NASCAR officials levied one of the largest penalties in Cup Series history against Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch on Sunday after the race at Pocono Raceway, and it created a race that nobody won.
Sure, Chase Elliott is technically credited with his fourth victory of the season after he held off Tyler Reddick in the final laps during a battle for third place, but, not surprisingly, he said it did not feel like a win.
“I was probably just kind of more surprised by it than anything,” Elliott said in a press conference Monday after he learned he was given the victory once he had returned home to Georgia. “I don’t think any driver wants to win that way. I certainly don’t.”
That makes the first three drivers to cross the finish line at Pocono unhappy with the situation after the race. Hamlin and Busch were surely displeased to learn they had been disqualified from their first- and second-place finishes, respectively.
Pocono finish would have boosted Denny Hamlin’s playoff seeding
Hamlin and Busch combined to lead 84 of the 160 laps Sunday, and the former paced the final 18 circuits en route to what would have been his third win of the year.
That would have set him up nicely for the NASCAR Playoffs. He would have tied Elliott with a series-high three wins and been second in the playoff seedings with 18 playoff points, also behind only Elliott.
Instead, NASCAR officials disqualified both Hamlin and Busch when they found extra tape on the front part of the car that was hidden by the paint-scheme wrap. Cup Series managing director Brad Moran said in a post-race press conference that would affect the car’s aerodynamics, so NASCAR took away a Cup Series victory for the first time since 1960.
Hamlin and Busch are both still solidly in position to qualify for the playoffs, however. Hamlin has his spot clinched with two wins and only five races left in the regular season. Busch has only one win but currently sits eighth among the 16-driver field, with six other one-win drivers behind him in points.
That should create enough of a buffer to protect him from falling out of the playoffs should three other winless drivers grab a win in the next five races and force a driver who has a win to miss the playoffs.
The disqualification might have come at a particularly bad time for Busch considering his No. 18 team is without full sponsorship for next season, which could prevent him from signing a contract extension with the organization.
However, Busch was incredibly lucky to win his only race of the year in the April dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway. He was running third on the final lap until Chase Briscoe spun out leader Tyler Reddick in the final corner and allowed Busch to make a last-second pass for the win.
Had that victory not happened, Busch would be on the playoff bubble in 16th behind Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. among winless drivers and only 24 points ahead of Kevin Harvick in 17th.
Those are all silver linings for the drivers involved in Sunday’s mess. Even new second-place finisher Reddick can take solace in the fact he already has a win and did not get his first career Cup Series victory because of a disqualification.
NASCAR fans were the biggest losers from Sunday’s race
The fans, rather, were cheated out of a legitimate race. The finish to the event wasn’t real, nor was Hamlin’s celebration with his daughter, Taylor, in Victory Lane. Those memories will be forever tainted with the disqualification asterisk.
Even though Elliott fans are likely happy he has another win and more playoff points, that relative joy is nothing compared to actually seeing the driver compete for the win on the race track.
This is the first time any winner has encountered a post-race inspection problem since NASCAR tweaked its disqualification rule before the 2019 season. Previously, NASCAR had hit teams with fines and points penalties but let the win stand if the winning car failed post-race inspection. However, the “encumbered win” did not count toward playoff qualification purposes, as Joey Logano learned in 2017.
That was less of a deterrent, especially in a playoff structure that places premium importance on race wins.
Teams will still always try to gain a technical advantage with their cars. But hopefully, this is a big enough example of what can happen if things go wrong that it will also be the last time the sport has a race where nobody sees the winner celebrate.
Stats courtesy of Racing Reference