extremely aggressive, taking more chances and not lifting off the throttle as quickly as they have in the past.

The other reason the re-starts were so scintillating was that it's still extremely difficult to pass on long, flat tracks like Pocono. There cars are so aero-sensitive that once a car reaches the rear bumper of the car in front of him, it's almost impossible to pull around that car because of the so-called dirty air coming off the lead car.

The one place drivers can perform passes is on the double file re-starts. This is why you've seen so many bold moves just seconds after the green flag waves. Don't expect this trend to end anytime soon.

3. Jimmie Johnson had another championship-winning kind of day.

At the halfway mark, Johnson -- who had battled mechanical problems -- was three-laps down. It looked as if he were headed to a 30th-place or worse finish, but then Knaus went to work. He diagnosed a problem with the spark plugs and ordered his crew to change as many as they could during an extended pit stop. Presto, problem solved. Johnson then earned three free passes around the track during three caution periods and wound up finishing 13th. Just another day at the office for the 48 team, which remains the one to beat for the championship.

4. Juan Pablo Montoya is a-coming.

Montoya backed up his dominant run at Indy last week -- he led the most laps at the Brickyard and almost certainly would have won if not for a pit-road speeding violation -- with a career-best second-place finish. It's not that surprising, given that Indy and Pocono have similar characteristics, but the strong run catapulted Montoya from 10th to eighth in the standings. It would now be an upset if Montoya doesn't make the Chase.

Montoya is one of the best stories of the season. He should be the driver to beat on Sunday at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International because he is as talented a road course racer as anyone else on the circuit.

5. Sam Hornish is improving.

It's taken almost a year-and-half, but Hornish, one of the top IndyCar drivers of his generation, is starting to make some noise in NASCAR. He finished fourth on Monday, which was a career-best for the 2006 Indy 500 winner. "I finish in the top 10 or I have a bad day," Hornish said. "We need a little bit of that middle ground."

Currently 27th in points, Hornish obviously won't make the Chase, but he's laying the groundwork for 2010. Who knows? Next year will be his third on the circuit and perhaps he can pull a Montoya, who's now in his third year -- and contending for a spot in the Chase.

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