Kansas City-area NASCAR favorites Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer earned top-10 finishes in Sunday's rain-shortened Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway. The big story, however, at the eastern Pennsylvania race venue was the severe weather that cut the Pennsylvania 400 short after 98 of the scheduled 160 laps.
Shortly after the race was stopped for heavy rain around 4 p.m. ET, multiple lightning strikes in and around the race facility resulted in the death of one man and injury to nine other fans attending the NASCAR race. The race was never restarted, and four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who was the front runner when the severe storm halted the race, was declared the winner, earning first victory of the season.
With dark storm clouds bearing down on the 2.5-mile tri-oval racetrack with under 70 laps to go, the race strategy changed as drivers began to position themselves for what very much appeared to be a lengthy delay and, in all likelihood given what weather radar was showing, a rain shortened race. Gordon took advantage of a multi-car wreck involving the top five cars following a restart on lap 91. Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 car got very loose and slid into Matt Kenseth, who spun around and collided with Denny Hamlin. Gordon, who was in sixth place at the time, managed to avoid the wreckage and quickly spurted into the lead.
Gordon, who had started 27th in the race, was in perfect position to capitalize on the misfortune of the race leaders, proving once again that being the right person in the right place at the right time, and being able take advantage of those opportunities when they arise, is what often turns apparent shortfalls into successes.
Johnson had led a race-high 44 laps at the time of his track mishap and was seeking his third win in his last four Sprint Cup races, ended up 14th. Greg Biffle, who was fourth when all the mayhem took place at the front of the pack on lap 91, dropped back to 15th place, right behind Johnson. Kenseth ended the race in 23rd and Hamlin fell all the way back to 29th at the time the race was stopped.
Edwards, from Columbia, Mo., and Emporia, Kan., favorite son Bowyer also were beneficiaries of the late-race wreckage, moving up to seventh and eighth when the cars were called to the pit road on lap 98. When the race was officially called and the restart order became the final results, I was immediately struck by yet another back-to-back finish by Edwards and Bowyer, which seems to keep happening with unusual frequency.
This is the third time this year that the two hometown favorites of NASCAR have finished in back-to-back fashion. The highest of their consecutive finishes was fifth (Edwards) and sixth in the third race of the season at Las Vegas, the last racetrack where Edwards won a Cup race a year ago last March. Edwards and Bowyer were 10th and 11th (this time in reverse order) just three races later at Martinsville in early April.
A year ago, Roush-Fenway Racing's Edwards and Bowyer, who at the time was in his seventh season driving for Richard Childress Racing, finished back-to-back in 11 out of 36 Sprint Cup races and four times in the first 10 races of the 2011 season.
Coming into the current season, both drivers had experienced a good run of success in the Sprint Cup Series. Bowyer has qualified for the season-ending Chase for the Cup championship in four of the past six seasons, and Edwards has been in the driver lineup for the Chase in each of the past five years.
Bowyer is in fairly good shape to make the Chase again this year, currently holding down 10th place in the points standings with just five races remaining in the 2012 regular season. The top 10 finishers in the standings after 26 races automatically qualify for the 10-race Chase, which will determine the 2012 Sprint Cup champion. Bowyer, with one victory and 11 top-10 finishes in 2012, is 57 points ahead of 11th-place Kasey Kahne but only two points back of Kevin Harvick and four behind Biffle, who sits seventh in the current standings.
Edwards' chances to make the Chase for a sixth straight year are in serious jeopardy with no wins in his last 57 races and only five regular-season events remaining in which to secure a spot among the 12 qualifiers. The Missouri native is 12th in the standings, but after the automatic top-10 qualifiers, only two wild-card spots are awarded to the drivers ranked 11th through 20th with the most race wins in 2012.
Without a win so far this season, the runner-up to Tony Stewart in the 2011 Sprint Cup championship would be edged out by at least five other drivers (Kahne, Gordon, Newman, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano) for the final two spots in the Chase if the regular season ended today. Among those five challengers, Kahne has two victories this season, and the others have one apiece, Gordon's win coming on Sunday at Pocono.
That means Edwards has some serious work to do if he hopes to earn a spot in the Chase championship.
The driver of the No. 99 Roush-Fenway Ford isn't about to throw in the towel, despite a 2012 season filled with bad breaks and disappointment. "We don't ever panic," Edwards said during practice sessions prior to Sunday's race at Pocono. "We know we have to go win races. At the end of the day, (that is) our job.
"We have to take chances and remember when we are out there racing that this is not racing for points," he said. "We are not racing for anything other than a victory. We are going to try to have fun with it, make the most of it and hopefully it will work out."
The five remaining races on the schedule before NASCAR's version of the MLB and NFL playoffs begin are at Watkins Glen this weekend, followed by a return trip to Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. The first of the 10 rounds in the Case for the Cup series is at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 16.
Looking ahead at Edwards' chances for a much-needed race win in the next five races, he has three wins in his career at Atlanta and two each at Bristol and Michigan. He has been shutout, however, in 15 previous starts at Richmond, which will be the location of final race venue in the regular season. He also is winless in seven starts on the road course at Watkins Glen, the site of the upcoming Cup race on Sunday.
Follow news about NASCAR all season long, including specific commentary and analysis on local drivers Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer, at SB Nation Kansas City.