As we venture deeper into June, we visit Pocono Raceway for the first of two races at the track this summer. The three-turn oval located in the mountains of Pennsylvania is unlike any oval track on the circuit. Pocono has been referred to many times over the years as the oval that races like a road course. The extremely long straight-aways and the three distinctly different corners are the primary reason why we have more of a road course feel. You can't hit the set up on your stock car to optimize all three turns, so the crew chiefs have to make their cars as comfortable for the drivers as possible. This usually means making the car easier to turn in two of the three corners and sacrificing the other. So, this track races nothing like an oval at all, but functions more like a road course due to the relatively flat banking and three distinctly different turns.
Since we'll be racing for the first time this season at Pocono Raceway this weekend we need to take a quick look at the loop stats from this unique facility. Coming off of two intermediate oval races, we could see some shakeup in our driver group for this event. This track is so unlike any other on the circuit that we'll really need to focus on recent races at Pocono for this weekend's drivers. Current trends at this track should hold pretty true to form for this race, and we'll factor in the current hot streaks as needed as a predictive modifier. As you'll see in the table 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 12 races at Pocono Raceway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUAL. PASSES||# of FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||DRIVER RATING|
|Martin Truex Jr.||16.2||328||32||4||898||82.7|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||21.1||352||25||9||1,137||78.8|
|Juan Pablo Montoya||18.5||250||9||5||706||77.4|
Pocono Raceway has been a venue dominated by many racing stables in the past few seasons. We've seen as much parity at Pocono as any other track on the circuit. Three different manufacturers have won at Pocono Raceway in the last four races, and now that Ford has regained momentum in the Sprint Cup Series, we could see a Ford driver collect their second straight victory at the three-cornered oval. Roush and Gibbs teams have fared very well at the Pennsylvania track in the last few years, and we expect those teams to be out front again on Sunday. Denny Hamlin has been searching for his first victory of the season, so we're visiting Pocono Raceway at a very good time for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. The last time we saw action at this racing triangle, Greg Biffle picked up the win for owner Jack Roush and the Ford stable. The way all of the Roush teams have been racing this season, Biffle must surely be optimistic about the prospects of defending his Pocono victory this weekend. We'll examine the recent trends as well some historical stats at Pocono and give you the drivers that you need to dominate this weekend in the 5-Hour Energy 500.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
The driver of the No. 99 Ford has such a great resume at Pocono that he's nearly a mandatory fantasy racing play this Sunday. Edwards owns two career victories at Pocono Raceway and a 50 percent Top 10 rate at the facility. In his last effort at the Pennsylvania oval, he brought home a brilliant third-place finish after starting the race a lowly 25th. That performance came during one of the worst slumps of Edwards' NASCAR career, so you can imagine our expectations for him this weekend.
Hamlin is the statistical leader in a lot of categories at Pocono Raceway and he boasts the best driver rating of the field in the last 12 races at the three-turn oval. He has led close to 500 laps and owns four victories at the track in his brief Sprint Cup career. The No. 11 Toyota was incredibly fast at Pocono in this event one year ago. Hamlin led 88 laps and cruised home to his second win in the last three races at this facility. Despite being winless in 2011, he has to be seen as the top contender for the victory in this event.
Kahne is riding the momentum of a great month of May coming into this Pocono weekend. That's great news for the No. 4 Toyota team. Kahne has had great runs in the past at the unusual oval. He's a two-time pole-winner and one-time race winner at Pocono Raceway. Kahne has led close to 150 laps in his last six races at this Pennsylvania oval, so he knows what it takes to race up front here. The Red Bull Racing star has had fast cars the last month or so and that shouldn't change this Sunday afternoon.
While Harvick may not have the best loop stats or finishing stats at Pocono Raceway, we have to give a nod this weekend to the surging Richard Childress driver. By mere luck or by skill, the No. 29 team has managed to collect three wins already this season. Harvick has managed to hang around in races and put himself in the position to win late. He races well enough at the Pocono oval to be worthy of prime fantasy racing consideration, and his pair of fourth-place efforts here last season are evidence enough.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning
Up until last season's victory in the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500, Biffle had yet to really make his mark on Pocono Raceway. That all changed when he captured the lead from Sam Hornish Jr. with 20 laps to go and held on to win his first Pocono race. His career average finish still stands at a sup-bar 17.1 at this 2.5-mile triangle, but Roush's current momentum coupled with Biffle's mastering of this track last season should equal a Top-10 finish by the time 500 miles are on the board in the 5-Hour Energy 500.
Pocono Raceway isn't one of Johnson's best tracks, but in his nine years of racing the Pennsylvania tri-oval he's collected two victories and 12 Top-10 finishes. The defending Sprint Cup champion has Top 10's in two of his last three trips to this facility. Despite some subpar performances of late, Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports squad should be good enough to battle out a Top-10 finish this Sunday afternoon.
Kenseth has been racing as well as anyone in the series of late. The Roush Fenway Racing star has never won at Pocono Raceway and he's never really been a big time performer at this unusual track. However, the No. 17 team has been just too good the last several weeks to ignore from a fantasy racing standpoint. Considering how well Kenseth's teammates have performed at Pocono the last several years, it would be unwise to leave him on the bench this week. The veteran driver has never posted a DNF at Pocono and he's not finished outside the Top 20 there since 2005. Roll Kenseth with confidence this week.
While Stewart has had anything but a consistent season, we have to pay him some respect at one of his better tracks. He just seems to come to life at the triangular Pocono Raceway. Smoke owns two career wins at Pocono with the last coming in this event two years ago. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has won three of the last four poles at this facility and forged Top-3 finishes in four of the last five. If Stewart is going to find his stride any time soon it's going to be this weekend at Pocono Raceway.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Pocono who can provide a solid finish
Martin Truex Jr.
The No. 56 MWR team has been an up-and-down performer this season. Truex has three Top-10 finishes to this point in the season and is well ahead of last year's pace. His crew chief Pat Tryson led Kurt Busch to a win at this huge triangle back in 2007, so the veteran chief knows how to setup the car for this unusual track. Evidence of Tryson's expertise at Pocono was evident when Truex and the No. 56 team posted a ninth-place finish at this facility last August.
As we come out of the Kansas race weekend, we gain a new appreciation for the No. 22 Dodge team. At this point we can easily say that Busch is a threat to win almost any weekend from this point on in the season. The veteran driver has had a great deal of success at the Pennsylvania oval with two victories and 10 Top 10's. Busch has led well over 350 laps for his career at Pocono Raceway, so he's sure to running up front this weekend.
The Red Bull Racing veteran finally appears to be regaining his "racing legs" after the long layoff in 2010. Vickers has two Top 10's in his last five races, and he is fresh off a pair of Top 20's at both Charlotte and Kansas. He has five career Top-10 finishes in 12 starts at the Pennsylvania tri-oval, including his last start which he crossed the line sixth in the 2009 Pennsylvania 500. All indicators point to a good finish for the No. 83 team on Sunday afternoon.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With the NASCAR icon narrowly missing victory lane each of the last two races, we have to take notice from a fantasy racing standpoint. This is where current hot streaks can often trump historical data at any racing oval. Earlier in Earnhardt's NASCAR career, he led laps and finished up front at the 2.5-mile triangle. His first nine starts at Pocono saw Earnhardt collect four Top 10's and lead 89 laps in those starts. The Hendrick Motorsports star is capable of returning to that form in Sunday's 5-Hour Energy 500.
After a pole position at Charlotte, and a race win at Kansas, we have to take a serious look at the Penske Racing No. 2 team. Keselowksi has taken over 65 starts in the Sprint Cup Series car to find his comfort level with this stock car. Finally, it looks as though the driver we saw win the 2010 Nationwide Series championship will begin to translate that success to NASCAR's top division. While Keselowski's first two Cup efforts at Pocono (21st- and 20th-place finishes) are nothing to write home about, we have a feeling he'll impress in this event.
One of our favorite, hot "C" tier drivers in Yahoo Fantasy Racing right now is Ragan. His No. 6 Ford has been strong thanks to the new Ford engines that are making all the Roush teams strong. Ragan finds himself a lofty 17th in the driver standings, with four Top 10's on the season. This streak shouldn't slow down at Pocono. Ragan earned a Top 15 last August at Pocono Raceway, and we should see a similar effort this Sunday afternoon.
Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs
The No. 31 team have certainly had their struggles this season. Burton has been nothing short of a bust 13 races into this season. He has good Pocono stats with Top 10's in 50 percent of his starts at this big triangle, including a pair in last year's two Pocono races. However, Burton enters this event 24th in the driver standings with no Top-10 finishes yet this season. Those numbers are of great concern even heading to one of Burton's better tracks.
Busch showed that he was human yet again at Kansas Speedway this past weekend. He led a scant 11 laps and battled just to finish a sub-par 12th at one of his poorer tracks on the circuit. We expect more of the same at Pocono Raceway this week. We're in a bad part of the schedule for the Joe Gibbs Racing star, and he'll muddle through it to very "Un-Kyle Busch-like" numbers. Only three of his 12 career starts at this 2.5-mile oval have netted Top 10 results.
Another driver who is struggling tremendously this year is McMurray. After impressing in 2010 with three of the most prestigious wins of last season, the No. 1 team has fallen off the map in 2011. McMurray enters this event 27th in the driver standings with only two Top 10's thus far this season. He's fresh off a dismal 29th-place finish in the STP 400 at Kansas this past weekend, so this team's struggles are far from over.
What started out as such a promising season for the new Richard Childress Motorsports driver has sort of hit the wall in recent weeks. Menard logged three Top-10 finishes in his first seven races of the season, and had people around the garage area talking possible Chase berth. However, April and May have seen the No. 27 team mired in a six-race Top 10 drought, and tumbling down the standings. Menard is likely to face more struggles this Sunday since his career average finish at Pocono is an unimpressive 25.6.