Analysis: Late-race pit strategy can lead to checkered flag at Pocono

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Analysis: Late-race pit strategy can lead to checkered flag at Pocono
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Pocono Raceway, better known as the “Tricky Triangle,” is not only a technical track for drivers but a chess match for crew chiefs and pit crews alike.

We saw this play out in last season’s Pennsylvania doubleheader weekend. Twice.

RELATED: Full schedule for Pocono | Full Pocono guide | Pit stall assignments

Struggling to make their way into the lead late in the opening Pocono race, Rodney Childers rolled the dice for Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 crew, electing to make a final green-flag stop for two fresh Goodyear tires with 36 laps remaining.

Other drivers in the field had made four-tire stops — even Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola, who led a race-high 61 laps. The strategy and execution paid off.

Harvick rolled out of the pits and cycled through to be the new race leader for the first time that afternoon. He went on to lead the final 17 laps, holding off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin who pitted after Harvick and couldn’t chase him down in time.

In the second race, the tables turned.

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart adjusted their game plan, electing to stay out and build a larger lead while Harvick battled traffic after his stop. By the time the No. 11 came to the pits for the final time with 20 laps to go, only taking right-side tires, the lead was too big for Harvick to overcome.

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Heading into this weekend’s slate, both drivers who dominated Pocono last year find themselves winless this season. The good news is that they each have one of the fastest pit crews in the Cup Series.

Pit road strategy will almost certainly factor into the eventual race winners this weekend. Based on their success in 2020, the No. 4 and No. 11 teams set the blueprint for a race-winning strategy at the 2.5-mile asphalt track if there are long, green-flag runs. Both final stages last year were run entirely under green.

What we know for sure is that being out front early at Pocono has rarely translated into a win in recent history. Only two of the sixteen stage winners at the track have gone on to win the race. Neither of them was a Stage 2 winner. Nine of the last 14 winners at the track didn’t even lead for the first time until halfway through the race. Being in a position to roll the dice at the end is what matters.

Hamlin, still the regular-season points leader, carries an impressive streak of three consecutive top-two finishes into Saturday’s race — only trailing Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon (five) and Richard Petty (four) for most all-time. The No. 11 JGR wheelman is tied atop the all-time Pocono wins list with Gordon at six. Don’t be surprised if he returns to race-winning form this weekend under the leadership of Gabehart and crew.

Both races at Pocono will be a total team effort — and if last year’s trend holds true, we could see another strategic battle come down to the wire to decide who captures the checkered flags this weekend.

Stats provided by Racing Insights