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Pennsylvania 500 Preview: Pocono "The Sequel"

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

This weekend the Sprint Cup Series heads back to Pocono Raceway for the second and final race at the tri-angular oval for this season. The Pocono races are the closest back-to-back races in the schedule aside from the All Star Challenge and Coca-Cola 600 back-to-back weekends. This short, eight-week interval between races affords the competitors with a unique, quick turnaround from their first race on the track. So, it's not unreasonable to expect those drivers who raced well the first time around to have a decent shot at repeating their success since they'll likely be unloading the same chassis and running a similar if not identical race set-up.

Given that this is the second race of 2010 at Pocono Raceway this weekend, we need to take a quick look at the fresh loop stats for this unique facility. This track is so unlike any other on the circuit that we'll really need to focus on recent performance at Pocono for this weekend's drivers. Current trends at this track, including the race this past June, should hold pretty true to form this weekend. As you'll see in the loop stats below we have an easily identifiable group of drivers that love to race on the three-turn Pennsylvania track. The loop stats shown below cover the last six years or 11 races at Pocono Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Denny Hamlin8.63653284791,405119.1
Kurt Busch12.94022413671,489103.7
Jimmie Johnson10.54491191461,607103.7
Tony Stewart9.848570621,612101.4
Carl Edwards13.33841412091,27098.5
Jeff Gordon12.048230381,53296.1
Mark Martin12.343175931,58995.8
Ryan Newman12.947922361,49094.5
Kasey Kahne17.84491551461,29092.0
Kevin Harvick10.64402151,21990.1
Matt Kenseth15.648311161,40889.6
Jeff Burton14.641645341,32189.1
Greg Biffle19.341272611,33985.3
Kyle Busch19.637636341,22883.1
Martin Truex Jr.17.030431483882.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.53432491,11080.1
Clint Bowyer16.6269289167778.1
Juan Pablo Montoya18.92196051574.6
Joey Logano21.01305022974.3
Marcos Ambrose23.31080117871.6


Season sweeps are not common at Pocono, but they're not unheard of either. Twice in this decade we've seen drivers sweep the season at Pocono Raceway. Jimmie Johnson did it in 2004 and Denny Hamlin pulled out the broom in 2006. We can certainly learn a lot from looking at the race just a few short weeks ago. It's a better predictor of what could happen this weekend as opposed to recent history or even last season. Denny Hamlin took control late from Sam Hornish Jr. at Pocono in June and was able to collect his second straight win at the tri-oval and fourth career victory at the facility. It was a dominating effort from the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team, and Hamlin was able to overcome strong challenges throughout the race from Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer. We expect this same group of drivers to unload fast race cars again this weekend. Two drivers who were expected to make a splash in June's Pocono 500 were Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne. Both had really good cars, but a last-lap crash collected both and ended their chances at Top 10's that day. These two should certainly rebound given their good historical stats at Pocono and the potential they showed in the last race weekend at huge triangular oval. Considering the recent race at Pocono Raceway and past history of the track, here are the drivers that should give you the edge in winning your league this weekend.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Denny Hamlin
Not only is Hamlin the recent statistical leader at this oval going into this weekend's Pocono race, but he is also getting race-winning cars on a frequent basis this season. Hamlin has won the last two events at the Pennsylvania tri-oval, so you know the Joe Gibbs Racing star will be fired up to perform in this event. The No. 11 Toyota seems to run up front every time the series visits here and we can't see that changing on Sunday.

Tony Stewart
The two-time Pocono winner will return to the mountains of Pennsylvania this weekend and attempt to post his first victory of the season in the Pennsylvania 500. Stewart has quite a resume at this three-turn oval, and his brilliant third-place finish here in June shows the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet knows how to run up front at this facility. Smoke is a threat to win each time the Sprint Cup Series visits this track.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson hasn't won at Pocono Raceway since 2004. Still, you can't count out the No. 48 team any race weekend. They're simply too good to be ignored. Johnson is a two-time Pocono winner and he's led significant laps in four of his last five visits to the Pennsylvania tri-oval. A Top-10 finish in the Pennsylvania 500 goes without saying, and if the cards go the team's way Johnson could visit victory lane.

Kyle Busch
Pocono Raceway has been a bad track for Busch during his colorful NASCAR career. There are signs that this situation may be improving though. The No. 18 team turned in a career-best finish at the huge triangle back in June. The team unloaded a fast race car right out of the hauler and Busch went on to capture the pole for the Pocono 500. He led 32 laps and finished a career-best second in that event. Chances are good that this team can replicate that success on Sunday afternoon.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Kasey Kahne
Steady and solid is the way to describe Kahne's No. 9 Ford team lately. While he's not been a major threat to win a race since his performance at Atlanta this spring, he's likely to bring home an acceptable finish with little risk this weekend. Kahne is a one-time winner at Pocono Raceway and he's led 150 laps for his career at the unusual oval. The Richard Petty Motorsports star was well on his way to a Top 10 in June's Pocono 500 before a last-lap accident ruined his day.

Clint Bowyer
As some may remember, Bowyer and the No. 33 team dominated a major segment of June's race at Pocono. The Richard Childress driver qualified on the outside pole, led 59 laps before falling back to finish ninth that day. It was Bowyer's fifth career Top 10 and third in the last four races at the huge tri-oval. If you're looking for a sneaky outside shot at the win, the No. 33 team makes a great choice.

Kurt Busch
Although Busch had to battle to barely crack the Top 10 the last time the series visited Pocono Raceway, this still ranks as one of his best career tracks. Daytona, Pocono and New Hampshire have been kind to him in recent history and good tracks this season. Busch is a two-time winner at Pocono Raceway and he has four runner-up finishes there as well.

Jeff Gordon
Gordon's career numbers at Pocono Raceway are purely awe-inspiring. The four-time winner at the Pennsylvania oval has an astonishing 24 career Top 10's at the facility. In just his last eight races there alone, Gordon has one win, four Top 5's and six Top 10's. You can't go wrong when a driver boasts nearly a 70 percent Top 10 rate at a track over a 17-year history.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Pocono who can provide a solid finish

Juan Pablo Montoya
After disaster struck at Indianapolis, Montoya is still searching for that first victory of the season. While it won't likely happen at Pocono, he should have a good finish in store. Montoya enters this event on a three-race Top-10 streak at Pocono Raceway, and the similarities between this oval and the just-completed race at Indianapolis last week are very striking. Look for the No. 42 Chevrolet team unload another fast car this weekend.

Carl Edwards
Edwards has been heating up in recent week, and reminding us of the driver who won nine races in 2008. While he is still seeking his first win of the 2010 season, we can't count him out this Sunday. Pocono Raceway has been a very successful venue for this Roush Fenway Racing star. Edwards has led well over 200 laps for his career at the triangular track. Anything less than a Top-15 finish would be a major disappointment.

Kevin Harvick
The championship standings leader was woeful at Pocono Raceway earlier in his career, but he's really come on at the huge triangle in the last few seasons. Two of his six career Top 10's a the facility have come in just the last two years. Harvick led laps for the first time in his career at the oval this past June when he collected a career-best fourth-place finish at the track.

David Reutimann
Reutimann placed an emphatic stamp on his legitimacy as a driver with his recent win at Chicago. He out-dueled Jeff Gordon that night to capture his first non-rain shortened victory in Sprint Cup Series racing. The last time the series visited Pocono Raceway the No. 00 Toyota ran among the leaders and finished in the Top 15 of the Pocono 500. The team will almost certainly use the same chassis and setup that they raced so successfully here a few weeks ago.

A.J. Allmendinger
The Richard Petty Motorsports youngster has six career starts at Pocono Raceway and one Top-10 finish to his credit. Still, if you're looking for a safe shot at a Top-20 finish this weekend then Allmendinger is your man. Four of his last five starts at the tri-oval and come home inside the Top 20. Allmendinger should make a safe fantasy play this weekend.

Sam Hornish Jr.
Hornish fell off the solid pace that he put up in 2009, but he's managing to turn in a solid performance occasionally this season. One of those highlights came at Pocono back in June. The driver of the No. 77 Dodge led 16 laps late in the Pocono 500 and looked like a potential race winner before losing the lead to Denny Hamlin. Hornish fell back in traffic but still finished a respectable 11th that day. We're willing to bet that was a run to build on for this Penske Racing driver.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jamie McMurray
Nothing has seemed to go well for McMurray the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Pocono Raceway. At lap 168, while mired way back in traffic, the Earnhardt Ganassi driver got into a tangle with David Ragan and crashed out of the event. It capped what can only be described as a frustrating resume for McMurray at Pocono. With only three career Top 10's in 15 starts at the tri-oval, prospects don't look good for the Pennsylvania 500. Sorry, but we have to be pessimistic even after the big Brickyard 400 win.

Greg Biffle
Couple a bad history at this track with some mediocre performance this season and you have Biffle and his No. 16 team. The veteran has been a Top 15 driver at Pocono in recent seasons, but no better than that. We expect so much more from one of the stars of the Roush Fenway Racing stable, but he hasn't delivered here over his career. With only two Top 10's to his credit at this track, there are better fantasy racing options out there this weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With finishes of 12th-, 27th-, 28th- and 19th-place in his last four starts at Pocono Raceway, you can easily see the reason for our pessimism entering this event. Earnhardt had some great finishes earlier in his career at Pocono when he was in his heyday at DEI, but since moving to Hendrick Motorsports the NASCAR icon has really struggled at this track. We're willing to bet the trend continues in this event.

Mark Martin
This season has been a real puzzle for the veteran Hendrick Motorsports driver. Martin has barely scratched for six Top 10's thus far this season through 20 races. While he sports a stellar 68 percent Top 10 rate for his career at this tri-oval, we have to overlook him due to his recent struggles. Martin is definitely a driver to avoid at Pocono Raceway.