Fuel mileage was the name of the game in the final stage of the NASCAR Cup Series‘ Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 on Sunday. As those around him ran out of gas, Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing team were able to conserve their way to his second win of the year.
With an inversion of the top twenty from Saturday, twentieth-placed Chris Buescher started on the pole alongside Michael McDowell. Multiple drivers were sent to the back after switching to backup cars due to wrecks on Saturday: Anthony Alfredo, Ross Chastain, Cole Custer, Kyle Larson, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Newman, and Ryan Preece. Justin Allgaier also joined the seven at the rear as a last-second driver change, filling in for Justin Haley in the #77 Spire Motorsports car after Haley opted out due to a wreck in the Xfinity race earlier in the day. Allgaier’s last Cup start at Indianapolis in 2020 also came as a substitute driver, while Haley missed a Cup race for health reasons for the second time in 2021.
After just two laps, Alfredo’s difficult weekend continued when his right-front tyre went down and sent him into the turn two wall. The rookie has not enjoyed much success at Pocono, with his lone national series start prior to this weekend being the 2019 Truck Series race that ended with an opening-lap crash.
Buescher, whose lone Cup win came at Pocono in 2016, led at the lap six restart before being passed by McDowell, who was incidentally driving the car that Buescher piloted in his 2016 victory. Martin Truex Jr. took the lead on lap 14 with Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Christopher Bell following.
Green-flag stops began taking place with less than five laps to go in the stage. While Bell gave up second to pit, Truex stayed out to win the stage; Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace, McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suárez, and Joey Logano rounded out the top ten. William Byron barely beat Truex to the line to rejoin the lead lap.
While Truex pitted between stages and was the first off pit road, Keselowski and Blaney stayed out. Larson, who nearly won Saturday’s race before a tyre doomed his chances on the final lap, suffered nose damage in a stack-up with Denny Hamlin on a restart that needed repairs during the break.
The race resumed on lap 35 as Keselowski and Bell comprised the front row. Keselowski led 13 laps before ducking onto pit road, as did much of the field. Larson’s car troubles persisted due to an overheating engine that needed tape on the grille, while Blaney had to pit again for a loose wheel. Kyle Busch inherited the lead after Keselowski pitted.
Another pit cycle took place with 15 laps left in the stage. Busch pitted on lap 73, but needed a push from a crewman to exit his box due to transmission issues. Wallace led three laps followed by Byron, the latter of whom went on to win the stage ahead of Hamlin, Keselowski, Bell, Chase Elliott, Truex, Busch, Larson, Almirola, and Chastain.
Byron and Hamlin led the field to green and remained in that order as the leaders organised into single file. After two laps, Erik Jones‘ left-front tyre went down due to contact with Custer and resulted in a caution for debris. The leaders including Byron elected to pit, with Hamlin only adding fuel, while others like Bell and Elliott stayed out.
The green flag waved on lap 96, and a good restart by Bowman propelled him to the lead. While racing with Bell for second, Chastain’s right-front tyre was cut and forced him to pit. Two laps later, Bell got sideways after contact with Elliott in turn three but the race stayed green, prompting both drivers to also head to the pits. Elliott subsequently pitted again for another flat, while Stenhouse retired from the race on lap 110 with an engine failure.
Although Bowman led, he and many other drivers did not have enough fuel to reach the finish and thus made stops as the race progressed. Bowman pitted on lap 114 to give the lead to Keselowski, while Reddick made his stop from second to push Byron into the position.
By the ten-to-go mark, the leaders were tasked with conserving their fuel. Unable to reach the finish on his current load, Keselowski pitted with eight laps remaining and surrendered first to Byron. Hamlin and Busch tailed him and attempted to close the gap as the trio continued to manage their gas.
With two laps to go, Byron could not save any further and pitted. Although Hamlin assumed the lead as a result, he ran out of fuel himself and also had to pit coming to the white flag. Busch was thus cycled into the lead and he held on to win his second race of the year and fourth of his career at Pocono.
“I thought I did a better job of saving fuel when I got closer to them,” said Busch. “As much as they were rolling out of the gas, I was rolling out of the gas out down the straightaways. We were all saving. If we were laps ahead of them on fuel, we were either going to be let go earlier than them and race it out to the finish or we were just going to be more beneficial to being in the draft, being back in the draft.
“[…] (Fuel mileage races are) stressful, that’s for sure. Like you just don’t know. There’s so many variables, so many unknowns. Some of the guys, like even me, as we’re going down the front straightaway, I wish I could clutch it—I didn’t have one. I probably could have done a better job saving fuel. I was lifting off the gas and the thing was sitting there going [whirring] instead of being able to clutch it.
“That’s how fuel mileage races are. It’s fun to a point, especially when you come out on top of it and you do it right. That makes you feel good. There was one other fuel mileage race last year—Texas, that’s how we won at Texas. That was a good one for us. Same today.”
Keselowski was able to finish third despite the stop, while Byron placed twelfth and Hamlin fourteenth. Wallace finished fifth to score his and 23XI Racing‘s first top ten and five of the season. Allgaier was twenty-fifth in his backup duties.
“Fuel mileage has got us the last two weeks. Lug nuts the week before,” Hamlin commented. In spite of missing a top ten and Larson finishing runner-up, Hamlin remains the points leader by two points. “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.”
|1||19||18||Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||140||Running|
|2||12||5||Kyle Larson||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||140||Running|
|3||11||2||Brad Keselowski||Team Penske||Ford||140||Running|
|4||13||4||Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||140||Running|
|5||7||23||Bubba Wallace||23XI Racing||Toyota||140||Running|
|6||16||12||Ryan Blaney||Team Penske||Ford||140||Running|
|7||20||48||Alex Bowman||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||140||Running|
|8||23||37||Ryan Preece*||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||140||Running|
|9||10||8||Tyler Reddick||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||140||Running|
|10||14||22||Joey Logano||Team Penske||Ford||140||Running|
|11||3||19||Martin Truex Jr.||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||140||Running|
|12||18||24||William Byron||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||140||Running|
|13||21||3||Austin Dillon||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||140||Running|
|14||17||11||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||140||Running|
|15||8||99||Daniel Suárez||Trackhouse Racing Team||Chevrolet||140||Running|
|16||5||10||Aric Almirola||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||140||Running|
|17||2||34||Michael McDowell||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||140||Running|
|18||32||21||Matt DiBenedetto||Wood Brothers Racing||Ford||140||Running|
|19||1||17||Chris Buescher||Roush Fenway Racing||Ford||140||Running|
|20||15||1||Kurt Busch||Chip Ganassi Racing||Chevrolet||140||Running|
|21||24||14||Chase Briscoe||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||140||Running|
|22||37||6||Ryan Newman||Roush Fenway Racing||Ford||140||Running|
|23||36||7||Corey LaJoie||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||139||Running|
|24||38||41||Cole Custer||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||139||Running|
|25||27||77||Justin Allgaier*||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||139||Running|
|26||33||42||Ross Chastain||Chip Ganassi Racing||Chevrolet||139||Running|
|27||9||9||Chase Elliott||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||139||Running|
|28||25||51||Cody Ware*||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||139||Running|
|29||30||78||B.J. McLeod*||Live Fast Motorsports||Ford||138||Running|
|30||28||15||James Davison||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||137||Running|
|31||22||43||Erik Jones||Richard Petty Motorsports||Chevrolet||136||Running|
|32||4||20||Christopher Bell||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||135||Running|
|33||31||00||Quin Houff||StarCom Racing||Chevrolet||135||Running|
|34||26||38||Anthony Alfredo||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||134||Running|
|35||34||52||Josh Bilicki||Rick Ware Racing||Ford||132||Running|
|36||29||53||Garrett Smithley*||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||122||Engine|
|37||35||66||Timmy Hill*||MBM Motorsports||Toyota||113||Handling|
|38||6||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||111||Engine|
* – Ineligible for Cup points