Hamlin, Byron lead late at Pocono, but fall short in fuel-mileage contest

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Hamlin, Byron lead late at Pocono, but fall short in fuel-mileage contest
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Sunday’s back end of Pocono Raceway’s Cup Series weekend doubleheader was 10 laps — 25 miles — longer than Saturday’s opener. William Byron and Denny Hamlin were among Sunday’s fuel-starved contenders probably wishing for a repeat of Saturday’s shorter distance.

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In the closing laps, those two slipped out of the top five and hit pit road for a last splash of fuel in Sunday’s Explore the Pocono Mountains 350. Hamlin was the last of those to drop off the pace, bringing his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to pit road on Lap 138, handing over the lead to teammate and eventual winner Kyle Busch on the next-to-last lap.

Hamlin kept his shrinking Cup Series standings lead by just two points over Sunday runner-up Kyle Larson, but he’s still yet to visit Victory Lane in 2021.

“Just do what I’m told. Don’t run when I’m not supposed to run, run when I’m supposed to run. The result is we pitted on the last lap for three weeks in a row,” said Hamlin, who led only Lap 138. “That’s tough. I mean, I hate seeing the white coming to pit road. It’s just so frustrating. Fuel mileage has got us the last two weeks. Lug nuts the week before. We’re running fast. We’re getting a little better. I think overall we had a little bit more speed this weekend than what we’ve had the past few weeks. Yeah, can’t see the checkered right now.”

The last leader before Hamlin was Byron, who appeared to be in prime position before his stop on Lap 137. Byron led 22 laps, opening up a slight margin before crew chief Rudy Fugle told him over the radio to put his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet into “max save” mode on fuel.

Byron’s fuel-conservation gamble wound up just short.

“I kind of thought we were closer on fuel than we were,” said Byron, who was seeking his second Cup Series win of the year. “I thought we could get up as far as we could, and a couple of guys would have to pit and we‘d save and win. So that was kind of how it was looking to work out there with the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) and then we had to go into max save. I thought for sure we‘d make it because usually you‘ve got a little bit of fudge factor there, but we ran out with three (laps) to go, so not even close.”