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Pocono takeaways: William Byron, Denny Hamlin lose out in Sunday fuel finish

Despite transmission problems that cause the No. 18 to get stuck in fourth gear and the clutch to burn out, Kyle Busch overcomes it all to rally and win the NASCAR Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Long Pond, Pa. - Saturday’s Cup race at Pocono Raceway ended with a surprise. Sunday’s Cup race ended with desperation.

Calculations on fuel mileage were put to the test as the final laps wound down Sunday. Winner Kyle Busch passed the test, as did others.

William Byron and Kyle Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, did not.

Having pitted on Lap 94, Byron was initially told that he was good to go on fuel to the finish. But while running second behind Brad Keselowski with less than 20 laps to go, he was told to “max save” by his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team.

  • At Lap 124 of 140, he ran the lap at 54.015 seconds.
  • At Lap 127, he was again told “max save” and posted a lap of 55.860 seconds.
  • At Lap 129, he was then told to “clutch it in the corners” and slowed to a lap of 56.823 seconds.

He slowed by nearly 3 seconds within that five-lap window in an attempt to save enough fuel to make it to the finish.

After Keselowski went to pit road for fuel at Lap 133, Byron picked up the pace again and started running laps in the 54-second range. But at Lap 137, Byron reported that his car had low fuel pressure. Finally, at Lap 138, he had to pit himself.

Finishing 12th in the end, Byron later said he believed he was closer on fuel than what it turned out.

“I thought we could get up as far as we could, and a couple of guys would have to pit and we’d save and win,” Byron told NBC Sports. “So that was kind of how it was looking to work out there with (Keselowski) and then we had to go into max save.

“I thought for sure we’d make it, because usually you’ve got a little bit of fudge factor there. But we ran out with three (laps) to go, so not even close.”

As for Hamlin, he, too, was trying to nurse his final fuel tank. But with Byron assuming the lead with three seconds to spare, Hamlin was allowed to go a bit quicker to try and pressure Byron.

Byron’s lead promptly fell, but by then, Hamlin had been told that he was racing Kyle Busch behind him for the win. When Byron pitted with three to go, Hamlin moved into the lead but through the tunnel turn, he reported that he was running dry and promptly pitted.

Hamlin wound up finishing 14th, victimized by fuel mileage for the second weekend in a row. With three laps to go at Nashville, Hamlin had to pit from 10th for fuel and ended up 21st.

“You’re trying to win or you’re trying to get the best finish that you can,” Hamlin told NBC Sports about having to save in the final laps. “But ultimately we just didn’t save enough. (Kyle Busch), I think came in and got topped off because he had transmission issues. That was essentially the race.”

“We’re just not getting any luck right now. I hate luck, in racing terms, because you make your own luck. But gosh, it’s just kind of crazy at this point.”

Larson salvages weekend

On Saturday, Kyle Larson’s luck ran out when he blew a tire while leading on the final lap. But on Sunday, that luck held as he survived the fuel duel to finish second in a backup car.

Fuel mileage wasn’t the only issue Larson had to contend with Sunday. On the day’s first restart at Lap 7, Hamlin was forced to check up entering Turn 1, causing Larson to run into him.

The incident not only damaged the nose of Larson’s car, but also put a hole in his car’s grille.

That led to an extended pit stop for repairs during the Stage 1 intermission. After making another stop under green at Lap 46, Larson steadily climbed through the field and finished Stage 2 in eighth despite having a much more loose-handling car than he did Saturday.

Following pit stops during the Stage 2 intermission, Larson again charged back into the top 10 by Lap 110 and then fifth with around 20 laps to go.

That set up the final frantic laps, where Larson benefitted from Keselowski, Byron and Hamlin having to pit and moved into the runner-up spot.

Larson admitted that the result was a “surprising” one.

“Seemed like every point of the race, everything that happened in the race, nothing went my way,” Larson said. “Restarts, just guys messing up in front of me, me getting shuffled out of the groove, bad lane choices on my part, everything didn’t go my way.”

“(Crew chief) Cliff (Daniels) did a really good job keeping my head in it, coached me through saving fuel. Yeah, I mean, I had a lot of hope there at the end thinking that (Kyle Busch) might run out.”

A series of unfortunate events

Before Sunday’s race ended with a fuel mileage derby, the most interesting portion of the day came following the debris caution at Lap 94.

Unfortunately for reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott and Christopher Bell, this was where potential top five runs fell apart for them both.

During the caution, Elliott faked coming down to pit road and was to inherit the lead. However, it was ruled that he didn’t maintain his speed under caution, which gave the point to Bell for the restart at Lap 97.

After losing the lead to Alex Bowman, Bell raced Ross Chastain for second through Turn 3 when Chastain slid up the track. Bell and Chastain made contact, with Bell also getting into the outside wall.

On the next lap, Chastain suffered a flat right-front tire from the contact and slowed in Turn 1 while Bell continued racing with Elliott. Then, in Turn 3, Elliott got loose under Bell and made contact with him.

With some help from the wall, Bell got straightened again. But now with considerable rear-end damage to his car, he had to pit next time around and fell off the lead lap.

Elliott did not get through unscathed, either. Not long after Bell pitted, he suffered two right-front tire failures that forced him to pit at Lap 101 and again at Lap 107.

The incidents relegated Elliott to 27th (one lap down) and Bell to 32nd (five laps down) at day’s end.

Dog day afternoon

Will Kurt Busch end up ruing how his Pocono doubleheader weekend ended on Sunday?

The former Cup champion gained 27 points on Chris Buescher over the two races to take a three-point lead on him for the 16th and final playoff spot.

In Saturday’s first race, Busch finished sixth after earning a playoff point (Stage 2 win) and 14 stage points.

But he lost in the fuel mileage battle that ended Sunday’s second race.

With two laps to go, Kurt Busch had risen to fourth behind leaders Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. But he had to pit with the white flag in sight like Hamlin did.

That sent him to a 20th-place finish after having scored no stage points - an opportunity to get some playoff cushion lost.

He later tweeted: “Running out of gas when our equipment and calculations said we were good is frustrating.” On the bright side, his puppies at the motorhome were blissfully unaware.

As for other drivers on the fringe of the playoff picture, Daniel Suarez moved up to 18th after back-to-back top-15 finishes this weekend (13th on Saturday, 15th on Sunday). The Trackhouse driver shaved his gap to the cutline a bit; he entered Pocono 61 points behind and leaves 48 points back.

An engine issue at Lap 111 ended Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s day on Sunday, and that cost him some ground playoff-wise. He entered Pocono 43 points behind the cutline. After finishes of 15th and 38th, he’s slipped to 19th in the standings at 54 points behind.

The biggest gainer, points-wise, among the bubble drivers was Bubba Wallace.

With finishes of 14th and fifth at Pocono, he moved from 77 to 54 points behind the cutline and moved into 20th in the standings.

Dustin Long contributed to this report