Say what you will about Sunday's race at Pocono, but it was never boring.
Long derided by both fans and drivers alike as one of the least popular tracks on the circuit, Pocono proved to have more than a few twists on Sunday in the Pocono 400 Presented by #NASCAR, albeit not, perhaps, in the expected fashion.
But more on that in a moment. First, a tip of the orange-and-black cap to Joey Logano, who won his first race since 2009 (and first-ever non-rain-shortened Sprint Cup race). Logano had the pole and never strayed too far from the lead, putting together a masterful strategic race that kept far stronger challengers at bay.
Logano very nearly lost the race at the last moment when Mark Martin passed him on a late restart but took advantage of a Martin bobble to snag the lead for good. "I was going to be on suicide watch if I gave [the lead] away like that," Logano said. "But, man, it was awesome to get it back."
Of course, it also helps when many of your chief competitors fall by the wayside, victims of their own throttle. Pit road penalties hammered the field, most notably Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, meaning many of the field's best drivers couldn't get within sight of the front.
But let's take nothing away from Logano, who may well have salvaged his Joe Gibbs Racing career with this victory. He's been on a hot seat for so long he's got to have a callused rear end, but in recent weeks Logano has won three of four Nationwide races and now, a wire-to-wire Sprint Cup one. Given that everyone from Carl Edwards to Kurt Busch has been mentioned in connection with the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota within the last year, it has to be a relief for Logano to have a little bit of breathing room. "I hope it shuts [critics] up, is what I hope," he said.
And as for this season, Logano has vaulted himself straight into wild-card contention; he and Ryan Newman are mathematically tied for the second wild-card spot right now. Another win, or at least a strong second-half showing, and he could get into the Chase after all, right on schedule if not on the predicted path.
The pit road penalties dominated the talk of the race early on, but once teams figured out the issue, most were able to proceed effectively through the rest of the race with little incident. The early pit strangeness led to some fuel conservation strategies; it briefly seemed as if Pocono would become a legitimate fuel mileage race. But Logano had little trouble reaching the finish line, and those who had considered stretching, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., came into the pits with only a few laps remaining.
Earnhardt's odyssey was one of the more fascinating elements of the afternoon. He clearly had one of the strongest cars on the track, and ended up second only to Logano in laps led. If you like the "as they run" points standings, note that Earnhardt was briefly leading the Sprint Cup standings, in June yet. Still, in the end, he had to settle for an eighth-place finish, but continued his top-10 streak ... as well as his winless one, of course.
Afterward, he conceded that he played it safe. "I don't like running out of gas," he said. "I ran out of gas here one year and that pisses me off so bad that it's just hard to recover from it, mentally, you know; in the next couple of weeks. There's just no excuse in running out of gas. You put fuel in it and you go run ... I'm not going to give up 30 points or 20 points in a race [by running out of gas], not just yet, you know?"
Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, a surprisingly resilient Johnson and established Pocono honcho Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five. Kyle Busch had to leave the track early, the victim of the second blown engine in two weeks.
As for the repave, the track ran fast, perhaps surprisingly so to some drivers, causing a first-lap wreck. Overall, the Tricky Triangle proved to be a surprisingly fascinating race. Miracles truly can happen anywhere.