The three best drivers so far this season were in the hunt Sunday at Pocono Raceway, but it was Martin Truex Jr. who came away the winner of the Pocono 400 in Long Pond, Pa., more than two seconds ahead of Kyle Larson.
The massive 2.5-mile triangular track sets up as a unique challenge with each turn and straightaway different from the others in banking, radius and length. And with the stages set at 50, 50 and the final 60 laps, there were natural breaks for green-flag pit stops at the midway point of each.
With no cautions due to on-track mishaps for the first 124 laps, there was little in the way of strategy for drivers and crew chiefs to employ at a track made for them, but that would change down the stretch.
The other two dominant drivers this season, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick stayed in contention all day, with Busch finishing third in his Toyota Camry and Harvick fourth in his Ford Fusion.
“The 4 (Harvick), the 18 (Busch) and the 78 (Truex), we went after it all day,” Truex said on FS1 after his second win of the season. “It’s good to come out on top.”
With 21 laps to go, another caution came out for debris on the track and strategy finally came into play. Truex and Harvick stayed out to maintain track position and restarted first and second, respectively, with Larson’s Chevrolet third. Busch pitted for four fresh tires and dropped to eighth when the green flag flew with 17 laps to go.
But Denny Hamlin spun with 14 laps to go to bring out another caution. Teams were running out of fresh tires to use and with the laps winding down and little time to race back to the front, there were few winning strategies remaining. But starting on the preferred outside line was critical, and that’s where Truex and Busch found themselves.
Then another caution came out for a crash with 10 to go on the restart, and they all lined up to do it again.
Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott rounded out the top 10.
Truex won the first 50-lap stage by 1.1 seconds after passing Harvick on Lap 43.
Blaney, the winner of this race last year, started on the pole and led the first 11 laps but Harvick was able to get by with ease as Blaney’s Ford faded.
A slow pit stop forced Truex to restart 14th on Lap 57 to start Stage 2, with Keselowski in a Ford starting up front after a two-tire stop and Harvick second on four fresh tires.
Keselowski couldn’t hang on to the lead long, with Harvick and then Busch soon getting past him.
And as pit stops cycled through, Harvick was again up front as the laps wound down in Stage 2, winning it by 1.684 seconds over Busch. Harvick’s teammate Clint Bowyer finished third and Truex managed to climb back to fourth. Elliott rounded out the top five in a Chevrolet Camaro.
Harvick managed to edge Busch and Chevy driver Austin Dillon coming out of the pits to start the final stage to the finish.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway next Sunday for the FireKeepers Casino 400 in the first of two annual visits to the track. Green-flag time is 2:18 p.m. ET on Fox.
—Field Level Media