NASCAR Crash Course: Pocono DQs elevate Chase Elliott, cloud Denny Hamlin payback
Chase Elliott is so hot these days he can win a race without leading a single lap.
That’s exactly what happened Sunday at Pocono Raceway, with Elliott delivering the win nearly two hours after the race was over. Top 2 finishers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch were disqualified from the M&Ms Fan Appreciation 400 pending appeal due to illegal modifications to the race car’s front fascia.
“There really was no reason” NASCAR Cup Series General Manager Brad Moran said“Why there was material that was somewhere it shouldn’t have been, and it basically comes down to a DQ.”
Just like that, Pocono storylines were turned upside down in what amounts to a 10-point playoff swing. Hamlin was coming off one of his best races, shooting a first-lap 180 off top teammate Kyle Busch and earning a record seventh Cup victory at this track.
“Today was definitely a team thing,” Hamlin said of what appeared to be the winning shots. “Chris Gabehart (team leader) just made some great strategic calls to make up for the positions I lost when I lost the lead. Wow, just a great team effort.”
This appeared to propel Hamlin into the number two playoff seed despite having the fewest regular season points (21st) of all playoff contenders. Now? It’s Elliott who gains homecourt advantage, his fourth win (pending appeal) giving him 11 more playoff points than anyone and allowing his hometown Dawsonville Pool Room in Georgia to have some fun. .
It was a perfect weekend for Elliott, 2-2 after winning Saturday night in the SRX season finale. But where does that leave NASCAR and Joe Gibbs Racing after the first disqualification from the Cup win in the sport’s modern era?
The rules are the rules. The problem is that, like in any other sport, the more refereeing involved, the more subjectivity there is – which infuriates a fanbase. NASCAR’s initial explanation was limited because they want Joe Gibbs Racing to have an unbiased appeals process.
But how will fans feel after leaving the race to see a guy finish first, only to find out hours later that he cheated his way to victory? And exactly How? ‘Or’ What and What was wrong can’t be reduced to a full sentence or shown by officials on replay as, say, an NFL hold penalty appeal?
It’s a risky moment in NASCAR’s new NextGen policies that hit any race car modification hard. We’ve already seen Brad Keselowski incur a debilitating 100-point penalty earlier this season for illegally modifying a single-sourced part.
“We don’t want to be here talking about this,” Moran added. “We just saw a great race… But the teams and the owners and everyone are well aware that this new car was going to be kept with pretty tight tolerances… the rules got tighter, and everyone kind of has to respect our new rules.”
We will see if these decrees survive this week’s appeal.
Green: Tyler Reddick — Buried deep in the headlines, Reddick took second place with those double disqualifications. Richard Childress Racing really needed some momentum going forward after the Reddick bomb left them for 23XI Racing in 2024. Now they have it, plus some breathing room on the line of cup for a scenario with 17 winners.
Yellow: Kyle Busch — The 63 laps led was Busch’s highest total since Gateway in June, ahead all day at the perfect time given his contract negotiations dominated the news cycle. A 16th place finish by a rookie Ty Gibbs was unspectacular, the worst of the six Toyotas and a reminder of just how difficult it will be to replace Busch at JGR.
But a win would have given Busch a lot more clout and people leave talking about the DQ, not what he means for Toyota.
Red: Ryan Blaney — On Saturday afternoon, Blaney was on top form after heading to Sharon Speedway to race his dad in the SRX season finale. He got a TKO of that run within two minutes after a six-car wreck; On Sunday, Pocono gave him a second punch with a hard wreck from Turn 3 into the front wall.
“You come off three and think you can save him,” Blaney said, “But you can’t.”
Speeding ticket: NASCAR Safety and Kurt Busch — Busch was removed from the No. 45 Toyota on Sunday, allowing Ty Gibbs to make his Cup debut when NASCAR claimed he could not get medical clearance after a qualifying crash on Saturday.
Kudos to NASCAR for making a bold call, keeping a driver fighting for a playoff spot on the sidelines after suspecting he had post-concussion syndrome. But remember all the controversy last year over whether this Next Gen car is safe enough? It’s never pretty when someone is forced to miss a race six months later.
Hamlin’s DQ took the camera away from a decisive wreck in the reboot with Ross Chastain. Hamlin had the inside line, battling Chastain for the lead before forcing the No. 1 down the track and into the outside wall.
Chastain lost it from there, ruining his day with compatriot Kevin Harvick.
“It’s something that’s been due to me for a few months now,” said Chastain, who laughed when asked if that meant the drivers were even.
“I thought he was pretty nice about it,” added Chase Elliott of Hamlin’s punishment. “All things considered, I think he was pretty nice.”
But is that because, after incidents with Chastain at Gateway and Atlanta, among other places, Hamlin simply sees this contact as a first round?
“What did you want me to do?” he said on the straight after fans booed him as they got out of the race car. “What did you expect from me? We took a position on him, and he just ran out of circuit.
“We’re just going to keep racing hard until we get the respect of these guys. It’s not just that, we’ve been destroyed four times. Twice in the lead in the last 10 months and I am at the end.”