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Melillo’s Mind – July Pocono Recap, plus Rules and Inspection thoughts

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Kyle Busch won his sixth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of 2018 this past Sunday at Pocono Raceway. Photo: Dante Ricci / TRE

Kyle Busch made sure to pack the broom for this trip to the Pocono Mountains.

Having already celebrated winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race a day earlier, Busch found himself in a familiar place on Sunday afternoon, picking up the weekend sweep in the Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocono Raceway.

“Once we got out front, we knew that if we could get out front, we felt like we could keep it out front,” Busch said. “Daniel (Suárez) kept up with me there that last run and paced right with me for about those 10 laps, and then we started to kind of inch away from him a little bit and that was a cool deal for us.”

Daniel Suarez collected his best career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series finish, leading 29 laps and coming home second.

“In the beginning of the race, we were okay and then we lost the balance a little bit and we made some adjustments,” Suarez said. “We got the better and by then, I thought we were a solid top-three car, top-five car. I felt like in the short run, we were actually the best car out there other than the 18 (Kyle Busch) at least and it’s a little disappointing. It hurts to be close.”

Suarez originally was slated to start third, but wound up starting on the pole after his teammate Busch, and the provisional pole winner, Kevin Harvick, had their times disallowed after failing post-qualifying inspection. 13 drivers in total had their qualifying times rejected.

Harvick may have had the strongest car throughout the event. However, after a bad pit stop set him further back in the field, and then contact on pit road with his teammate, Aric Almirola, Harvick settled on a fourth place effort.

“It was eventful,” Harvick said. “I think we went to the back twice and made our way back to the front each time. We made a good race out of it but it is hard to swallow on a day like that when our Mobil 1 Ford was the class of the field. You never know what is going to happen on these days. It is hard to put them together and you win some and lose some.”

 

The No. 21 Ford is rolled out of the garage ahead of the 2018 Pocono 400. (Tyler Head | The Racing Experts)
The No. 21 Ford is rolled out of the garage ahead of the 2018 Pocono 400 in June. (Tyler Head | The Racing Experts)

INSPECTION DEJECTION

NASCAR introduced the enhanced weekend schedule in a handful of races in 2017, including last year’s second weekend at Pocono Raceway.

The enhanced schedule allows for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series to limit it’s weekend to two days of work, instead of the normal three.

Because the schedule is more packed together, there are less opportunities for things like inspections. This past weekend, the decision was made to host an inspection post-qualifying, and to impound the cars until the green flag on Sunday.

13 teams were penalized for not passing post-qualifying inspection on Saturday. Teams failed on a multitude of areas, including the body laser scan like Harvick’s team, and the chassis station like Busch’s team.

The teams of Harvick and Kasey Kahne failed enough times that their car chiefs were ejected for the weekend, and they incurred a point penalty as a result as well.

Ultimately, Busch and Harvick didn’t truly feel the effects of the penalty when it all came said and done. Having started 28th and 29th, respectively, both “Big 3” drivers found their way to the front in no time, both dominating the day and the headlines anyway.

By the way, the other “Big 3” driver, Martin Truex, Jr. was pretty much non-existent on Sunday. He finished 15th, and ultimately cost me dinner in a friendly wager I made with two of my co-workers. Ugh.

Anyway, my point on this is that the inspection station should never dominate the headlines, and although I am thankful that everything post-race checked out, it’s still annoying that it was even a thing to begin with.

NASCAR is clearly trying to make it less of an issue, with these enhanced weekends, laser scanners, and everything else they give the teams to succeed in making it through inspection without fail.

The teams just try as hard as they can, and nobody is trying to cheat on purpose. I use the term cheat loosely, however, because I’m fairly certain that it’s nobody’s intention to lose their car chief for the weekend, or lose points or money due to failing the inspection multiple times.

It doesn’t matter how big they make the tolerances for these values that need to be met, teams are always going to try and push it as close as possible to get everything they can out of the car.

Maybe an idea would be for pre-event inspection, to not penalize at all for going over tolerances, to just keep them off the track until they pass and move on with it. I doubt it would be much of a talking point if it didn’t cost teams anything for barely going over, to just continue to give them the shot to fix it until it is, only at the cost of track time.

Post-event inspection is tricky, sure, but I think you could go two ways with it. NASCAR could either make it so that the tolerances are higher, so the passing area is greater, or if that’s not an option, to make the penalty so great that nobody in their right mind would even consider trying anything too aggressive.

Whatever it is, it needs to happen sooner than later so that we can talk about the racing and not about the rule book.

 

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Todd Gilliland races Kyle Busch at Pocono Raceway. Photo: Dante Ricci / TRE

SUPERFICIAL STRATEGY

Speaking of rules, I’m finding it somewhat difficult to enjoy the logistics of the pitting strategy with shorter stages on longer tracks.

This really only applies to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series from this weekend, but it also had its hand in deciding the winner on Sunday as well.

My gripe is essentially that in order to have the best chance to win the race, teams are forced to pit two or three laps before the stage ends.

The rule is that when the leader crosses the Start / Finish line to take two laps to go in the stage, pit road becomes closed.

Drivers and teams choose to forfeit their great runs in the stage for a shot to win the main event.

My gripe is that this strategy makes too much sense, since the tire degradation is pretty much nothing, and adding two half-hearted laps around isn’t going to put anyone at any sort of disadvantage.

Most of the time, it seems that someone who didn’t deserve to win the stage collects a playoff point they were gifted, and then goes back to mediocrity for the rest of the race. On the other hand, the driver who should have rightfully won the point had to give it up to pit, because if they didn’t, they would have to start behind everyone else who decided to.

I would love to see NASCAR take a look at tracks like Pocono, Indianapolis, Sonoma, and Watkins Glen, to see if maybe increasing the number of laps before the stage end where pit road closes.

One reason would be that it would no longer be the common sense strategy to pit, say, ten laps before the stage end, because tire wear would be more of a factor.

Another reason would be that it would probably bring more differing strategy into the fold, where maybe instead of teams at the front giving up the chance, it would be teams mid-pack who need some sort of play to get up towards the front.

To me, at least, it was annoying watching Kyle Busch concede the stage victories to Todd Gilliland and Stewart Friesen, both of which would not have won that stage any other way. Neither of those drivers competed for the victory in any way after that, and to me that just seems like poor stage racing execution.

One of my close friends had the argument with me over the weekend that Harvick would have just run away with the race on Sunday if they had implemented something like this, and he’s right.

My argument is that, well, he deserved to run away with it at that point, because he and his team worked hard to get there. Busch was coming, so there was no way to know if he would have had a fight for Harvick in the third stage if they would have not used strategy to get ahead at the end of the second stage.

Essentially, once Busch took over the lead, it was his race anyway, so I really don’t see the total difference between one driver running away with it as opposed to another, especially when both drivers fall under the “Big 3” heading.

 

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Jimmie Johnson at Watkins Glen in 2017. Photo: Kyle Stephens / TRE

UP NEXT

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, along with the NASCAR Xfinity Series, are both heading to Upstate New York for the second road course weekend of the season at Watkins Glen.

Last year, Martin Truex, Jr. won the “I Love New York 355 at the Glen”, which was his first win at the circuit. Truex, Jr., along with Busch and Harvick in the “Big 3”, have a combined 16 victories in 21 events in the 2018 season.

My prediction is that we will see more of the same. All three in the “Big 3” are great at road racing, and at Watkins Glen International in general. I think Truex, Jr. will go back to back, holding off both Harvick and Busch for the victory.

 

SOURCES:
Racing-Reference.info
Toyota Racing
Ford Performance
NASCAR

DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

 

Justin Melillo View All

Columnist / Reporter / Photographer / Webmaster for TheRacingExperts.com

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