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NASCAR At Pocono Recap: Jubilation For Jeff Gordon, Disappointment For Denny Hamlin

Before Sunday's 5-Hour Energy 500, SB Nation Atlanta gave you a handful of potential storylines to watch. With the race in the record books and the smoke from Jeff Gordon's victory burnout probably finally starting to dissipate, let's analyze how those stories played out.

Does Denny Hamlin break through? Ever since his humiliating loss in the November 2010 event at Phoenix International Raceway, Denny Hamlin has seemed a step or two behind his chief competitors. He lost the championship at Homestead and has struggled throughout this season. He seems to be slowly on the rebound, with four top-fives in his last five starts. Pocono has oflten been just what the Doctor ordered for Hamlin, as he got his first wins of the 2006 and 2009 seasons at the Tricky Triangle.

For the first 100 laps, the answer appeared to be a resounding "Yes." Hamlin led 76 laps and appeared to be on cruise control, much the way he had looked in past winning efforts at Pocono. His day deflated - literally - when his Toyota suffered a flat left-rear tire after a pit stop under yellow-flag conditions with 45 laps remaining. The tire apparently sheared the rear brake lines off Hamlin's car, leaving him to limp home as little more than a shadow of the driver he had been in the race's first half. In the end, he finished a tortured 19th.

Can Jeff Gordon grab his second win of the season? Gordon has one win this year and is 13th in points, currently making him the only driver eligible for one of the newly-created wild card spots for the Chase. Gordon starts third and has four previous wins at Pocono. He last won the rain-shortened event in 2007 courtesy of some crafty strategy by then-crew chief Steve Letarte, which brings us to...

He most certainly did. There were no trick strategies this time, though. Gordon used a Talladega-esque push from Jimmie Johnson on the race's final green-flag restart to grab the lead from Juan Pablo Montoya and led most of the final 40 laps uncontested for his 84th-career triumph and his fifth at Pocono, which ties him with Georgia legend Bill Elliott for the most at the track.

Is this Dale Earnhardt Jr's day? Earnhardt didn't have enough fuel to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, then he had enough to win at Knasas a week ago but Brad Keselowski also had enough and had more track position. Pocono, as a 2.5-mile track, lends itself to strategy, as current crew chief Steve LeTarte well knows. LeTarte, knowing Gordon didn't have the car to win that 2007 race, pitted him early so that, if the rain came when it was supposed to, the 24 car would be out front. It did, with Ryan Newman up to Gordon's door number. That was the end of the race, and Gordon and LeTarte had the victory. LeTarte isn't afraid to gamble, especially when it comes to ending the three-year winless streak of NASCAR's most popular driver.

It wasn't, but Earnhardt had yet another solid performance, recording a sixth-place finish for his best Pocono result since 2008. The pairing of Earnhardt and LeTarte seems to have rekindled something inside the driver, who looks less and less like the man who was more than a laughable afterthought in 2009 and 2010 and more and more like the man who was a championship contender in 2003 and 2004.

Can Kurt Busch parlay the pole into a win? Busch, Carl Edwards, and Tony Stewart had the three best cars Sunday in Kansas, but all three had to pit. Busch's car stumbled leaving pit road, leaving him ninth at the finish. He's on the pole again this week after qualifying fastest with his backup car on Saturday. Busch is twice a winner at Pocono, leading a combined 306 of 400 laps in the July 2005 and August 2007 events he won.

Busch assumed command after the halfway point and seemed well on his way to getting his first win since last year's Coca-Cola 600. He lost the lead on the final caution period and was never able to regain it over the final 41 laps of green-flag racing. Still, Busch's performance continued to signal that his Penske Racing team is back on the upswing after a miserable couple of months.

Do we have another first-time winner? Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith each got their first-career wins earlier this season. Pocono was site of a first-time winner twice before, when Jeremy Mayfield won in 1998 and Denny Hamlin got his first ponts-paying win in 2006. Paul Menard starts second, while David Ragan rolls off 11th. Both have been termed as "wins waiting to happen," and today very well could be their day.

Menard was fast - a little too fast at one point, as he was ticketed for speeding on pit road - but had to settle for a 14th-place finish. Ragan never got going, meanwhile, and finished a disappointing 17th to break what had been a  string of solid runs.

Do we get all 500 miles in today? The forecast for today's race has a 40% chance of rain. As a long, flat triangle, the track doesn't dry very quickly, As such, if rain does fall for an extended period, it could cut a significant chunk out of the final race distance. Rain hopefully will not play havoc with today's race, for as ungodly long as 500 miles at the Pocono Raceway seems to be, sitting through a rain-delayed race is even longer.

Rain was a never a factor in the race, possibly aside from a pair of questionable two-tire calls by Brian Pattie to give Montoya the lead during caution periods. Cloud's covered the track for significant portion's of the race, but Gordon's flame-bedecked Chevrolet was bathed in total sunlight as it took the checkered flag.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.