Five things we learned at Pocono
Youth was served as Joey Logano, 22, beat Mark Martin, 53, for the checkered flag
The new pavement at Pocono created speedy conditions, but made passing difficult
Despite two speeding penalties, Jimmie Johnson still pulled off a fourth-place finish
As NASCAR Sprint Cup hits its Summer Stretch of races, Sunday's stop was at an old track with a new look -- the freshly-repaved 2.5-mile Pocono International Raceway. A new track surface always changes the dynamic of the race and that was clearly evident in Sunday's 400-mile race.
But there were plenty of great storylines that came out of the trip to the Pocono Mountains so let's get right to the Five Things We Learned at Pocono.
1. NASCAR's past and future square off at Pocono. Mark Martin represents NASCAR's past as a throwback driver who came up through the ranks in the 1970s and arrived in the Cup Series in 1981. Since that time, he has proved to be one of NASCAR's greatest drivers. Joey Logano represents NASCAR's future and was a teenage phenom when he was a Sprint Cup rookie in 2009 at the ripe age of 18.
Together, NASCAR's past converged with the sport's future as Logano battled it out with Martin on Sunday before youth overcame experience with Logano showing no respect to his elder by moving him out of the way in the closing laps.
Martin last won at Loudon back in 2009. But with four laps to go, Logano gave Martin a tap in the first turn, loosening up Martin's Toyota just enough that Logano's Toyota was able to take the lead. Logano went on to score his first win in three years after scoring his first-ever victory in June 2009 in a rain-shortened contest at New Hampshire.
"This feels awesome to finally win one the right way," Logano radioed to his crew. "We didn't have to do it in the rain."
It was the first time in 31 races that a pole winner has gone to Victory Lane. And even though Logano had to say, "Out of the way, old man" Martin was not offended by the move.
"We were racing hard," Martin said. "I wanted to win it so bad. These guys are awesome. What a great race team but I really fought for it."
It was a race that had plenty of twists and turns and appeared to be a day when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would finally end his long losing streak -- especially when it looked like fuel mileage would determine the outcome of the race.
Earnhardt had not won in 142 races and had finished with seven second-place finishes during that stretch. The main contenders pitted on Lap 125 during a caution period when Aric Almirola brushed the wall. It was during that stop that Logano jumped four positions on a two-tire change. But there would be another yellow flag and that allowed drivers such as Earnhardt to get enough fuel to race for the win the rest of the way rather than conserve fuel. But Tony Stewart took a different strategy by topping off for fuel on Lap 127 which put him in fuel conservation mode.
Stewart, who had been foiled earlier this year by cutting off the throttle in an attempt to conserve fuel at Phoenix (only to have his Electronic Control Unit [ECU] fail), tried the same strategy by cutting off the engine during the caution.
Logano, Martin, Hamlin and Kenseth all made their last pit stop on Lap 125 while Stewart and Bowyer pitted on Lap 127 as the field headed to the restart with 17 laps to go.
It pitted NASCAR's oldest driver -- 53-year-old Martin -- and one of its youngest drivers -- 22-year old Logano -- battling it out for the lead on the restart. Earnhardt was 16th on the restart but without having to conserve fuel could put his foot on the gas pedal and race for the front.
With 12 laps to go another yellow flag waved for debris in Turn 2, giving the drivers that made their final pit stops on Lap 125 enough to make it the rest of the way without running out of fuel.
So it was Round 2 of a restart between the old warrior Martin and the youngster Logano -- but this time Martin got the advantage by going to the outside to take the lead. The youngster hounded Martin until he finally slipped up the track and that was enough for Logano to pounce on the victory.
When Logano came into Cup in 2009, there were many who thought he had been rushed to the top level too soon. He struggled during his rookie season but was able to claim one rain-shortened victory. And while Logano continued to improve in 2010 and 2011, he entered the 2012 season in a tenuous position. Some of his critics believed Logano would be better served stepping down to a full-time Nationwide Series schedule and return to Cup action at a later date.
"I hope it shuts them all up," Logano said. "This means so much to get Jason Ratcliffe (rookie crew chief) his first win in Cup. Man, this is so cool."
Sunday at Pocono youth not only was served; it was showcased.
2. New pavement leads to smooth, fast conditions at Pocono. After the 2.5-mile triangle-shaped track was repaved during the offseason, teams spent an astounding five days at the track preparing for Sunday's 400-mile race. Wednesday and Thursday were considered test sessions with a full day of practice Friday followed by time trials Saturday. Another new twist was this race was shortened from 500 miles to 400 and that picked up the pace throughout the race.
With new asphalt allowing tremendous grip, the speeds were high throughout the week. But like most repaved speedways, the cars were so fast that it didn't allow much passing.
"It's just so hard to pass but everybody knew that going into it," Tony Stewart said after finishing third. "It's something that only time and age will take care of. This old racetrack went a long time before it had to be repaved. But you could only get so close to guys and then you struggled to get by. It's a freshly-paved track so that is a different variable altogether."
The race also shuffled around the standings as Greg Biffle dropped from first to third and his teammate Matt Kenseth took over the lead.
"It's unfortunate we fell back that far, but the points are so tight we knew that if we had an issue we were going to drop a lot--if we got in a wreck or had an engine problem or a mechanical issue or flat tire," Biffle said. "You're vulnerable when you're only one point or 10 points ahead, but that's racing. As long as it doesn't happen in the Chase I'm happy.
3. Speed kills -- your race position. It was as if a speed trap was setup by the state police on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as NASCAR issued 22 speeding penalties on the newly refigured pit road. Last year there were nine different timing loops but this year there are 10 and none in the same areas they were last year.
Ten of the 22 speeding penalties were issued to four drivers with David Reutimann getting nailed three times in the No. 51 Chevrolet that is normally driven by Kurt Busch, who was parked by NASCAR officials after his latest outburst at a reporter following last week's Nationwide Series race at Dover. Travis Kvapil also got three speeding tickets. Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski each got hit with two apiece.
With so many penalties being issued, some drivers decided to play it safe.
"I've had enough issues, so I just backed her way down," Carl Edwards said. "I was not going to push it."
4. Kyle Busch's engine woes continue. For the second straight race, Kyle Busch suffered engine issues in his Toyota and that halted a recent hot streak. Busch finished a disappointing 30th after starting fourth. The latest engine issue has dropped Busch to 12th in the standings but he is only six points out of 10th place with one victory.
"The warning was it just started smoking under yellow for some reason, so without going any further and hurting something underneath it at least now we have a chance to take it apart and see what's happening piece-by-piece," Busch explained. "It's very frustrating. These guys here at Joe Gibbs Racing and everybody on this No. 18 M&M's team deserves better than this. It's unfortunate that we just aren't getting the results that we need. I felt like today we qualified really well -- we should have been up there. We got knocked back on the first lap in traffic by a stupid move and we're fighting our way back through and then we have another engine issue.
"We're putting ourselves in a heck of a hole and it's not going to be easy to come out of it."
Before last Sunday's engine eruption at Dover, Busch was coming off a stretch where he had finished 11th at Texas, 10th at Kansas, won Richmond, came in second at Talladega, fourth at Darlington and third at Charlotte. After the Coca-Cola 600 he was eighth in points but dropped to ninth at Dover and all the way to 12th after this weekend.
Although Busch is in decent position of getting into the Chase because his one victory has him in contention for one of the two wild cards, it is important for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver to regain his competitive form so that he can finally be a legitimate championship contender in 2012.
5. Don't ever count Jimmie Johnson out. Even when five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is down, he is never out. Johnson got two speeding penalties in Sunday's race which put him down one lap to the leader, but he was able to battle back to a fourth-place finish.
"NASCAR measures from the nose of the race car to the transponder, so long story short when you hit the end of pit road you take off," Jonson said. "The second time, I waited until the tail of the car crossed the yellow line and I still got nailed. We got nailed a lot along with a lot of other guys. Chad Knaus called a great race (and) got me some track position on two tires and pit stops that were flawless and we had a fast car. I had a big slide on the second to last restart and if those three things did not happen I think I would be in Victory Lane right now."
By being able to overcome adversity all season, Johnson's No. 48 team is laying the foundation for another championship run later this season.
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