Kurt Busch has never been known as a ‘light foot’. It’s a good thing he decided to ease off his throttle on Monday because it was the only way for him to win the Axalta ‘We Paint Winners’ 400 at Pocono Raceway on a fuel mileage run with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Brad Keselowski breathing down his neck.
Interim crew chief, John Klausmeier, (replacing Tony Gibson for a single race suspension due to a lug nut violation), earned the nickname ‘Johnny Gunslinger’ by bringing in this win during his debut on top of the pit box. The tension was thick in the Stewart-Haas No. 41 pit area with Klausmeier reassuring Busch that they had just enough fuel to take the win, his 28th career victory.
With 33 laps left on the last restart, Busch asked ‘are we good?’ His team told him they needed two laps to make it to the finish.
“I was like, ‘whoa, how many laps shy are we?’” Busch said. “They said two. These are really long straightaways at Pocono, and you have to manage saving fuel as well as maintaining lap time. So many thoughts can go through your head, but I just stuck with the checklist with saving fuel and watching the No. 88 (Earnhardt) behind us.”
For most of the race, it looked like rookie Chase Elliott could have found his key to winning his first race, leading for 51 laps. His Hendrick Motorsports Chevy appeared at times as the class of the field, running high and low and frustrating the competition. He led more laps on Monday than he has in his previous 19 events, taking a lot away from this race that he will revisit.
“We certainly had one of our best days of the year, personally,” said Elliott. “I thought for us to be able to contend and lead laps all day and have a car that could fight for the lead the majority of the day I thought was great. Obviously, I made a big mistake there behind Dale in the tunnel after that restart. I wish I had been a little more patient and given ourselves a better chance, but you live and you learn.”
Brad Keselowski rebounded from an odd pit road penalty that cost him a trip down the pit road. His jackman earned it pushing the side body panel inward which NASCAR quickly noticed and addressed the issue.
“We were able to drive back up there towards the end and thought we had a lot of speed, just every car I would pass would take 10, 15 laps just being stuck in the wake,” said Keselowski. “It’s just part of it, I guess. All in all, a pretty decent weekend for us, and I’m proud of that effort to run up front and to have another solid weekend. We’ve had a lot of those lately, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by me. I’m really proud of my team for those efforts. We just want to keep it going and want to turn them into wins.”
It was a hard luck weekend for Kevin Harvick. He had a viable car to run up front leading for nine laps, but was relegated to the back for an early speeding penalty and then the caution fell at the wrong time putting him in the back again, just as he was going to make his green flag stop. He finished ninth.
Michigan is up next for the Sprint Cup series and with the lower down force package, speeds will be exceptional. Tune in.