Denny Hamlin, a four-time winner at Pocono, led a race-high 76 laps, but a broken valve stem forced him back to the pits after a stop on Lap 160 and relegated him to 19th at the finish.
By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
(June 12, 2011)
LONG POND, Pa. — Jeff Gordon may be starting to feel his age, but he certainly didn’t show it in Sunday’s 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway.
“I’m just so excited to be a part of this sport,” Gordon said in victory lane, after taking the checkered flag 2.965 seconds ahead of runner-up Kurt Busch. “I’m going to be 40 this year (Aug. 4). I’m an old man now.”
Statistically, the old man already is an important part of NASCAR Sprint Cup history. His victory Sunday was his second of the year, his fifth at the tricky 2.5-mile triangular track and the 84th of his career, tying Gordon with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for third on the all-time list.
As NASCAR’s elder statesman and four-time champion later pointed out, the race was won on pit road. The No. 24 Chevrolet crew got Gordon out ahead of Busch on a stop under caution for debris on Lap 156 of 200, enabling Gordon to streak away from eventual seventh-place finisher Juan Pablo Montoya after a restart on Lap 160.
During a green-flag stop on Lap 177, the No. 24 crew again performed flawlessly, increasing the cushion Gordon held over Busch.
“If we can just get out front, I think we’ll be OK,” Gordon had told crew chief Alan Gustafson before the Lap 160 pit stop — and that’s exactly what happened.
“You guys won that one in the pits—way to go,” Gordon radioed to his crew after crossing the finish line.
Kyle Busch ran third, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Busch’s No. 18 Toyota, however, failed postrace inspection, with the left front being too low when measured by NASCAR’s height stick. If penalties are forthcoming, they will be announced later in the week.
Montoya, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr. completed the top 10. Series points leader Carl Edwards suffered an engine failure 58 laps into the race and finished 37th. Edwards’ lead in the standings shrank to six points over second-place Johnson and 10 over third-place Earnhardt.
Clean air proved decisive, as Kurt Busch, the polesitter, couldn’t close on Gordon significantly during the final 41-lap green-flag run.
“It was a great, hard-fought battle with Jeff Gordon at the end,” Busch said. “It started about 130 laps in, about 70 to go, where we were able to take the lead, stretch it out. Then there was a caution (the fourth debris caution of the race, on Lap 155). The 24 beat us out of the pits.
“I thought we could gain on him after 15 laps into the run. We were able to do that most of the day. We were able to do that again at the end, but we just couldn't close the gap far enough. The old ‘Golden Boy’ had it in him today.
“Neither one of us slipped those final few laps. It was just one of those, ‘I'm giving it all I got, and I can’t close the gap.’ ”
Denny Hamlin, a four-time winner at Pocono, led a race-high 76 laps, but a broken valve stem forced him back to the pits after a stop on Lap 160 and relegated him to 19th at the finish. Hamlin lost one position in the standings to 12th, as Gordon jumped past him into 11th, his highest position since winning at Phoenix in the second race of the season.
After a disappointing stretch that started with a crash in Las Vegas in week No. 3, Gordon feels his team is beginning to realize its potential.
“We were embarrassed by the way we were running,” Gordon said. “When I came on board with Alan (the result of a crew chief swap in the offseason), I knew that they were special and amazing. Phoenix came a little sooner than we thought, but I felt like we could do that this year.
“Then we went on a streak where we just weren’t competitive, but what it takes is a team that believes in you, and you believe in them, and you work together to get there. That’s what we did today.”