After a fast car in the first practice of the weekend, AJ battled more than just the handling of his #43 Ford Fusion during his qualifying lap. With not only a lingering cold, but a reported stomach ailment as well, AJ had to try and put up a hot lap feeling less than 100%. He still managed to post a decent qualifying effort which put him 17th in the field for the start of the race at Pocono.
As often happens at the Long Pond, PA track, rain was an issue for the weekend. With mother nature’s usual bad timing, the cars had just gotten the one to go signal for the green flag when sprinkles started coming down. Then sprinkles turned into a downpour shortly after the cars stopped on pit road. The storm moved through quickly however, and high winds helped the track to dry. So after an hour and forty minute delay, the cars were back on the track.
After AJ started in 17th, he slid backwards with a complaint of the car not wanting to turn in the corner. The condition seemed to get better as the first laps ticked off, and when NASCAR threw a competition caution on lap 15 he was back up to where he had started the race. A great four tire stop and an adjustment by crew chief Mike Shiplett put AJ back on the track in 18th – despite other teams taking only two tires.
From that point on the #43 did nothing but improve all race long. The pit crew continued to click off fast pit stops and Mike Shiplett made good adjustments to get the car hooked up. By lap 50, AJ was in the top 10 and he stayed there for the next 120 laps. It wasn’t until a caution on lap 167 that pit strategy took some wind out of the team’s sails and put AJ back in the pack.
Fortunately, AJ had a decent car to try and work his way through traffic as they stretched into a long twenty lap run towards the finish. Fast initially, but fading late in the run, the #43 car was still gaining on the cars in front of him that had older tires. When a caution came out for an incident involving Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano with only one lap to go, AJ had moved up to the 12th spot.
With the field now brought back together for a Green-White-Checkered finish, AJ had to play both offense and defense for the final push to the end. The cars in front of the #43 with older tires were vulnerable on the restart, but there were teams behind him who stopped under the caution and had newer tires themselves.
As the green flag flew, AJ jumped forward and managed to take away 11th and 10th position. When leader Denny Hamlin took the white flag, AJ was holding onto a top 10 finishing spot. But Kasey Kahne was coming from behind with fresher rubber under his #9 car and when AJ tried to block Kasey’s advance, the Budweiser Ford went off into the grass before sliding across the track and into oncoming traffic. The race ended under yellow with AJ scoring a top-10 run.
The ending, which resulted in two torn up RPM cars after Elliott Sadler was also caught up in the crash, was an unfortunate mark on what was otherwise a really strong day for AJ and the #43 team. It seems like they have achieved their goal of having cars capable of running in the top 10. Now they need to get there on a consistent basis and start working on some top 5’s before they are able to start competing for wins. It’s coming along, though.