COLLINS: Pocono's doubleheader weekend has many successes, but some ways to improve

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Denny Hamlin smiles after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Pocono Raceway, Sunday, June 28, 2020, in Long Pond, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

It seemed somewhat unfitting that this weekend ended the way race weekends usually end around here.

A weekend like no other in the history of NASCAR, never mind just at Pocono Raceway, finished like many others, with Denny Hamlin speeding that familiar No. 11 Toyota across the finish line a full three seconds ahead of second-place finisher Kevin Harvick and a nifty 16 clear of the rest of the field to claim victory in the Pocono 350 on Sunday night. It marked the sixth career win at the tri-oval for Hamlin — no driver has won more there, and only the great Jeff Gordon won as many.

You all wanted sports to give you a sense of normalcy? Well, there you go.

Strange and historic: This strangest of weekends, and in many ways most historic of them, had a little bit of everything. An up-and-coming potential star, 17-year-old Ty Gibbs, won the ARCA race Friday night in professional sports’ area return after the pandemic shutdown. Kevin Harvick won his first race at Pocono in more than three dozen tries Saturday in the Pocono Organics 325. And Sunday, three NASCAR-sanctioned races took place on the same day for the first time ever.

With the amount of rain in the area over the weekend, it’s rather amazing NASCAR was able to get four races in over the last two days. With the fact that some of that rain fell just after the checkered flag flew in the Pocono 350 on Sunday, causing an hour-long delay, it’s almost unthinkable they were able to run every lap. There were no fans in attendance to see Hamlin claim the checkered flag, but the fact the sun had skipped out, sauntering past the horizon, would normally be a pretty big story itself.

Pocono wants another doubleheader shot in 2021: Track officials are on the record: They want another shot in 2021 to host a doubleheader weekend, the right way. With fans in the seats and a chance to show off what this could have looked like this year had COVID-19 not been a factor.

When they sit down to discuss what this dry run, of sorts, will mean leading into that potential second chance, here’s guessing they’ll realize two facts:

That much of this doubleheader weekend went extraordinarily well. And some of it really should be tweaked if this is going to become a regular feature on the circuit.

“I think the format was great,” Harvick said. “For everyone in the garage, it went well. Obviously, it’s hardest on the guys on the team, so I’m sure the teams will have a little bit to say about start time of the first race and trying to get the guys a little bit more time to get in here early in the morning and then sending them home early in the morning. I think that would be a little better.”

The 4 p.m. start may need to be revisited: NASCAR probably has to think about the sanity of starting races at 4 p.m. at Pocono, where there are no lights and the weather has the penchant for being a factor.

Fact is, the 350 on Sunday had a realistic chance to be the first race in 13 years shortened by darkness. Lightning delayed the start by an hour, then rain fell. The race really didn’t get going until around 6:10. They were very fortunate another caution or two didn’t wave in the last 50 laps or so, because even a moderate incident probably would have led that race to finish under caution.

That’s not a huge deal in 2020. It might be when the stands are jammed with fans.

Similar races: So might the fact that the two races were fairly similar to each other.

This might be unfair, because the best drivers and the best equipment usually do well. But the driver who won the Cup race Saturday (Harvick) finished second Sunday. And the driver who finished second in the Cup race Saturday (Hamlin) won Sunday.

Five drivers — Hamlin, Harvick, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. — finished in the top 10 in both races. Which makes some sense, really. Their cars were good one day. They’re top drivers. Stands to reason they’d be consistent again.

But, you should also consider six drivers who finished in the 11th through 20th positions Saturday finished in that range again on Sunday. And, four drivers who finished 21st through 30th finished in the first race were there again in the second; a number lowered by the fact that Bubba Wallace finished 20th Sunday after finishing 22nd in the first race, and by Sunday’s 19th-place finish by John Hunter Nemecheck, who came in 24th Saturday.

Five drivers also finished both races in the 31st through 40th spots — and three others who were there Saturday finished 28th, 29th and 30th on Sunday. In other words, about 63 percent of the field finished both races in just about the same vicinity.

“I hate to be disappointed in a second and a first,” Hamlin said after Sunday’s win. “But I really feel like we should have won both races.”

"Gold" idea: It’s easy to be around Pocono and get the feeling the idea of the doubleheader weekend for fans, for the area, is “gold,” as track president Ben May put it last week. The atmosphere promises to be top-notch when fans can get back in there in 2021. The sheer quantity of the racing is impressive in its own right. It’s a celebration of a sport, and there’s too much positive in that to ignore.

But NASCAR has to look into ways to make sure what almost happened with all the delays Sunday doesn’t again, and it needs to find a way — perhaps by shuffling the starting grids more, or by allowing different types of changes to be made mechanically — to ensure the two premier events don’t end up looking too much like carbon copies.

When Denny Hamlin says he should have won both races, reality is he’s right. And that should be viewed at least as room for potential improvement on an otherwise fun idea.