Parks Pit Report: Pennsylvania 500

The one thing about NASCAR that is hard to contend with is the weather.  Each weekend there are changing conditions. Whether it’s heat, sunshine, cloud cover, or wind, Mother Nature plays a different role each weekend.

This past weekend, NASCAR made its second trip to the Pocono Mountains for the Pennsylvania 500.  When they got there, immediately all the teams had to deal with the one element that stock cars cannot race with:  rain.  After the first practice session, heavy rains hit the race track, which soon led to the cancellation of qualifying.  That put points leader Tony Stewart on the provisional pole, but one day later that thrill was taken away.

Stewart wrecked in the last practice session, and the damage was enough that his Old Spice crew pulled out the backup car, moving him to the rear of the field.

The day of the race, the fans and teams were met with heavy downpours in the morning.  The rain let up around noon, but the problem became that the track “weepers” began to leak.  Water soon began to run down the corners of the track, and more rain soon fell on the track.  Despite driver introductions being done, the track was not ready to race on.  Finally, at around 4:15, NASCAR President Mike Helton made the decision to postpone the race because despite the rain letting up, drying the race track would take too long and they were running out of daylight.  The race was moved to Monday afternoon, with the green flag set for 12:15 p.m.

Monday afternoon was picture perfect weather.  Mid-70s temperatures, sunshine and light winds made the ideal setting for NASCAR’s finest to do battle.  When the green flag fell, teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson led the field into the first turn.  Johnson was able to get the lead using the outside line and began to pull away from the field.

Meanwhile, Stewart began battling to get back to the front, but only 11 laps into the race he hit pit road because of a very loose condition, possibly because of a tire problem.  Once he returned to the track, he ended up one lap down.  Luckily for Stewart, he got a reprieve when the first caution flag came out on lap 21, which was a competition yellow so that teams could make adjustments.

On the ensuing pit stops, it was Stewart’s former teammate Denny Hamlin who got the lead.  On the restart, Hamlin managed to get out in front quickly as he utilized the outside line to keep his momentum going through the first corner.  Suddenly, everyone began seeing less and less of Hamlin because he began to stretch out his lead over the field.  Only 15 laps after the caution, his lead grew to nearly two seconds.

The gap would have grown, but the race’s second caution flag of the day brought the field back together.  Paul Menard had a tire problem, causing him to spin out.  The field then came in for the next round of pit stops, with all the leaders deciding on four new tires and minor adjustments.

Hamlin again won the race off pit road, leading the field to the green on lap 57, but the caution came out only four laps later, for something rather unique.  Part of the NASCAR caution light system had failed and actually fell on the race track on the front stretch.

On the restart, Hamlin and second-place Johnson got a big run and got away from the field, eventually stretching their gap to over three seconds.  The field soon followed as the first long, green flag run strung out the top fifteen cars.  Finally, the first official round of green-flag pit stops began on lap 85 as Jeff Gordon made his stop.  Hamlin gave up his lead six laps later, but got the lead back on lap 95 as the field cycled through.

Two laps later, the race’s third caution was posted when Bobby Labonte spun in the third turn.  Surprisingly, the leaders decided to pit even though they had few laps on the tires.

On the restart, it was now Kasey Kahne pacing the field.  Much like Hamlin in the first half of the race, Kahne was able to stretch out his lead over the field.  At it’s peak, Kahne was ahead by 2.5 seconds.  However, Hamlin was running him down and finally managed to get the lead away on lap 127 when Kahne came to pit road for service, starting the next round of green flag pit stops.

Hamlin came in for service five laps later, and gave the lead back to Kahne, but Kahne was only out front for five laps.  Hamlin had fresher tires, and drove right around the Budweiser Dodge of Kahne.  Unfortunately for Hamlin, he could not enjoy being out front as the race was slowed yet again by the yellow flag.  This time, David Ragan hit the wall in turn three.

The ensuing pit stops saw strategy come into play as many cars went with only two tires instead of four.  The choice was a good one for Mark Martin because he got the lead coming off pit road, and led the field to the restart on lap 146.

The racing never got fully underway as the caution came out only three laps later.  Robby Gordon hit the wall in turn three after contact with the no. 12 car of David Stremme.  No cars came to pit road, and the field restarted on lap 153.

On the restart, the car making a major move was Kurt Busch as he made his way around Martin for the lead on lap 154.  However, it looked like the issues between Gordon and Stremme were not solved over the next few laps, as Stremme once again spun out Gordon in the third turn after Gordon pushed and shoved Stremme in retaliation.  The incident brought out the caution, and both drivers were held on pit road for five laps as a penalty for rough driving.

The leaders again stayed out front, and the field restarted on lap 160 with Busch and Martin leading the way.  The momentum slowed again five laps later as the yellow flag was posted again for debris on the race track.

This time the leaders decided to hit pit road, and many could make it to the finish on fuel, so the fuel mileage gamble would not work on this day.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race off pit road, however was fifth in line as some drivers stayed out on the track.

New leader Clint Bowyer brought the field to the green on lap 170.  The pattern of caution flags continued as after only five laps, the yellow was posted again as Marcus Ambrose and David Reutimann wrecked after Reutimann was bumped by Hamlin.

The field was brought back to the green on lap 178, but only two laps later the final caution flag flew.  Heading into the first turn, a major crash collected a lot of top cars.  Among those involved were Joey Logano, Jeff Burton and Michael Waltrip.  The accident started after David Ragan bumped Bobby Labonte, and the rest were chain reactions.

Clint Bowyer let the field to the final restart on lap 187 and was able to get out in front.  Behind him, second and third-place running Kahne and Montoya were getting together, and Montoya went up the track.  With all the contact, Hamlin was able to get around much of the field, putting himself in second and within striking distance of the lead.

With 11 laps left, Hamlin was able to get to the rear bumper of Bowyer, and one lap later, made the pass for the lead, with Montoya making the move for the second position as well.  Unfortunately, Montoya was no match and Hamlin began pulling away.  After waiting out a weekend filled with rain, Hamlin took the checkered flag, earning his first win in 50 races and his first of the season in the Pennsylvania 500.

What a great turnaround for a team that has not had the best results this year.  Hamlin missed out on a win at his home track in Richmond earlier this year, but there was no way that he was letting this one get away.  With the win, Hamlin moves up one position in the points to fifth, and gets an important ten bonus points when the Chase to the Championship begins.

Next weekend is the second road course race of the year at Watkins Glen in upstate New York.  The course has 11 turns, and is very high speed, so unlike the race at Sonoma  a few weeks ago, expect the teams that have a lot of emphasis on engines and transmissions to succeed.

My automatic favorites for this race are Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.  These two have had a stranglehold on Watkins Glen for years.  Gordon won four races at the Glen in a span of five years from 1997-2001, and nearly won it two years ago had he not had a problem on the final restart.  On that day, it was Stewart who got the victory, and he will be a contender coming from an Indy racing background.  Stewart nearly won at Sonoma this year, so watch out for the no. 14.

The sleeper I have for this one is Robby Gordon.  Sure, it’s a single-car team, and it’s under very little sponsorship, but Robby Gordon can run this track, and run it well.  Robby won both road races in 2003 when he ran for Richard Childress racing, but Robby has run rally races and off-road races that test the skill of the driver in tight corners and fast straightaways.  He could surprise a lot of people.

The Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen will be broadcasted on ESPN Sunday starting at 1 p.m.

RESULTS:  1-Hamlin  2-Montoya  3-Bowyer  4-Hornish Jr.  5-Kahne  6-Vickers  7-Martin  8-J. Gordon  9-Kurt Busch  10-Stewart

NOTABLE FINISHES:  11-Kenseth  13-Johnson  15-Biffle  16-Kyle Busch  18-Edwards  27-Logano (R)  28-Earnhardt Jr.

CAUTIONS:  21-24, 53-56, 61-65, 97-100, 142-145, 149-152, 157-159, 165-169 (Debris), 174-178 (Reutimann, Ambrose crash), 180-186 (multi-car wreck)

LEADERS:  Johnson 1-22, Gilliland 23, Hamlin 25-54, Andretti 55, Hamlin 56-90, Reutimann 91, Kenseth 92, Ambrose 93, Hamlin 94-97, Kahne 98-126, Hamlin 127-132, Kahne 133-138, Hamlin 139-143, Martin 144-153, Kurt Busch 154-165, Bowyer 166-190, Hamlin 191-200.  16 lead changes among 11 leaders.

POINTS (Five races until Chase):  1-Stewart, 3188 points  2-Johnson, -197  3-J. Gordon, -199  4-Kurt Busch, -437  5-Hamlin, -475  6-Edwards, -523  7-Kahne, -546  8-Montoya, -557  9-Newman, -561  10-Martin, -566  11-Kenseth, -624  12-Biffle, -525

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