This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
Now that we're 13 races into the 26 that determines the field for the Chase, we're on the downhill run toward NASCAR's postseason. 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. Since we will be racing the three-turn oval for the first time in 2016, the teams and drivers will be in information gathering mode. The
Now that we're 13 races into the 26 that determines the field for the Chase, we're on the downhill run toward NASCAR's postseason. 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. Since we will be racing the three-turn oval for the first time in 2016, 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 11 years or 22 races at Pocono Raceway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||15.1||795||108||89||2,493||93.2|
|Martin Truex Jr.||15.3||595||97||114||1,603||85.0|
Pocono Raceway had been a venue up for grabs for years. Historically, we've seen as much manufacturer parity at Pocono as any place the Sprint Cup Series races. However, the last few seasons saw Chevrolet ascend to the top of the heap and take six of the last seven victories at the Pennsylvania triangle. That bowtie dominance includes Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s sweep of the oval in 2014. Prior to that, Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne took three of the other victories at this facility. When the Sprint Cup Series visited here in this event one year ago, Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 78 team took the lead from Kevin Harvick and led the final 27 laps to capture the victory at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. Truex returns to defend his race title this weekend, but this time in a Toyota instead of a Chevy.
The defending Pocono champion faces tough odds to repeat as other Toyota drivers are coming off victories and Dover and Kansas in two of the last three events. Considering the roll that Joe Gibbs Racing is on right now, it will be hard to keep any of their drivers out of victory lane at the Tricky Triangle. Joe Gibbs Racing star Denny Hamlin has been searching for his second 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 Charlotte (fourth-place), he is certainly trending north coming into the Axalta We Paint Winners 400. Another Gibbs drivers to consider this week would be Carl Edwards. He is a two-time Pocono winner, and looking to pick up his third win of 2016 entering this weekend. Considering how the No. 19 Toyota team is building momentum entering this weekend, Edwards will be a decent-shot at career win number three at this facility on Sunday afternoon.
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 2016, so it's not unreasonable to imagine either driver stealing this win and replacing Chevy with Ford atop the Pocono heap. 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 Axalta We Paint Winners 400 at Pocono Raceway.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Martin Truex Jr. - The driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet has looked like a world-beater over the last three events. Truex has two pole positions, over 600 laps led, one victory and two Top-10 finishes during this span. He cashed in on a dominant victory at Charlotte this past weekend and he's looking for more. Pocono Raceway could be yet another strong outing for the Furniture Row Racing star. Truex led 97 laps and won this event one year ago in dominant style for his first Pocono victory. It was the culmination of his improving performance in recent seasons at this tri-angular oval. Truex is on fire coming to the Pocono Mountains this weekend, and there's little doubt he's the guy to beat in the Axalta We Paint Winners 400.
Joey Logano - Another driver who is showing plenty of speed of late, but looking for his first win of the season is Logano. Bad luck and bad breaks have kept him out of victory lane so far in 2016, but that could change this Sunday afternoon. Logano has two-career pole positions, 220 laps led, one victory and five Top-10 finishes in his Pocono starts. In his start at the Tricky Triangle one year ago, Logano qualified 11th on the starting grid and finished fourth in that 400-mile battle. He returned a few weeks later to qualify third, lead 97 laps, but finishing a disappointing 20th in the Windows 10 400. The young driver has this track figured out, and we're willing to bet Logano hasn't forgotten his recent lessons in success at the Pocono tri-oval.
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 led 47 laps and claimed runner-up finishes in two of his last three Pocono starts. That was the veteran driver's best efforts in recent memory at the three-turn oval. Harvick has only 11-career Top-10 finishes at the raceway tucked away in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. That works out to a lowly 37-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.
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 five Top-10 finishes in 12 starts, but those have all come in his last nine starts at the facility. Two of his last four starts at Pocono Raceway have netted 98 laps led and a pair of runner-up finishes. The Penske Racing star has been edging closer to his second-career win at this track. Riding a four-race Top-10 streak entering the weekend that includes one win and a pair of Top 5s, he has a lot of upside in this Sunday's 400-mile race at the Tricky Triangle.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Jimmie Johnson - Pocono Raceway isn't one of Johnson's best tracks, but in his 14 years of racing the Pennsylvania tri-oval he's collected three victories and 19 Top-10 finishes. The six-time Sprint Cup champion had a pretty good season at the three-turn oval last year. Johnson led no laps but claimed a pair of Top-10 finishes in the two races here last season. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet enters the weekend on the comeback trail. His third-place effort at Charlotte this past week snapped a three-race Top-10 drought. There's no more solid name you need in your fantasy racing lineup this weekend for the Axalta We Paint Winners 400.
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. He swept both races here in 2014, and he rides a six-race Top-11 streak at the Tricky Triangle into this weekend's 400-mile event. That's more success than Earnhardt had in several seasons earlier in his career at this facility. Now that the NASCAR icon has this challenging oval figured out, we have to take him very serious each time the series visits the Pocono Mountains. He hasn't looked terribly impressive in the last couple weeks, but the No. 88 team should jump to life this weekend.
Denny Hamlin - 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 22 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 Charlotte Motor Speedway last weekend, and Hamlin cashed in with a strong fourth-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600. The Joe Gibbs Racing star appears to be gathering momentum since he's riding a two-race Top-10 streak, so Hamlin should be excited about the prospect of visiting one of his better ovals this weekend.
Kurt Busch - The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has had a pretty good season so far, building on his strong 2015 campaign. His current seven-race Top-10 streak and 11 Top-10 finishes for the season have allowed him to climb all the way to second-place in the driver standings. There's more than a reasonable chance for Busch to finish well this week at the Pocono tri-oval. The Pennsylvania track has yielded two wins and 16 Top-10 finishes over the years to the veteran driver. Of late, Busch has claimed Top 10s in four of his last six visits to Pocono, despite racing for a couple different teams over those starts. He should keep his Pocono excellence going in Sunday's 400-mile race.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Pocono who can provide a solid finish
Matt Kenseth - The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been coming around of late. Kenseth rides a three-race Top-10 streak that includes a win into Pocono this week. The three-turn Pennsylvania oval has been a real puzzle for the veteran driver until recently. Kenseth broke through last August for his first Pocono win in his 32nd-career start at the facility. In this event one year ago he claimed a strong sixth-place finish in the Axalta We Paint Winners 400. Those Top 10s raised his career rate to just 38-percent, but things are looking very positive for this weekend. The No. 20 Toyota team's current hot streak, and Kenseth's improved performance of late at Pocono should not be overlooked.
Chase Elliott - As we come out of the Charlotte race weekend, we gain a renewed appreciation for the No. 24 Chevrolet team and rookie driver Elliott. At this point we can confidently say that the young driver should no longer be seen as a rookie, and he should get weekly Top-10 consideration even at tracks where he's debuting as a Sprint Cup driver. This will be his first-career start at Pocono Raceway in any division of NASCAR, so these will truly be "green laps" for Elliott this weekend. However, he's made the same debuts at other tracks this season with stellar results. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is riding a four-race Top-10 streak into the Axalta We Paint Winners 400, so momentum is on Elliott's side.
Ryan Newman - The Richard Childress Racing veteran needs another good performance to continue rebounding from some recent struggles and challenges. He posted a steady 10th-place finish at Charlotte this past weekend and that makes a pair of Top 10s in his last three starts. Pocono's triangle has been one of his better venues over his 15-season career. Newman owns 14 career Top-10 finishes at the big triangle for an impressive 50-percent rate. That includes five of his last seven starts at Pocono Raceway. While his No. 31 team is dealing with some current issues, that shouldn't stop the veteran driver from extending his Pocono Raceway success this weekend in this 400-mile race.
Kyle Larson - The strong last three weeks has breathed life back into this slumping No. 42 team. Larson's runner-up finish at Dover was followed by a great All-Star outing and Top-15 finish in last weekend's Coca-Cola 600. While he has had anything but a consistent season, we have to pay him some respect at one of his better tracks. Larson has four-career starts at Pocono Raceway. The young Chip Ganassi Racing driver has claimed one pole position along with fifth-, 11th-, eighth- and 12th-place finishes at this facility the past two seasons. That's not bad for a young driver and really shows how quickly Larson adapted to racing at this unusual oval. Coming off the season-best performance at Dover and great finishes at Charlotte, we have high expectations for Larson in this 400-mile event.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - The young Roush Fenway Racing driver has a short Pocono Raceway resume, and it doesn't have the greatest results. Stenhouse has only one Top-15 finish vs. three finishes outside the Top 30 in his six-career starts. We have good reason to believe he'll turn the corner this weekend. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has had a good season to this point, and he rides a three-race Top-15 streak into the Pocono Mountains. The Roush Fenway driver has been qualifying extremely well since the Talladega race, and he's put that good starting track position to good use. Stenhouse has been staying on the lead lap, maintaining the Top 15 and finishing there since the beginning of May. He should be poised for a career-best Pocono finish this weekend.
Greg Biffle - Another struggling driver who has been showing signs of life of late has been Biffle and his No. 16 team. He finished 11th in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte this past weekend and narrowly missed his first Top 10 of the season. Considering that the No. 16 Ford was seen up front all night in this event, it was a standout performance. Biffle now visits one of his more favorable ovals of the past few seasons in Pocono Raceway. The veteran driver has one-career victory at Pocono (2010) and he has three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his last six trips to the Pennsylvania raceway. That includes a strong fifth-place effort at the tri-oval last August in the Windows 10 400. Biffle should be happy to see the Pocono triangle this Sunday afternoon.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Kyle Busch - Busch has struggled for many seasons at Pocono Raceway. With only eight Top 10s as compared to 5 DNF's in his 22 starts at the Tricky Triangle it ranks as one of his least successful tracks on the circuit. Bad things just seem to happen to the No. 18 team when racing at this facility. Busch has had some struggles entering this weekend as well. Crashes at Dover and Charlotte have dropped him from second to fourth in the driver point standings. Having any fantasy racing expectations for Busch this week might be asking a lot considering his poor record at this oval and his current state of performance.
Kasey Kahne - Kahne is looking to rebound coming into this Pocono weekend. With only four Top-10 finishes for the season, he enters Pocono weekend a disappointing 20th 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 big. Kahne has two career wins at the Pocono oval, and four Top-3 finishes. However, more recent visits have been less encouraging. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has only one Top 10 in his last four trips to Pocono Raceway vs. a pair of finishes outside the Top 40 over the same span. Kahne is a high-risk fantasy racing play for the Axalta We Paint Winners 400.
Aric Almirola - The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has had some serious struggles this season. Almirola has yet to crack the Top 10 through the first 13 races and he only has one Top-20 finish in the last nine events entering Pocono weekend. That puts him a lowly 26th in the driver standings coming into this 400-mile race. Pocono Raceway has been a track full of struggles for this veteran driver over his Sprint Cup Series career. Almirola has only three Top-20 finishes in eight-career starts and an average finish of 25.6. Given his recent level of performance he'll struggle to hit that mark this Sunday afternoon, and that's well below where we expect the No. 43 team to perform.
Danica Patrick - While she's been racing pretty well this season, this facility is one that throws up all kinds of caution flags for the Stewart Haas Racing driver. Patrick has only six-career starts at this difficult tri-oval. Those were 29th-, 35th-, 37th-, 30th-, 37th- and 16th-place finishes. Since the Xfinity Series doesn't race at Pocono Raceway, Patrick missed out on the valuable exposure early on at 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 success here make the driver of the No. 10 Chevrolet a no-go option for this race.