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Weekly Preview: Can Johnson's Streak Continue?

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 we pass the halfway point in the run up to the Chase for the Cup as the series will pay a visit to 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 other 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. These factors make this track race not like an oval at all, but more like a road course due to the relatively flat banking and three distinctly different turns. Now that we're 13 races into the 26 that determines the field for the Chase, we're on the downhill run towards NASCAR's post-season. The tricky triangle in Pocono makes a good, challenging track to mark the start of the second half in the Sprint Cup Series regular season. The newest generation stock car will be a bit of a wildcard this Sunday afternoon. Since we will be racing the three-turn oval for the first time in 2014, the teams and drivers will be in information gathering mode. The lessons learned in this race will be quickly employed in the second race of the season at Pocono, which is just a few short weeks away. As has been the case this year, the drivers with a good historical record at a track usually are the ones to quickly hit the ground running on a race weekend. We expect to see our historical Pocono drivers unload fast cars right off the hauler at Pocono Raceway.

Since we'll be racing for the first time this season at Pocono Raceway we need to take a quick look at the loop stats for this unique facility. Coming off the races at Dover and Charlotte, 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, 2.5-mile Pennsylvania track. The loop stats shown below cover the last nine years or 18 races at Pocono Raceway.

Jimmie Johnson9.27752714582,610109.3
Denny Hamlin12.65934346632,257109.1
Kurt Busch12.96743064542,378104.7
Jeff Gordon9.97781251312,481101.1
Tony Stewart9.179283682,41698.5
Carl Edwards13.36631762212,11797.3
Ryan Newman10.882336582,52796.4
Kasey Kahne17.97012962131,98892.8
Kevin Harvick10.97123552,04289.6
Matt Kenseth16.270645321,98689.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.661063641,99589.1
Greg Biffle16.6711971092,22188.1
Kyle Busch17.863680632,08386.8
Brian Vickers17.2429721581,43386.6
Brad Keselowski13.6237494562386.5
Joey Logano15.6351519390986.3
Jeff Burton16.163066341,93185.1
Martin Truex Jr.15.347335111,19881.2
Clint Bowyer15.154031911,38980.7
Marcos Ambrose21.52708154573.8

Pocono Raceway has been a venue up for grabs in the past few seasons. We've seen as much manufacturer parity at Pocono as any place the Sprint Cup Series races. However, there are indications that this may be changing. Chevrolet teams have risen above the fray and taken the last three straight events at the Pennsylvania triangle. Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne have taken the last three victories at this facility. When the Sprint Cup Series visited here in this event one year ago, Johnson and his No. 48 team dominated their way to victory lane at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. Given the roll and two-race win streak that he is on right now, Johnson has to be a heavy-odds favorite to defend his race win. Penske Ford drivers have also fared very well at the Pennsylvania track in the last few years, and we expect those teams to be racing with the leaders on Sunday afternoon. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano captured 2011 and 2012 victories at Pocono Raceway. Both have proven lately that they're in good enough form to challenge for the win. Both have visited victory lane in 2014, so it's not unreasonable to imagine either driver stealing this win. Joe Gibbs Racing star 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 driver of the No. 11 Toyota. Hamlin is a four-time Pocono winner and his No. 11 team sports some of the most dominant loop stats of any driver in the series at this triangular oval. Considering the performance Hamlin just turned in at Dover, he is certainly trending north coming into the Pocono 400. The Ford teams of Roush Fenway Racing are seeking desperately to get back into victory lane. Carl Edwards is a two-time Pocono winner, and looking to pick up his second victory of 2014 entering this weekend. Considering how well the driver of the No. 99 Ford is performing entering this weekend, he could easily notch career win number three at this facility on Sunday afternoon. 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 Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson -
Pocono Raceway isn't one of Johnson's best tracks, but in his 12 years of racing the Pennsylvania tri-oval he's collected three victories and 16 Top-10 finishes. The six-time Sprint Cup champion had quite a successful season at the three-turn oval last year. Johnson won pole positions for both races, led 171 laps and won this event one year ago. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet enters the weekend red-hot on a two-race win streak after the Dover victory. This is the trademark of this driver and team over the years. Wins come in bunches and when Johnson gets on a roll he's tough to beat. There's no other name you need in your fantasy racing lineup this weekend for the Pocono 400.

Kevin Harvick -
While Harvick may not have the best loop stats or finishing stats at Pocono Raceway, we have to give a fantasy racing nod of approval this weekend to the strong Stewart Haas Racing driver. He's claimed a pair of runner-up finishes in the last three races and he's led almost 800 laps for the season. Harvick has only nine career Top-10 finishes at the raceway tucked away in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. That works out to a lowly 35-percent rate. However, all drivers have their day eventually at their toughest tracks. This could be a weekend to remember for Harvick and the No. 4 team at Pocono Raceway.

Jeff Gordon -
As we come out of the Dover race weekend, we gain a renewed appreciation for the No. 24 Chevrolet team. At this point we can confidently say that Gordon has thrown out all the stops and is all in for this season's championship. The veteran driver knows he won't race forever, and he seems very determined to win this Sprint Cup crown. Gordon has had a great deal of success at the Pennsylvania oval with six victories and 29 Top 10s. Both marks are tops in the series among active drivers. He's won two races at this oval since 2011 and makes a good contender pick to challenge for the win in Sunday afternoon's Pocono 400.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is the statistical leader in a lot of categories at Pocono Raceway and he boasts the second-best driver rating of the field in the last 18 races at the three-turn oval. He has led close to 670 laps and owns four victories at the track in his Sprint Cup career. The No. 11 Toyota was incredibly fast at the Monster Mile last weekend and Hamlin finished fifth in the FedEx 400. The Joe Gibbs Racing star appears to be changing his fortunes in the last couple races so Hamlin should be excited about the prospect of visiting one of his better ovals this weekend.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Tony Stewart -
The Top-10 finish at the Monster Mile last week has breathed life back into this slumping No. 14 team. 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 and rides a four-race Top-10 streak at the Tricky Triangle entering this weekend. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has had some tough times this season, but there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. We expect this weekend's Pocono event to be one of those performances that leads to the annual summer hot streak for Stewart.

Ryan Newman -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran needs a good performance to turn around some recent woes. He's caught in a four-race Top-10 drought, but with high hopes since he's visiting one of his better ovals. Newman owns 12 career Top-10 finishes at the big triangle for an impressive 50-percent rate. That includes five of his last six starts at Pocono Raceway. While his No. 31 team is new to him, that shouldn't stop the veteran driver from bringing his Pocono Raceway success over to Richard Childress Racing this weekend in this 400-mile race.

Joey Logano -
Another driver who is performing well of late and likely to keep it going this week at Pocono is Logano. After racking up Top 10s in two of his last three races, we have to upgrade the Penske Racing driver for the Pocono 400. Logano has two pole positions, 93 laps led, one victory and three Top-10 finishes in his last five Pocono appearances. In this race one year ago, Logano came from 21st-place on the starting grid to finish 10th at the 2.5-mile triangle. The young driver is a star in the making, and we're willing to bet Logano hasn't forgotten his recent lessons in success at the Pocono tri-oval.

Brad Keselowski -
The Pocono book shows a driver that has had mixed results in his brief Sprint Cup career at the three-turn oval, but it has been trending north the last couple seasons. Keselowski owns only three Top-10 finishes in eight starts, but those have all come in his last five starts at the facility. In the last visit to Pocono Raceway the No. 2 Ford team led 14 laps and raced up a strong sixth-place finish after 400-miles of action. Coming off the Charlotte Top 10 and runner-up finish at Dover, Keselowski is settling into a nice groove. He has a lot of upside in this Sunday's Pocono 400.

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

Kyle Busch -
Busch struggled for many seasons at Pocono Raceway. However, he's been reversing those trends the last few seasons. Four of his last six visits to the Pennsylvania raceway have yielded Top-10 finishes. In 2013 alone, the Joe Gibbs Racing star earned sixth- and eighth-place finishes. We see this trend continuing in 2014 starting with this weekend's Pocono 400. Busch had a strong No. 18 Toyota at Dover this past weekend before unfortunate circumstances with the Clint Bowyer Toyota ended his day prematurely. He should rebound well at Pocono Raceway.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne is looking to hook up some momentum coming into this Pocono weekend. With only four Top-10 finishes for the season, he enters Pocono weekend a sup-bar 18th in the overall driver standings. The Hendrick Motorsports star has been a boom or bust driver at Pocono Raceway over the years, but when he booms he booms all the way to victory lane. Kahne has two career wins at the Pocono oval, and four Top-3 finishes. Two of those have come in the last three races. Since moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, Kahne has upped his game at this facility. Even though he's struggling, Kahne is worth a fantasy start in this race.

Kurt Busch -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has had just a terrible season. Outside of the Martinsville win, there's been little to cheer about if you're a fan of the No. 41 team. However, there is at least a good opportunity for Busch to finish well this week at the Pocono tri-oval. The Pennsylvania track has yielded two wins and 14 Top-10 finishes over the years to the veteran driver. Of late, Busch has claimed Top 10s in four of his last five visits to Pocono, despite racing for three different teams over those starts. He should rediscover his Pocono mo-jo in Sunday's 400-mile race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The Hendrick Motorsports teams have enjoyed tremendous success at Pocono Raceway in recent years, and Earnhardt's No. 88 team has been no exception. In just his last six starts alone, the NASCAR icon has earned five Top-10 finishes and led 55 laps at the Tricky Triangle. That's more success than Earnhardt had in several seasons earlier in his career. We see no reason for this to change this Sunday afternoon. Earnhardt and his crew chief Steve Letarte have this unique, three-turn oval pretty well figured out.

Brian Vickers -
Despite not having made a start at the oval since 2011 the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran shouldn't be off your radar screens this weekend. Vickers has five career Top 10s at the Pennsylvania triangle, and four of those were Top-5 finishes. While that success came earlier in his career, mostly at Hendrick Motorsports, it does demonstrate that he has a penchant for the unusual track. Vickers is coming off the disappointing engine failure at the Monster Mile, but prior to that he had two Top 10s in the last three starts. It all adds up to a Top-15 finish in Sunday's Pocono 400.

Marcos Ambrose -
Given that the Richard Petty Motorsports driver has his racing roots on road circuits, it's no surprise to see him in the sleepers list at Pocono Raceway. This triangular oval is often described as the oval that races like a road course, so Ambrose will feel right at home this weekend. The driver of the No. 9 Ford had a good pair of outings here in 2012. Ambrose collected finishes of 13th- and 10th-place in those Pocono events. Last season he earned 17th- and 12th-place finishes at the triangular oval. That brought his career totals to six Top-20 finishes in 10 starts at the facility. While Ambrose has been steadily improving at this oval during his Sprint Cup career, we should expect a similar performance this weekend.

Paul Menard -
Simply put, the Richard Childress Racing veteran is having a career season. To this point in 2014 Menard has seven Top-10 finishes and sits a surprising 14th in the championship standings. If the driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet can keep this pace up, he'll set career-best marks in Top 10s and finish the highest ever in the standings. Entering Pocono weekend, Menard has three Top-10 finishes in the last four races. Career numbers at the three-turn oval have been less than inspiring, but they've been trending up of late. Two of his last five starts at Pocono have netted Top-10 finishes.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Greg Biffle -
Biffle is a one-time Pocono winner, so it may seem odd that we've moved him to the avoid list this week. The victory in the 2010 Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 is one of only six Top 10s in 22 starts for the Roush Fenway Racing driver at the Tricky Triangle. He's found the going very difficult at this facility outside of that one career victory. Those six Top-10 finishes work out to a mere 27-percent rate. That's wildly inconsistent at best, and that's been the theme for this driver at this track over the years. Save Biffle on the bench this week and redeploy him at Michigan to greater effect.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The young Roush Fenway Racing driver has a short Pocono Raceway resume, but it's quite troublesome regardless. In his two career starts at the Pennsylvania raceway, Stenhouse has finishes of 26th- and 34th-place and they both came last season for the driver of the No. 17 Ford. Stenhouse has been anything but a world-beater in his second full season of Sprint Cup racing. With only three Top 10s to this point, he enters the weekend 26th in the overall driver standings. The trends aren't good, the history is worse, so it's best to pass on the young driver in Sunday's Pocono 400.

Danica Patrick -
While she's been racing better of late, this facility is one that throws up all kinds of caution flags for the Stewart Haas Racing driver. Patrick has only two career starts at this difficult tri-oval. Those were the 29th- and 35th-place finishes she earned here last season. Since the Nationwide Series doesn't race at Pocono Raceway, Patrick missed out on the valuable exposure to this facility that would be helping her at this point in her NASCAR career. The Pocono oval is quite difficult and challenging. That coupled with her lack of experience make the driver of the No. 10 Chevrolet a no-go option for this race.

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been nearly a weekly play this season in most league formats, so if you're looking for a reason to bench Kenseth this would be it. Despite leading the points coming into this event, this is a track where you're best to play it safe with the driver of the No. 20 Toyota. Pocono Raceway has not been a good facility for Kenseth over the years. He has no victories, 55 laps led and sports merely a 36- percent Top-10 rate at the Tricky Triangle. This weekend will likely be one of the few occasions this season when the No. 20 team is not the team to beat on a given Sunday. Give him a richly-deserved week off at Pocono Raceway.