There were a lot of unknowns heading into the NASCAR doubleheader at Pocono Raceway.
Sure, the 2.5-mile triangular track held a twinbill last year. But that was during the coronavirus pandemic with no fans and all sorts of protocols in place.
This year, Pocono operated at 100 percent capacity. How would the doubleheader work with fans in attendance?
Turns out just fine.
All of the track’s camping sites sold out. The grandstand was jammed and close to a sellout. It created a great atmosphere.
“I think Pennsylvania race fans in general are some of the best in the world,” Alex Bowman said. “Whether it’s sprint car racing or Cup racing or whatever the situation is, PA fans are pretty dang awesome.
“To see a packed grandstands, packed infield, it’s cool. It’s really neat.”
Even Jeff Gordon took notice.
“Coming into this race track today got me very, very excited again,” said Gordon, who recently was named vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. “This reminds me of the older days, or that period of time that we all talk about when the sport was super-hot, that’s the feeling of energy I feel this weekend here at the track.”
Those in attendance were treated to three days of exciting racing that had incredible, unbelievable and intriguing outcomes:
- On Friday, Ty Gibbs and Chandler Smith tangled on a late-race restart, enabling Corey Heim to take the lead and go on to win the ARCA Series General Tire #AnywhereIsPossible 200.
- John Hunter Nemechek outdueled boss Kyle Busch on a restart with seven laps remaining to win the NASCAR Truck Series CRC Brakleen 150 on Saturday.
- Kyle Larson was half-a-lap from winning his fourth straight NASCAR Cup Series points race — five if you count the nonpoints All-Star Race — Saturday when he blew a tire, handing victory to Bowman, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
- Austin Cindric was cruising in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pocono Green 225 on Sunday when, with three laps left, David Starr’s car ran out of gas in front of him. Cindric had to slow down to avoid hitting Starr, which allowed Gibbs to close in on him and challenge for the win. Cindric, though, was able to hold on.
- Finally, Sunday’s Cup Series Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 became a fuel mileage race, wondering who might have enough gas to make it to the end and who couldn’t. Kyle Busch did and won despite driving with a broken clutch stuck in fourth gear for most of the race.
In August 2015, Busch was leading at Pocono when he ran out of gas on the final lap.
“It was a little bit of, I guess, vindication that we came back from that one to be able to win this one,” Busch said Sunday.
Eleven races at Pocono since and Busch has four wins, six top-five and 10 top-10 finishes.
“Any time you go to Pocono with Kyle Busch, you got a shot,” Busch’s crew chief Ben Beshore said. “He’s so good here. His results show it.”
Busch’s victory stopped the six-race winning streak for Hendrick Motorsports that started with Bowman at Dover. Chase Elliott followed at Austin, Texas. Larson then won three straight (Charlotte, Sonoma, Nashville) before Bowman won Saturday at Pocono.
William Byron appeared poised to continue that streak Sunday when he took the lead with eight laps left. However, he had to pit for fuel with three laps to go and wound up 12th. He placed third Saturday.
“The car was awesome,” Byron said. “I felt like we made some improvements from (Saturday) and worked on some things. A lot of positives to take for next week. It just didn’t work out (Sunday), but we’re going to get one soon.”
Even for all his woes over the weekend, Larson finished ninth and second in the two races. After the flat tire cost him the victory Saturday, he overcame damage to the nose of his car and saved enough fuel Sunday.
“Nothing went right except for our finish, so I’ll take that,” Larson said after Sunday’s race. “It was a struggle. I had a lot of frustrating moments, it was hard to ever get track position. But I’ve got to thank my guys for working hard and helping me get a second-place run.”
Hendrick drivers likely remain the favorites for the Cup Series playoffs over the season’s final 10 races. Busch likely has the best chance to deny them.
Seven drivers posted top-10 finishes in both races: Bowman (1st, 7th); Kyle Busch (2nd, 1st); Ryan Blaney (5th, 6th); Joey Logano (7th, 10th); Kevin Harvick (8th, 4th); Larson (9th, 2nd); and Brad Keselowski (10th, 3rd).
The Pocono doubleheader shook up the playoff standings a bit. Kurt Busch came to Pocono 24 points behind Chris Buescher for the 16th and final spot. But after finishes of sixth and 20th at Pocono, Kurt Busch is now three points ahead of Buescher for the final spot. Buescher finished 20th and 19th at Pocono. Seven races remain in the regular season.
One driver who had a rough weekend at Pocono was Chase Elliott. The reigning Cup Series champion finished 12th in Saturday’s race and 27th Sunday. At one point in Sunday’s race, he pitted twice in a 5-to-6-lap span because of flat tires.
Lastly, the site of Bubba Wallace’s Cup Series debut also is the place where he earned the first top-five finish for his new team, 23XI Racing, which is co-owned by driver Denny Hamlin and basketball great Michael Jordan. He finished fifth Sunday.
“Today shows what we can do,” Wallace said. “We’ve got to keep up the momentum.”
Pocono Raceway certainly gained a lot of momentum with its successful doubleheader weekend.
During more than 30 years at The Times-Tribune, Scott has covered everything from high schools to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. His current beats include motor sports, local colleges, high school cross country and high school baseball. He also is a copy editor and page designer. His articles have won awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors, American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association, Eastern Motorsports Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Pro Chapter and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association Keystone Press. He also has been honored by the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League and the Minor League Football Alliance. In 2016, he was presented the Media Service Award by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. A Long Island, New York, native, Scott graduated from the University of Scranton in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in communications. He lives in Peckville with his wife, Andrea, and daughters, Bridget and Emily. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100, x5109; or @swalshTT on Twitter