As the sun set on Pocono Raceway, Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team gambled and won on Sunday.
After building a sizable lead at the point in the final stage, Hamlin came to the pits for a splash of fuel with 20 laps remaining in the Pocono 350. He cycled back to second and regained the lead on Lap 126.
Over the final 15 laps, Hamlin extended the lead by 3.068-seconds over Kevin Harvick for a record sixth victory—tying Jeff Gordon for most wins at the 2.5-mile track.
“I was just hoping for no cautions, I knew we had the car.," Hamlin said. "I was just maintaining my gap right there and didn’t want to make any mistakes like I did at Bristol and threw that win away. I just tried to work through the traffic as best I could and obviously Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) is paying attention to strategy there and made the right call.”
Hamlin started 19th. He led three times for a race-high 49 laps during the race but the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota took a while to come to life.
“A lot of adversity early," Hamlin said. "We got some nose damage and had to fix that. Then we just worked on the car and got it better and better. It finished the race there a lot better than we finished yesterday and I thought we had a race-winning car yesterday. We knew after yesterday’s race and showing the speed that we had, just don’t mess it up and we’ve got a good shot today and that’s what we did.”
Erik Jones finished third in a backup car after wrecking in the first Cup race of the doubleheader at Pocono. Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron, Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr., rounded out the top 10.
After five laps, the Pocono 350 was delayed by just over 50 minutes, first for lightning and then rain. Kurt Busch led the first 35 laps—and earned his first stage win in 2020. Michael McDonald triggered the second caution after hitting the wall in Turn 2. He finished 40th.
Busch stayed on the track with the lead during the stage break but was quickly passed by Blaney on the Lap 36 restart.
Christopher Bell, who finished third in Stage 1, lost control of the No. 95 Toyota in Turn 2 on Lap 39. After scoring a career best fourth-place finish on Saturday, Bell wasn’t sure what caused his wreck.
“I was kind of rolling out there by myself, and I had a good gap between the guy in front of me and behind me, and it just stepped out getting into turn two there,” Bell said. “It’s disappointing, but I’m really happy with the speed that we’ve had these last couple weeks. Obviously, yesterday here we were really fast and we had another great car today, so these guys keep bringing really fast Rheem Camrys to the racetrack and we will have good shows.”
The race returned to green on Lap 45—but the action was short-lived after Chris Buescher slipped up into the Turn 3 wall to ignite the fifth caution before the lap was complete. Blaney continued to lead until he pitted on Lap 57, turning the lead over to Kyle Busch. The No. 18 Toyota came to pit road two laps later handing the point to Hamlin.
As Busch and Blaney were battling back to the lead, Blaney tagged Busch coming through Turn 2 and sent the No. 18 Toyota into the wall. Busch, who finished 38th, said the result was par for the course this year.
“The guys did an amazing job from yesterday to today,” Busch said. “I guess it proves that if you get a little practice time in and we are going to be a force to be reckoned with so hopefully life gets back to normal eventually but we are in 2020, so it doesn’t surprise me getting crashed out of the lead.
“The M&M’s Camry was pretty fast today. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and the guys did a great job. It’s just very frustrating and unfortunate. I know what happened but it doesn’t make any sense to talk about it. It will just come across in a bad way.”
Almirola grabbed the lead from Brad Keselowski on the Lap 80 restart just prior to Ryan Preece prompting the seventh and final yellow flag on Lap 80. Keselowski regained the lead and held on for the Stage 2 win.
The final stage was full of a variety of pit strategies. Keselowski remained on the track with the lead as the race returned to green on Lap 90. He pitted five laps later turning the point over to Harvick with Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Elliott, Jones, Ryan Newman, DiBenedetto and Blaney in tow.
Harvick turned the lead over to Hamlin on Lap 105 when the No. 4 team made its final pit stop. Hamlin led 16 laps before pitting on Lap 120 and turned the lead over to Almirola--who pitted on the next lap. After creating a 33-second advantage over Harvick and Keselowski, Hamlin cycled into second with Truex in the lead. When the No. 19 Toyota pitted with 15 circuits to go, Hamlin took the lead and held on for his 41st career Cup win and fourth in 2020.
“He’s just unbelievable," Hamlin said of Gabehart who took the reins of the No. 11 team last year. "He’s done a great job with this race team. This is work that happens in the shop, this is way beyond what happens on race day.
“Working to keep getting better and keep getting faster race cars and giving me a bigger box to work in. If we don’t have the exact right setup or the handling isn’t perfect, we’re still going out there and winning races because we have decent car speed. We’re just continuing to make ourselves a little bit better and it’s making that room for error just a little bit bigger.”
Harvick continues to lead the standings with a 52-point advantage over Blaney, who finished 22nd. The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.