The NASCAR Cup Series headed to Pocono Raceway on June 26 and 27 for a doubleheader weekend at the Tricky Triangle. The two races delivered wild finishes and exciting moments, shaking up the points standings in the process. At the end of the weekend, Kurt Busch took over the final spot above the cutoff line, dropping Chris Buescher in the process.
The driver of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Camaro kicked off the weekend with a sixth-place finish in the Pocono Organics CBD 325, his third top-10 finish in three weeks. He then raced near the front of the pack throughout the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350, reaching third during the final stage. Busch was en route to a top-five finish yet again, but he ran out of fuel with one lap remaining. He had to head to pit road for a quick fuel-up and ended the day 20th overall but walked away with 17 points.
Despite the late fuel issue, Busch still secured a spot in the playoffs, at least for the time being. He is three points above the cutoff line while Buescher is three points below. This move does not guarantee that the driver of the No. 1 will compete for the Bill France Cup, but he will have the opportunity to continue building his advantage in the remaining regular-season races.
Buescher technically sits in the 15th position ahead of Christopher Bell and Michael McDowell. However, he is at a disadvantage due to having no wins through the first 19 races. The season started with McDowell winning the Daytona 500 and Bell winning the Daytona Road Course race, giving them automatic spots in the playoffs.
Denny Hamlin Maintained a Narrow Points Lead
Heading into the doubleheader weekend, the driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota Camry had a 10-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson. The expectation was that Larson would erase the advantage and win his fourth-straight Cup Series race, but a late flat tire on Saturday, June 26, sent him into the wall and gave teammate Alex Bowman the win.
Larson and Hamlin fought for the win and crucial points on Sunday, June 27, while striving to conserve fuel. It appeared that Hamlin would win with fewer than three laps remaining, but he ran out and had to go to pit road. Larson was able to finish the race with barely enough fuel, taking second behind race-winner Kyle Busch. However, he was unable to take over the top spot in the points standings.
Larson dealt with damage to the No. 5 HMS Chevrolet Camaro, which he sustained in a collision with Hamlin early in the race. He spent much of the race fighting his way back through the field. He finished Stage 1 in the 16th position and the finished Stage 2 in the eighth position.
Hamlin, on the other hand, started slowly in Stage 1 but finished Stage 2 in the runner-up position behind William Byron. This performance helped him barely hold off Larson and walk away from the Pocono weekend with a two-point lead in the standings.
Kevin Harvick Solidified His Playoff Spot
The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang, Harvick entered the season as a favorite to win multiple races and reached the playoffs. He has yet to reach Victory Lane and has four finishes outside the top 20, but Harvick continues to sit well above the cutoff line with consistent performances.
The 2014 Cup Series champion finished fourth in the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350, his second top-five finish in the past three weeks. He locked up 33 points in the process and moved himself to 158 above the cutoff line. Harvick currently sits ninth in the standings and has a significant advantage over Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, and Busch.
Maintaining his spot above the cutoff line will be critical during the remaining seven regular-season races, especially during the trips to Road America and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Fortunately for Harvick, the remaining schedule features tracks where he has considerable success.
Along with the aforementioned road course races, the Cup Series will finish out the summer with trips to Watkins Glen, Michigan, New Hampshire, Atlanta, and Daytona International Speedway. Harvick has several wins at these tracks, including five at Michigan and four at New Hampshire. The driver of the No. 4 also started the 2021 season off with a fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a 10th-place finish in the first trip to Atlanta.
First up, however, is a trip to Road America in Wisconsin. The Cup Series drivers will celebrate the Fourth of July with a 62-lap race at the road course. The top series in NASCAR has not raced at this particular track outside of the 1956 season, so the drivers will have practice and qualifying sessions before racing for points.