With the eastern sky darkening and the radar showing pulsating blobs of red and yellow inching toward Pocono Raceway, spotter Joey Meier warned his driver that inclement weather was coming. "The rain will hit here before the end of the race," he told Brad Keselowski over the radio under caution, prior to what proved the event's final restart. "It's a matter of how long it takes to get here, and how long it stays. But there's a good band coming."
Keselowski couldn't resist. "A good band?" he responded. "Like the Rolling Stones?"
Not quite. But the intense thunderstorm that slammed Pocono 62 laps from the scheduled finish of the Pennsylvania 400 certainly left many without any satisfaction, given how it completely altered the outcome of Sunday's event -- and maybe the Sprint Cup championship picture as well. A rush to beat the weather led to a chaotic restart that had contenders falling like tumbling dice, and Jeff Gordon somehow celebrating in a makeshift Victory Lane under a garage overhang after a triumph that revived his once-dormant title aspirations.
Sunday at Pocono had a little bit of everything -- a broken transmission that forced points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. to sit out laps for the first time this season, a fried brake rotor that knocked Kyle Busch out of the second wild-card position, and looming above it all, the weather. The start of the race was delayed nearly two hours by a storm that hit the track right before driver introductions were set to begin, and everyone knew more was on the way. That left drivers and crew chiefs game-planning for conditions atmospheric as well as automotive, racing the weather as much as the competition. And before the storm rumbled above the track, another erupted on it.
"I've seen a lot of restarts here at Pocono," said winning crew chief Alan Gustafson, "and anything can happen. I'm not surprised at all that that happened."
What happened was mayhem, given the dark clouds that had every driver up front figuring they were restarting for the final time. And it was sparked by the most unlikely of candidates -- leader and five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, who paced a race-high 44 laps and was coming off a dominant victory a week earlier at Indianapolis. But Pocono proved a different story, one that involved Johnson sliding high up the track in the first turn after the restart, collecting perhaps his stiffest competition and allowing his Hendrick Motorsports teammate to slip by on the bottom and record a stunning victory.
"When I was cooling my tires down through the tunnel [turn] coming to the green, I noticed that something didn't feel right," said Johnson, who finished 14th. "I kept trying to clean the tires off, and it got a little better, so I just assumed I had trash on my tires. But when I got down into Turn 1, I realized that I had a right-rear flat. Unfortunate that we lost the lead there and we got a couple of cars in the process. I shouldn't feel bad about that, but not much you can do with a right-rear flat."
Johnson slid up into Matt Kenseth's car, which then rebounded down the track and took a hard shot from Denny Hamlin's vehicle. There was no chance to recover -- with cars circling under the ensuing caution, the inevitable rain began to fall again, getting a little heavier with each passing lap. Cars were parked on pit road under a red flag just before a massive thunderstorm with lightning and heavy winds rolled through. And just like that the race was over, with Gordon using a perfectly-timed move to vault from sixth to first on the last restart, and leaving some one-time contenders as angry as the weather.
"I don't know what happened," said Greg Biffle, who restarted fourth and wound up 15th. "Well, I do know what happened. The 48 [car] just spun out."
Kenseth didn't buy Johnson's explanation of a flat tire. The Roush Fenway driver said that when he pulled along his rival heading into Turn 1, he said he could tell from the sound of Johnson's car that the five-time champ hadn't yet come off the accelerator. "I could hear his pipes," said Kenseth, who lost a chance to reclaim the points lead, and is now five behind Earnhardt Jr. "I wasn't sure he had lifted yet. He drove in really, really far and spun out underneath me and I got wrecked."
Five cars were impacted, most of them contenders for the race victory, and the melee opened a perfect path for Gordon. But he had to do some work of his own first, particularly after finding himself pinned on the outside on the restart. Just below him, Hendrick teammate Kasey Kahne got rolling a little more slowly, and Gordon used the opportunity to jump down to the low lane. Had he stayed up high, he very well might have ended up with a crumpled race car. As it was, he led a train of vehicles down along the bottom, speeding by all that wreckage up top.
"The big thing is, nobody took tires," said Martin Truex Jr., who restarted seventh and wound up third. "We were all trying to save fuel, because we knew the rain was coming. A lot of guys had stuff all over their tires. Everybody was throwing rubber off their tires trying to get them cleaned up before we took the restart. So all that stuff combined into those guys going off into [Turn] 1; all of them looked like they took off up the track. Fortunately, I was the third guy that didn't slide."
Given the caliber of drivers up front -- Johnson, Kenseth, Biffle, and others -- Kahne was somewhat surprised at the craziness that followed. "I wasn't really expecting it, [with] the guys up front," he said after vaulting from fifth to second. " ... You know, Turn 1 at Pocono, you go for that corner pretty hard. I actually got a pretty decent start. Shot in there pretty good, was just lucky I was on the bottom or I would have been in that whole mess. It worked out good for us. Passed those five cars, came out of the corner in second spot, ended up there. It was good. The timing was perfect."
It was for others as well. "I made it!" Keselowski, who had the good fortune of restarting on the inside, shouted over the radio after scooting past the accident scene to claim fourth. But no one came out of it better than Gordon, who leapt from sixth to first, and stayed there after the skies emptied. "When I saw that opening to get inside, I was taking it," he said. "I was pretty happy at that moment, because I thought, if we get down to the bottom, we've got a shot at maybe getting another one of the guys that's in the outside lane, if not two. Little did I know what was going to happen."
The key was Kahne's restart, which wasn't as fast as Gordon's. "He got Kasey cleared into [Turn] 1 there, and the seas parted," said Gustafson, who told his driver to go for it over the radio just before the green flag flew for what proved the final time. "I was trying to inform Jeff of the urgency of the situation, that we weren't really going to get another shot because the rain was coming, and to get all you could get," he said. "... Everything matters for us in this season right now, so we wanted to get all we could get."
It proved the culmination of a drastic turn of events. Johnson, who had opponents all weekend trying to dissect the "yaw" in the rear of his No. 48 car that made it so unstoppable at the Brickyard, seemed prepared to turn in another dominant performance at a track that bears some similarities to Indy. Kenseth was all set to take the points lead after Earnhardt's transmission breakdown, and Ryan Newman was in position to slide into the second wild card spot after Busch's brake rotor failure. And Gordon was staring down the possibility of another finish that was good, but not good enough to wedge him into the championship conversation.
Now? To paraphrase Keselowski's favorite band, time may be on Gordon's side. One restart, one thunderstorm, and one big swing of momentum on a wet and wild afternoon at Pocono Raceway. Start me up, indeed.
"The restarts here, especially in the closing laps -- and you know the rain's coming, so it was the closing laps -- it's crazy," Gordon said. "It's absolutely crazy. We could have just as easily lost six positions as we did make up four or five. So pretty awesome."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.