The first 100 laps at Pocono provided about as much action as bingo night at the senior center. The last 100? You got whisked straight from the boredom of hearing "B 12" to the excitement of a roller coaster on steroids.
What a crazy tale of two races in one, punctuated by a near-tragic crash, a shocking pit call that kept a legend drowning in the desert of a winless season, and an ending with an upset that warmed the heart of an ailing car owner. That feel-good story leads off this week's Five Points to take from Pocono Raceway:
One hundred and twenty laps into the race on Sunday, it looked like yet another dismal weekend for Ford. With just one driver inside the top 10 (
But in one of several "it's meant to be moments," a debris caution bunched up the field and gave Biffle the chance to gain important track position. Last week at Indy, he had one of the fastest cars but lost the race with a four-tire stop. So Sunday came with a direct change in philosophy for the No. 16 team: don't get beat by spending too much time on pit road.
"We knew that putting two on, we weren't going to get the lead, but we were going to jump ourselves up from the teens up into the top 5 and then see how our car drove up there," he said, vaulting right into contention with the move. "And late in the race, I don't know what happened to it ... but [the car] simply took off."
That allowed Biffle to stay inside the top-5, setting himself up for a second two-tire stop that left him second behind
But Mother Nature had other ideas. The race got back underway, and Biffle shot out of a cannon, blasting by Hornish, then coasting to a 3.5-second victory that ended both a 64-race winless streak and Ford's 0-for-20 start to 2010. But perhaps most important of all, it brought a smile to a car owner still recovering from a crash that had his team giving 110 percent top-to-bottom.
"In Victory Lane, he told me that he had never met somebody that had the will to win like I do," Biffle said after speaking with his car owner via cell phone. "Kind of put goosebumps on my arms."
"I'm glad he thinks of me like that, and I'm just so thankful to put Roush Fenway back in Victory Lane."
That also leaves this team a surprising darkhorse in the Chase race, just three weeks after a blown engine at Chicago left them precariously close to the bubble. But we've seen this from Biffle before; in 2008, he barely squeaked in only to win the first two races and give
"I know that things are in good hands [while I recover]," Roush said in a statement. "This is just the beginning of the rewards that have resulted from all of the [organization's] hard work."
One veteran's gain was another one's loss,
"You are a sitting duck when you are first and you look at the guys you are racing," Gordon said afterwards. "If you know if nine guys are going to take two tires, then it is an easy call to take two. But, when you don't know and the guys around you are going to take four, then you take four."
"All it takes is two laps of battling with other guys on four tires and it lets everybody spread out," he said. "[That call] pretty much took our chances away."
"But it just seems like when we get ourselves in position to win the race, we can't catch that break."
It's true. And what should have been a feel-good weekend for this team -- Letarte was signed to a long-term extension while adding former
Twenty-four hours later, he was simply happy to be carried out to the ambulance in one piece. During a wreck that started when Jimmie Johnson tapped
"It knocked the breath out of me pretty good, but it's definitely the hardest hit I've ever had in a race car," he said. "These new cars are built to be safer and if I can get out of that and walk [away from] that, I think it did its job."
Fellow drivers weren't so warm and fuzzy though about the inside guardrail itself, set to have SAFER barriers added next year. During an SI roundtable in the magazine last month, several drivers questioned whether Pocono was safe enough, and the ugliness of the wreck did nothing to calm their fears.
"I think that there are times where we've got to step up the technology and safety at certain facilities," said Gordon. "We've seen two incidents here this year [at Pocono, referring to
As for Allmendinger, it's simply a racing deal that shouldn't get skewed considering his recent history. After blocking Kahne into that June wreck and entering into a shouting match with owner
"Everyone was checking up in front of me and there was tons of smoke. I had nowhere to go," 'Dinger told SI after the race. "I really hate it for Elliott and those guys. You hate to see anyone wreck, especially as hard of a hit as that. I'm really glad he's OK."
Just like the NFL has teams who coast into the playoffs, NASCAR's postseason system is no different. While championship leaders
We've seen this happen the last two weeks, with the current top 6 in Cup points going schizophrenic while Chase bubble contenders Biffle,
"I don't know what next week's going to bring or the week after, but it's nice to have a little momentum," said Stewart, who's in a unique position to compare the two positions -- he led the points this time one year ago. "We've had some strong runs here recently, so hopefully that trend's going to keep building. And if it does, then obviously I'd much rather be leading this situation than leading the points when it doesn't get you anything."
The lone exception in this bubble group is
After struggling for much of the past three months, Hendrick's No. 5 team is finally getting their act together despite an uncertain future. Despite a circuslike atmosphere of distractions, Martin has now put down runs of 11th and 7th in the books, good enough to close his Chase deficit to just 34 heading to Watkins Glen, a track where he once won three in a row in the mid-1990s.
"We're turning the corner," he said afterwards. "We cut our point deficit almost in half. If we keep running in the top 10 every week, we can make the Chase. That's what we're trying to do."
But that momentum doesn't carry over to the other side of the 5/88 Hendrick shop.