Pocono Raceway has long been known as a racetrack that doesn’t produce much exciting racing. This weekend’s Pennsylvania 400 however was different thanks to some help from Mother Nature and may have been one of the wildest races of the year; one that will both help a small team and wreak havoc on the Chase for the Championship standings.
Joey Logano paced the field after he took the lead following a caution for a wreck involving Martin Truex Jr. It appeared the only driver who might be able to even stay with Logano would be Kevin Harvick. Just before green flag pit stops on lap 50, the driver of the number four Mobil-1 Chevy shot past Logano. The beauty of the sport of NASCAR, however is that oftentimes the best car doesn’t win the race.
Mother Nature Helps Chris Buescher Become a First-Time Winner at Pocono
Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon, two up-and-coming drivers in the sport are both winless in their Sprint Cup careers. Larson is a former Rookie of the Year while Dillon is eligible for the award this season. Near the halfway point in the 2016 Pennsylvania 400, it appeared one of them might hoist their first trophy in NASCAR’s premier series. Weather was rolling in so strategy was played to get them near the front. Both Larson and Dillon had decent cars on the day but track position was key if they were going to compete and beat out the likes of Logano and Harvick.
In what became one of the fiercest battles for the lead all season, Dillon stayed right on Larson’s rear for at least ten laps. He finally got Larson loose two laps from the halfway point. Dillon passed him but Larson stayed tough and got back around the driver of the No. 3 Chevy. Since neither Dillon nor Larson had a win, it also meant they still hadn’t locked themselves into the Chase. The urgency from both drivers to be the leader if and when the rain came was evident. Both Larson and Dillon were banking that Mother Nature provides a first-time winner at Pocono and both of them were fighting to be the driver.
At halfway, the projected rain still hadn’t fallen, further echoing the statement to expect the unexpected. As Dillon went for the pass for the lead, his car got loose and he ran into the side of Larson’s car knocking them both up a groove. This wild series of events opened the door for third place Logano. Then the rain came.
A Post-Rain Re-Start
Unfortunately for the driver of the Penske and former Pocono winner, the track was not wet very long. After pit stops, Logano got shuffled back and his day ended shortly after. Following a restart, Chase Elliott was overzealous on a run he had and got loose under Logano trying to make a pass, collecting them both in a wreck.
This created another opportunity for Larson and Dillon. They were fortunate to have a second chance after the battle at halfway did not end how they had hoped. At this point in the race, Chris Buescher, came on to pit road lap 97 to serve a speeding penalty. He had been running around 25th-30th all day after he cut a tire down earlier in the race. This put him off sequence with the leaders in terms of pit strategy.
By lap 121 the next wave of green flag pit stops began. All the leaders come down, including Larson, Dillon, Harvick and others. Buescher meanwhile stayed out, as he was still good to go on fuel for a little while. That is when intense fog started rolling in.
Pit Strategy and The Fog
Buescher’s crew chief Bob Osborne has been known to play creative strategy in order to win a race or gain track position the team might not otherwise have gotten on track. He did this as crew chief of Carl Edwards for several years and now at Pocono with Buescher. The fog became so strong on track that the spotters and race control could not see the backstretch. This can be very dangerous for the drivers on track. A red flag was brought out and the cars were parked on pit road. After much deliberation, the race was called and Buescher was victorious, his first career Sprint Cup Series win.
The victory was just the second ever for Front Row Motorsports, snapping a 118 race winless streak. Buescher ending up in Victory Lane was so unprecedented that before the race, his odds of winning were listed at 1,000-1. By grabbing the victroy, he became the longest shot to ever win a NASCAR race in Las Vegas sports book history.
More importantly it meant that Buescher would clinch a berth in the Chase for the Championship, so long as he makes up the seven-point gap he currently faces to get in to the top 30 in points. It would be the first Chase berth for Front Row Motorsports. The team’s last win came in 2013 before NASCAR changed the Chase eligibility rules.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR THE CHASE BUBBLE
This year more than ever, the Chase standings are incredibly close and bunched up which is exciting for fans. Including Buescher, 12 different drivers have won at least one race this season. That leaves just four spots to drivers without a win to race their way in to the Chase on points. On the NBCSN broadcast, it was mentioned that next week’s race at Watkins Glen is the best spot for currently winless A.J. Allmendinger to grab a win.
Should he be successful, that leaves just three spots. Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray thought they were all going to safely lock their way in on points in the final six races. One or more of those drivers now may not lock themselves in. Kyle Larson has been closer than ever to grabbing his first ever win. He could easily do it at one of the final five tracks before the Chase cut off.
Chris Buescher’s victory was lucky but NASCAR doesn’t put an asterisk next to races decided by Mother Nature. It’s how Aric Almirola made the Chase in 2014. He won only one race, the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Buescher probably won’t do much damage in the Chase. But what he and his team did at Pocono proves that any team has a chance to win on any given Sunday (or Monday) in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
A Unique Broadcast
Since rain moved the race back a day and delayed the start of the race, every single driver was interviewed before the race. This is a rarity for a typical broadcast. A lot of the drivers on smaller teams talked about the difference of expectations for them compared to bigger named drivers on more competitive teams. A victory for the small Front Row Motorsports team is huge for team morale, sponsorship opportunities and the overall ability to become more competitive over time. Chris Buescher’s surprise win proved that a little luck could go a long way for a small race team.