Sunday’s marathon Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway seemed to take forever, thanks to a couple of red-flag periods for rain and a big crash.
And like every race, there will some clear-cut winners and losers on the tricky triangle in a race that may ultimately have major implications on the championship hunt.
So who’s hot and who’s not after Pocono?
1. ROUSH FENWAY RACING — It wasn’t just that Greg Biffle finally won the first race of the season for RFR. That was huge, no doubt. But after struggling all year long, the combination of revised front suspension and the new FR9 engine has resulted in four top-three finishes for the team in the past three races. Finally, after more than a year as also-rans, RFR may be legitimate title contenders. And Jack Roush has a reason to smile as he recovers from his injuries.
2. KEVIN HARVICK — Fourth place at Pocono was “Happy” Harvick’s fifth top-five finish in six races. Everyone else in the Sprint Cup field, it seems, has had his ups and downs, but Harvick has been steady-as-she-goes all season long. What’s most impressive this year is that he finishes well even at his bad tracks, which should have his foes worried.
3. TONY STEWART — Five top-five finishes in the last eight races certainly is a good omen for Stewart’s chances in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He is having a typical Stewart season, starting off slow but then catching fire as the weather heats up and tracks get good and greasy.
4. JEFF GORDON — It would be easy to lump Gordon in the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” category, as another potential victory slid through his fingers Sunday at Pocono. But he made it from 11th to sixth in the final 20 laps, turning in another solid finish, the sixth time in his last seven races that he’s ended the race sixth or better.
5. CARL EDWARDS — Don’t look now, but Edwards has finished seventh or better in each of the last four races, including a runner-up run at Chicagoland Speedway and a third place at Pocono. Could it be he’s about to win for the first time in 2008, as Biffle did Sunday at Pocono?
1. DALE EARNHARDTJr. — With his third consecutive finish of 23rd or worse, NASCAR’s perennially most popular driver has just about killed any chances he had of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Earnhardt once again left the racetrack saying his car was junk and his team wasn’t very good. He’ll likely miss the Chase for the fourth time in six years.
2. KASEY KAHNE — When Kahne left the first Pocono race in June, he was 240 points out of 12th place. But a string of four top-six finishes in the following five races allowed him to cut that margin literally in half, down to 120 points. But after finishing 19th on Sunday, Kahne is now 168 points out of 12th, too much ground to make up in five races.
3. JIMMIE JOHNSON — The good news for Johnson was that he broke a string of three consecutive finishes of 20th or worse at Pocono. The bad news was he finished 10th with a car that led the most laps and clearly was the class of the field.
4. KYLE BUSCH — Every time Busch gets behind the wheel of a NASCAR Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series vehicle, he looks like Superman. But in the Sprint Series lately, he looks like the trunk of his Toyota is filled with kryptonite. In his last seven Cup races, Busch’s average finish is 22.571.
5. DENNY HAMLIN — Yes, Hamlin finished a solid fifth at Pocono, his first top-five finish in his last six starts. But for someone who already has four Pocono victories, five race victories earlier this season and liked to brag that “all we do is win,” fifth wasn’t anything to get emotional over.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.