Thanks to a fast No. 11 Toyota, a feel for fuel economy, and a first-ever application of traction compound to the asphalt at Pocono Raceway, Denny Hamlin rediscovered the magic at the Tricky Triangle that marked his spectacular debut in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2006.
Leading a 1-2-3 finish by Joe Gibbs Racing drivers — none of whom, surprisingly, was Kyle Busch — Hamlin passed teammate and race runner-up Erik Jones on Lap 144 and saved enough fuel to last through an overtime that carried the event three laps beyond its scheduled distance of 160 circuits.
Hamlin won for the fifth time at the 2.5-mile triangular track after a nine-year absence from Victory Lane. The victory was Hamlin’s third of the season and the 34th of his career.
After losing a last-lap battle to Kevin Harvick last Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Hamlin made what turned out to be the winning pass on the outside of Turn 3, where the PJ1 traction compound had been applied.
“You just want to know that you’re a race winner,” said Hamlin, who turned heads in his 2006 rookie season with two wins from the pole at Pocono. “You just want to know that you can contend for wins. Yeah, you’re looking for momentum, but you’re just looking for wins week-in and week-out.
“We really fought for it last week and came up short, so it feels really good to kind of redeem ourselves this week and have such a strong car. Once we got behind there, we were able to make up positions on the 19 (third-place finisher Martin Truex Jr.) and 20 (Jones).”
Hamlin last pitted for fuel under caution on Lap 115, after Ryan Preece clobbered the Turn 1 wall to bring out the fifth of seven yellows. All three of the JGR cars were saving gas during the final run.
“I was in fuel-save mode and still trying to get around those guys,” said Hamlin, who was running third behind his teammates after a restart on Lap 119. “When I got around them, I really went into conservation mode instead of stretching the lead out there.”
Hamlin passed Truex in traffic on Lap 142 to secure second place. Two laps later, he surged past Jones into the top spot.
“I got the opportunity on the outside of Turn 3,” Hamlin said. “Thank Pocono for the PJ1. Obviously, it could be hedged a little bit lower, but they at least gave us a second (lane) to race in today that we haven’t had before.”
Jones notched his runner-up finish after consecutive third-place runs at Kentucky and New Hampshire.
“Honestly, we started the race so far off today, I wasn’t sure how we were going to run,” said Jones, who moved up one position in the series standings to 13th and increased his cushion over 17th-place Jimmie Johnson to 39 points with five races left in the regular season. “We were able to turn it around halfway, get back in contention.
“There at the end, I wasn’t sure how it was all going to play out. It was nice to get some good restarts. Martin gave me a great push at the end (on the overtime restart after a wreck involving Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Michael McDowell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sent the race to extra laps). We were there for a second, then the top got rolling. I couldn’t really do anything.
“Good to get another top-three run,” Jones continued. “We’ve just got to break through. Once we get that first (win), I think we can click a few off here.”
William Byron finished fourth after starting 31st because his qualifying time was disallowed for a post-qualifying inspection failure. Kyle Larson ran fifth after starting from the rear in a backup car, the result of a wreck in opening practice.
Kevin Harvick, Daniel Hemric, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney completed the top 10. Harvick led a race-high 62 laps, and Busch was out front for 56, but inopportune cautions spoiled their respective race strategies and left them fighting through traffic to get the results they did.
Busch won the race’s first stage, and Johnson picked up his second career stage win in the second before finishing 15th.