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Pennsylvania 400 Preview: Pocono Rewind

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 week the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series travels back to Pocono Raceway for the second and final race at the triangular 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 at this facility. So, it's not unreasonable to expect those drivers who performed 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 this vital information, it's not unusual to see season-sweeps or repeat winners at this 2.5-mile triangle. Repeating one's success at Pocono Raceway is more likely to happen than at almost any other track that the Sprint Cup Series visits. Given that Pocono was resurfaced prior to this season's first race, the learning curve may be a bit steeper this time around, but those teams that figured out the fastest way around the Tricky Triangle in June should have a leg up now that we've come to the August date at this tri-oval.

Given that this is the second race of 2012 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 the last race and recent performances 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 seven years or 15 races at Pocono Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Denny Hamlin9.35434266602,043117.6
Jimmie Johnson9.16862132432,278106.7
Kurt Busch12.95382994422,029105.8
Jeff Gordon10.96601061162,159100.3
Tony Stewart9.765880652,07599.3
Carl Edwards13.65641692121,78697.1
Ryan Newman12.071527372,19094.9
Mark Martin11.757781972,05594.8
Kevin Harvick10.36303151,81390.8
Matt Kenseth14.763834271,73189.3
Kasey Kahne18.96111761461,73789.3
Jeff Burton14.758166341,84988.6
Kyle Busch18.355171631,77386.5
Joey Logano18.0255509366886.2
Greg Biffle18.1578901091,83385.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.18.452741451,65685.0
Martin Truex Jr.15.73993341,02980.8
Clint Bowyer15.744128911,08679.2
Juan Pablo Montoya18.5357204695478.6
Brad Keselowski16.6112291928775.1

Season sweeps are not common at Pocono, but they're not unheard of either. Twice in the last 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. The “sweep watch” will fall on Joey Logano this Sunday afternoon. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster out-dueled Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Pocono in June to collect his second career Sprint Cup Series win. It was a great effort from the No. 20 Toyota team, and Logano who is most likely building his racing resume for a move somewhere else in 2013. That impending free agency urgency could be a motivator again this weekend at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. We expect Logano and this same group of contenders to unload fast race cars again this weekend. Two drivers who were expected to make a big splash in June's Pocono 400 were Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch. Both had really high expectations, but an engine failure ended Busch's hopes and a late-race crash did the same to Kahne. These two should certainly rebound given their good historical stats at Pocono and how well both performed last weekend at Indianapolis. The one other thing to note about June's Pocono 400 is that NASCAR changed the length of this race to 400 miles instead of the usual 500 miles. This turns the event more into a sprint to the finish, where track position and two-tire pit stops are king rather than a battle of survival. This theme should remain well in place for Sunday's Pennsylvania 400. 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 -
Hamlin is the electronic scoring statistical leader at this oval going into this weekend's Pocono race, but he's not won at the oval since early 2010. The four-time Pocono winner has led significant laps in 10 of his 13 starts at this unusual facility, so the Joe Gibbs Racing star is used to racing up front at Pocono. Hamlin led 21 laps earlier this season at Pocono Raceway, but poor pit strategy foiled his attempt to visit victory lane and he finished fifth. 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 fourth victory of the season in the Pennsylvania 400. Stewart has quite a resume at this three-turn oval, and his 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 has an astounding five Top-3 finishes in his last eight starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval, so he and the No. 14 team have this place dialed-in. Stewart has finished 97 percent of his laps at this facility with only two career DNFs, so that is a bit of security with his selection.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson hasn't won at Pocono Raceway since 2004. Still, you can't count out the No. 48 team any race weekend. The five-time champion has a string of three consecutive fourth-place finishes at the Pocono triangle, so he's just a tick off winning again at this facility. Johnson is a two-time Pocono winner and he's currently entering this race on a hot streak with the big win at Indianapolis last weekend. A Top-10 finish in the Pennsylvania 400 goes without saying, and if the breaks go the team's way Johnson could visit victory lane for the first time in eight seasons at Pocono Raceway.

Joey Logano -
Our Pocono winner from early-June has a tall task ahead of him to sweep this tri-oval this weekend, but we feel its well within the range of possibility. Logano has won the last two pole positions at the 2.5-mile tri-oval in the Pocono Mountains and he's led 44 and 49 laps respectively in each of those events. Whatever the No. 20 Toyota team has figured out about this facility, it seems to be working really well. Logano is racing up front and contending for wins at this track. Remember that in June's Pocono 400 the Joe Gibbs Racing youngster took off and left the field on that final restart and cruised to the easy victory.

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

Mark Martin -
This season has been a pleasant surprise for the veteran Michael Waltrip Racing driver. Martin has three pole positions and five Top-10 finishes in his 13-race part-time schedule to this point in the year. He sports a stellar 67 percent Top 10 rate for his career at this tri-oval, which spans an incredible 51 starts. Martin finished a brilliant second-place in June's Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway, so the setup for this weekend should be easy enough for the No. 55 Toyota team. He should have a fast car and all the experience to over-perform in Sunday's Pennsylvania 400.

Brad Keselowski -
Despite his sub-par 18th-place finish here last June, we're undeterred regarding Keselowski this weekend. He has been one of the hottest drivers in the series the last month with one victory had four straight Top-10 finishes the last four races. We have only to look back on this event one year ago to see his potential at Pocono with Keselowski's big victory here last season. The Penske Racing star's flat track racing prowess was on full display at Indy this past weekend by leading 22 laps and finishing a respectable ninth. Keselowski is poised to rebound at the Tricky Triangle on Sunday afternoon.

Matt Kenseth -
After being in the wrong place at the wrong time this past weekend at Indianapolis and being caught up in Joey Logano's accident, Kenseth is on the comeback trail at Pocono this week. The Roush Fenway Racing star fell from the championship standings lead after his Indy crash, so we know Kenseth will be motivated on Sunday afternoon. The veteran driver has Top 10s in two of his last three visits to the 2.5-mile triangle in Pennsylvania, and that includes his 11 laps led and seventh-place finish here in June. We look for the No. 17 Ford team to unload another fast car this weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The NASCAR icon made believers of us this past weekend at Indianapolis. The historic speedway hasn't really been the site of much success for Earnhardt over his career, but he turned in an incredible Top 5 run none-the-less. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Pocono, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet beat himself that day. Earnhardt led 36 laps and had a powerful race car, but poor pit strategy relegated him to an eighth-place finish. He rides a three-race Top 10 streak at the Pocono tri-oval into this weekend. We see a tremendous amount of upside in an Earnhardt fantasy racing selection in the Pennsylvania 400.

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

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon's career numbers at Pocono Raceway are simply awe-inspiring. The five-time winner at the Pennsylvania oval picked up his fifth career trophy in the June 2011 event, so his success at this oval is longstanding and quite recent. That victory ties him with Bill Elliott for the all-time lead in wins at Pocono Raceway. When Gordon isn't getting a post-race victory shower, he's not far off the point. The Hendrick Motorsports star cracks the Top 5 at an astounding 44 percent rate and the Top 10 at 69 percent. His Top 5 run at Indy this past weekend is a good indicator of potential this Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Busch -
Pocono Raceway has been a boom-or-bust track for Busch during his colorful NASCAR career. There are signs that this situation is improving though. The No. 18 team has turned in three of their best performances at the huge triangle in the last five trips to the Mountains of Pennsylvania. Those efforts have netted a pair of runner-up finishes and one third-place finish. Busch's Toyota had an engine failure here in June and a resulting DNF, so a rebound will be expected. The Joe Gibbs Racing star's second-place finish at Indianapolis this past week is a good indicator of a hot streak coming on. Signs point to another strong effort for Busch at the Tricky Triangle.

Ryan Newman -
It seems that the recent news that primary sponsor the U.S. Army is leaving the No. 39 team next season has motivated and fired up this driver and team. Newman enters this week on a three-race Top 10 streak and finally showing some signs of life this season. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran will be happy to see the Tricky Triangle this weekend as it is one of his favorite facilities. Newman is a one-time Pocono winner and checks in at a respectable 43 percent career Top 10 rate. That averages out to a nice 12.7 average finish at the Pennsylvania tri-oval. For a measure of confidence, hang your hat on the fact that Rocket Man hasn't finished outside the Top 15 at this track since way back in 2008.

Paul Menard -
Coming off his first ever Sprint Cup Series Top 10 at Pocono Raceway in June, how can we not list Menard in the sleepers list this week? The Richard Childress Racing driver used good pit strategy and good moves to finish ninth in the Pocono 400. Menard's last four Pocono Raceway starts have yielded 13th-, 14th-, 10th- and ninth-place finishes. Considering that the driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet just put the finishing touches on a respectable 14th-place finish at Indianapolis, we are very confident in Menard this weekend at Pocono Raceway.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer didn't break a sweat putting the No. 15 Toyota in the Top 10 at Pocono Raceway back in June. He just keeps building on an impressive resume at the huge triangle. The Michael Waltrip Racing star has six career Top-10 finishes at this facility and 91 laps led in 13 starts. It's not Bowyer's favorite track, but he does get around it rather well as the numbers illustrate. His Top 15 run at Indianapolis this past weekend is likely the low end of what to expect for this driver and team in Sunday's Pennsylvania 400.

Marcos Ambrose -
One would think that road racing expert Ambrose would have good numbers and love racing at Pocono, but it's very much the opposite. After cracking the Top 10 in his first career start at the 2.5-mile oval, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver failed to crack the Top 25 the next four races at Pocono with two DNFs in that span. However, the last couple races at the Tricky Triangle have been very encouraging for Ambrose. In this event one year ago he finished 20th and in June of this year the driver of the No. 9 Ford forged a solid 13th-place finish after racing in the Top 10 for major parts of that race. Ambrose had a whopping 56 quality passes in that event, which was second best of the field.

Regan Smith -
It seems the recent crew chief change at the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 team has had the desired effect. Todd Berrier helped lead Smith to a respectable Top-20 finish at the Brickyard and will look to continue building chemistry with his new driver and team at Pocono this week. Smith has done fairly well in past efforts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. He qualified seventh here in June and finished an impressive 16th. That effort was Smith's third Top-20 finish in the last five trips to the Pocono Mountains track. Berrier and Smith should have no trouble duplicating that success this Sunday afternoon.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kasey Kahne -
Misfortune was the word at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Sunday, and that trend could possibly continue into this weekend's Pennsylvania 400. Kahne muddled his way to a 12th-place finish at the Brickyard and snapped a three-race Top 10 streak in the process. Prospects for a rebound at Pocono seem slim. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has had a rough go at the 2.5-mile tri-oval in recent visits. Kahne crashed and finished 29th here in June, and that was one of two DNFs here in the last five starts. He hasn't cracked the Top 10 here since 2009, and has three finishes outside the Top 20 here since that time.

Greg Biffle -
Despite his Top 5 at Indianapolis this past weekend, we're still recommending you bench Biffle this week at Pocono. He won this event two years ago, but has been a spotty Pocono performer over his career. When the Sprint Cup Series visited the huge triangle in June, the No. 16 Ford looked pretty good and led 19 laps. However, poor track position as a result of pit strategy resulted in a lowly 24th-place finish. With only four Top 10s in 19 career starts at Pocono Raceway, there is better fantasy racing options than Biffle out there this weekend.

Kurt Busch -
The two-time Pocono winner sat out the last race at the huge tri-oval in June of this year. Busch was suspended for one race due to his harsh remarks towards a reporter at Dover the week before. It's been the season from hell for the Phoenix Racing driver. Busch has only a scant two Top 10s through the first 19 races of 2012. Outside of his Top 5 at Sonoma a few weeks ago there has been little to cheer about if you're a fan of the No. 51 Chevrolet team. Finishes of 35th, 24th and 36th the last three events hang ominously over the start at Pocono, and his missing this race in June doesn't help matters with the new racing surface.

Aric Almirola -
What started as a good campaign in 2012, has turned a bit south for Richard Petty Motorsports driver Almirola. He did barely crack the Top 20 at Indy this past week, but that was only his second Top-20 finish in the last five races. In June of this year Almirola made his first career Sprint Cup Series start at Pocono Raceway. The results were quite predictable. The young driver struggled with the handling on his No. 43 Ford and limped home to a sub-par 28th-place finish in the Pocono 400. We're not too optimistic that he can improve on that effort this Sunday afternoon.
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