Hendrick teammates dominate at Pocono
LONG POND - A Hendrick Motorsports driver in victory lane at Pocono Raceway?
Must have been Jimmie Johnson, the HMS driver that started on the pole and won June's race, right?
Kasey Kahne led 39 laps as part of a dominant Hendrick Motorsports' performance in the GoBowling.com 400 and edged teammate Jeff Gordon on a late restart for his second win of the season, and second victory at the "Tricky Triangle."
The four Hendrick teammates combined to lead 118 of 200 laps on Sunday, leaving little doubt which team had the strongest cars.
Jimmie Johnson was the class of the field from his pole-winning, record-setting lap on Friday to the 43 laps he led before a tire blew on Lap 75 and he slammed into the Turn 1 wall. Johnson's team used every caution period as an opportunity to work on the car and keep him on the lead lap, allowing the No. 48 team to salvage a 13th-place finish and actually gain two points in the standings.
His misfortunes, however, opened the door for his three teammates - Kahne, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished fifth. Kurt Busch (third) and Ryan Newman (fourth), also powered by Hendrick engines, provided Chevrolet with a top-five sweep.
For Earnhardt Jr., it was his first top-five finish since the NASCAR's last trip to Pocono seven races ago.
But in the bigger picture, Kahne and Gordon each moved up one spot in the standings with five races remaining to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, putting all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the top nine.
For Kahne, the win is a reminder to those in the NASCAR garage that the No. 5 team can be a threat heading into NASCAR's stretch run.
"I feel like it gives myself more confidence and gives the whole team more confidence; everybody that's part of it," Kahne said of the win. "And it closes the gap. If we finish in the top-10 and get into the Chase, we'll be closer to Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson), guys that already have four wins.
"I think wins are key. The Chase is what it's all about in NASCAR; you need to make it for the sponsors and for the team. And we've been right there on the edge with the way our summer went, so it's nice to have two wins now. It gives us a lot more hope going in and we'll be able to start a lot closer (to the top)."
The win also gives Kahne a little more flexibility heading into the final races before NASCAR's version of the playoffs begin, which is something that will allow crew chief Kenny Francis to experiment with a variety of setups.
"It gives you a little more flexibility to take more risks in the upcoming races," Francis said. "We have two wins and there's a good chance we're going to make the Chase either way, so now we can take a few more risks.
"Before, if something wouldn't have worked out, it could have hurt bad. Now, we have something to fall back on. Definitely having another win gives us an opportunity to play a little different strategy or take a chance on the setup before the race in the upcoming races."
For Gordon, it was the fifth top-five finish in his last six starts, a stretch of races that have seen him climb from 16th in points and practically a Chase afterthought to ninth in points and a legitimate contender.
While the second-place finish might not have completely erased the disappointment of a win that got away, it made it somewhat easier to swallow.
"I feel fortunate to finish second," Gordon said. "I feel like we had a great day all in all, and I'm very proud of that. It's something we can build a lot of momentum on.
"Yeah, I'm frustrated right now because we had a shot at it. We know how important wins are, but second is a great points day for us as well."
Gordon, winless since capturing the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2012, hopes to avoid going the Wild Card route in the Chase.
"We've pulled together some decent finishes, but it hasn't been pretty," said Gordon. "I feel like we've been fortunate to get some of the top-10s that we've gotten recently, and today I felt like we finally actually went out and earned that one."