This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
Considering that this is the second race of 2018 at Pocono Raceway, we need to take a quick look at the loop stats for this unique facility. This track is so unlike any other on the circuit
Considering that this is the second race of 2018 at Pocono Raceway, we need to take a quick look at the 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 13 years or 27 races at Pocono Raceway.
|LAPS IN |
|Martin Truex Jr.||14.9||733||182||197||2,072||86.9|
Season sweeps are not common at Pocono, but they're not unheard of either. Three times in just over 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. More recently, Dale Earnhardt Jr. grabbed the broom and swept away in 2014. 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 Furniture Row Racing sensation Martin Truex Jr. this Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 78 Toyota out-dueled Kyle Busch in the caution-filled, closing laps at Pocono in June and picked up his second-career Monster Energy Cup Series victory at the Tricky Triangle. It was an impressive effort from the veteran driver, and Truex will be a prime contender to win again this weekend.
Truex wasn't the only strong driver that afternoon in June. There were several strong teams and suitors for victory lane at Pocono. Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Truex, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick all flexed their muscles at the front of the pack. They're likely the best list of candidates to step up their game for Sunday's Gander Outdoors 400. Two drivers who were expected to make a big splash in June's Pocono 400 were Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones. Both had really high expectations, but both had their separate issues en route to poor finishes that afternoon. These two certainly have the capability to rebound given their good historical stats at Pocono Raceway, but it would be wise to use caution before buying fantasy racing shares of either this weekend. One other thing to keep in mind this week in Pennsylvania is that all three manufacturers have won at this facility in the last five events. That means that manufacturer parity is at an all-time high at Pocono. For Toyota, the X-factor this weekend is certainly Busch. He unloads dominant race cars each weekend, but somehow finds ways to miss victory lane. His runner-up finish at New Hampshire this past week is a prime example. Will the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team find their way back into the win column this weekend? There's definitely a very good chance. Considering the recent race at the 2.5-mile triangle 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
Martin Truex Jr. - One of the biggest highlights of Truex's career and the Furniture Row Racing team had to be their dominant Pocono victory in 2015. Truex led 97 laps that Sunday afternoon and left little to doubt in an impressive win over Kevin Harvick. Since then the veteran driver of the No. 78 Toyota has gone on to win a second Pocono victory (earlier this season) and flirt with a couple others. Truex is now a name that jumps right off the page each time we visit the Pennsylvania tri-oval. He rides a three-race Pocono Top-10 streak into this event, and will look to pull the season sweep of the track in Sunday's Gander Outdoors 400. If Truex shows good speed on Friday and qualifies on the front row, look out, another Pocono win could be in store.
Kevin Harvick - The Stewart Haas Racing star has never won at the three-turn Pennsylvania oval, but recent signs have been pointing towards a breakthrough. Harvick has led 96 combined laps and finished runner-up in two of the last four Pocono Raceway events. Those efforts have brought his career Top-5 rate at the oval to a respectable 31-percent. The driver of the No. 4 Ford is coming off his sixth victory of the season this past week at New Hampshire, so Harvick is worthy of weekly contender status at most tracks from a fantasy racing standpoint. He qualified on the outside pole position here in June and led 89 laps before finishing fourth in the Pocono 400. It's just a matter of time before Harvick wins at this race track.
Kyle Busch - Pocono Raceway had been a boom-or-bust track for Busch during most of his colorful NASCAR career. However, in recent seasons that this trend is reversing dramatically. The No. 18 Toyota team has turned in some of their best performances at the huge triangle in the last few years. Busch has won three of the last six pole positions at the Pennsylvania raceway, and he finally broke through for his first Pocono win in this event one year ago. The veteran Joe Gibbs Racing driver has led a combined 188 laps on his current four-race Pocono Top-10 streak. We've become accustomed to seeing the No. 18 Toyota up front here the last two seasons.
Kyle Larson - The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has struggled a bit in July, but Pocono Raceway should get him rebooted for the late-summer stretch run up to the Chase. Larson posted a pair of runner-up finishes between his last Pocono outing and Chicago, so the news isn't all bad. Pocono Raceway has all the markings of a great outing for the No. 42 team. Larson's nine-career starts at this unique track have yielded five Top-10 finishes (56-percent). The last of those coming in June's Pocono 400, which was just a few short weeks ago. Larson finished runner-up that afternoon to Martin Truex Jr. It was his career-best performance at the three-corner oval. He has the speed at this facility to surprise some of the bigger names.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are an almost lock for a Top 10, and an outside shot at the win
Brad Keselowski - The Penske Racing star is a historically consistent performer at Pocono Raceway. His Top-10 rate (59-percent) and average finish (10.2) are at elite levels when compared to the rest of the drivers in the series. Keselowski is looking to shake off a poor New Hampshire finish from this past week, and this is the perfect oval to get him back on track. He rides a six-race Pocono Top-5 streak into Sunday's action. Considering how well Keselowski performs at this 2.5-mile triangle, it's really surprising that he has only one-career victory here. His familiarity with Pocono, and the team's performance here should be the edge to carry him to another Top-5 finish at the Tricky Triangle.
Ryan Blaney - The young driver of the No. 12 Ford has always liked racing at the Tricky Triangle. Blaney picked up his first-career win at the track last season while still racing for the Wood Brothers No. 21 team. His first start in the Penske No. 12 Ford at Pocono came back in June of this year. Blaney won the pole, led 11 laps and raced among the leaders all afternoon before finishing an impressive sixth-place. He now owns three Top 10's in five-career starts at Pocono Raceway. It's a small sample size statistically, but that 60-percent Top-10 rate at this difficult track is no fluke. This Sunday afternoon we expect Blaney to pick up right where he left off in June.
Kurt Busch - The three-time Pocono winner showed he could carry his excellent Pocono resume from his older teams to his Stewart Haas Racing No. 41 team with his big victory here in 2016. Busch had a bit of a power outage at this unique oval in June and finished 19th, but we expect a full rebound this weekend. That performance did little to tarnish the veteran driver's 19-career Pocono Top 10's (56-percent) and 14 Top 5's (41-percent). Busch had great, potentially race-winning, speed at New Hampshire this past weekend. The driver of the No. 41 Ford has been posting great finishes at some of his favorite ovals this season, and that's a great sign going into the Gander Outdoors 400.
Aric Almirola - Don't look for Almirola's career numbers at this facility to be very impressive. However, he's rewriting a lot of his track records this season since joining the No. 10 team of Stewart Haas Racing. His impressive performance and speed at Loudon, New Hampshire this past weekend is just the most recent example. Almirola nabbed career Pocono Top-10 finish number one here in June with his seventh-place finish in the Pocono 400. That effort effectively trumped his prior 11 starts at the facility, which were terribly sub-par. This driver, team and crew chief are on fire right now, and they have Top 10 cars each week, and sometimes the speed to challenge for the win.
Sleepers - Drivers who have a good history at Pocono, and can give you a solid finish
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin is a four-time Pocono winner, but he's not won at the facility since early 2010. He's also battled inconsistency and performance struggles at this oval in recent seasons. Despite all this, he's managed to maintain a good level of career performance at this facility. The Joe Gibbs Racing star owns a 60-percent Top-10 rate at Pocono Raceway and he owns an equally impressive 40-percent Top-5 rate at the oval. He was racing among the Top-10 here in June when someone else's bad luck and trouble found him, leading to a crash that wasn't Hamlin's fault. A 16th-career Pocono Top 10 would appear to be in order for Hamlin this weekend.
Joey Logano - The 2012 Pocono winner will return to Pennsylvania and look to continue building on his recent success at the raceway. Logano's ninth-place finish here in June snapped a three-race Top-10 drought at the facility, and boosted his career Top-10 rate to 37-percent. Logano has reversed some recent struggles with 10th- and ninth-place finishes the last two events. The No. 22 Ford team has not been leading laps and running at the front among the contenders, and that's primarily the reason for his inclusion in the sleepers list this week. However, Logano should be good enough to grind out yet another Top 10 in Sunday's Gander Outdoors 400.
Chase Elliott - Elliott's eye-opening 23 laps led and fifth-place finish this past week at New Hampshire snapped a three-race string of poor runs for the No. 24 Chevrolet team. Now the Hendrick Motorsports driver visits an oval very much to his liking. Pocono Raceway has held a lot of success for Elliott in just three seasons of racing. He has one Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes at the 2.5-mile tri-oval in just five-career starts. Elliott's 10th-place finish here in June makes for a three-race Pocono Top-10 streak entering Sunday's action. With momentum building, and Elliott's confidence growing, this is a great time for the No. 24 team to visit Pocono Raceway. We expect him to keep his Top-10 streak going after this 400-mile battle.
Jimmie Johnson - Johnson has been getting it together of late, and his 10th-place finish at the Magic Mile this past week is evidence of that. The No. 48 team's visit to Pocono in June ended two seasons of misery at the three-turn oval. Johnson peddled to a respectable eighth-place finish that afternoon in the Pocono 400. Johnson boasts three-career wins and 20 Top 10's at this facility, so you'll be challenged to find a more pedigreed driver at Pocono Raceway. With the No. 48 Chevrolet team gradually improving, that experience will come in handy this weekend. Johnson is racing his way back to respectability, and that makes him worthy of fantasy racing consideration most weeks.
Erik Jones - The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster definitely got into some trouble in his last Pocono start. Jones labored to finish 29th in June's Pocono 400, and clouded what had otherwise been a clean sheet at this three-turn oval. The young driver had a pair of Top 10's in his two prior starts before June of this year. We'll err towards the former rather than the latter in this case. Jones had a four-race Top-10 streak snapped at Loudon this past week, so current performance has been spot on. The No. 20 Toyota team seems to show up with fast race cars each week, and that's more than half the battle. Jones clearly likes racing at Pocono Raceway, as his laps led and finishes testify. This is a good week to give Jones a spot start in weekly lineup leagues.
Matt Kenseth - The restoration project at Roush Fenway Racing's No. 6 team appears to be in full swing. Kenseth had some early struggles, but his 19th- and 15th-place finishes at Kentucky and New Hampshire recently have boosted the team's morale and performance. Now he returns to a track for a second start for the first time this season. Kenseth's start here in June led to a season-best 13th-place finish in the Pocono 400. That's been the high water mark so far for this driver and team. Considering that the veteran driver has 37-career starts at this facility, and 15 Top 10's, that experience should once again come in handy for Sunday's Gander Outdoors 400.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Alex Bowman - The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet found the side of the No. 11 Toyota here in June and the wreck was on. Hamlin came out the big loser in that exchange, but it didn't do much for Bowman either. He was racing around the Top 10 when it happened, but the bobble that led to the crash caused Bowman to finish 27th that afternoon in June. With five-career starts at Pocono Raceway and no Top-20 finishes to his credit, we simply can't recommend giving a fantasy racing start to the No. 88 team this weekend. Bowman could prove us wrong, but we'd be willing to bet pretty heavily that he finds some trouble again in this 400-mile race.
Clint Bowyer - The struggles of the last three events have largely been of Bowyer's own making. Finishes of 22nd-, 12th- and 35th-place at Daytona, Kentucky and Loudon have clouded what has been a pretty good season for the No. 14 team. We're seeing Bowyer make mistakes on pit road and other uncharacteristic mental mistakes right now. Those are bad signs coming to Pocono Raceway this week. This is an oval of questionable nature for Bowyer anyway. His10 Top 10's in 25-career starts works out to a sub-par 40-percent rate. Bowyer's 20th-place finish here in June was riddled with errors as well. With only one Top 10 in his last five Pocono starts, we believe this is a week to pass on the No. 14 team.
Darrell Wallace Jr. - A missed shift led to an engine failure for Wallace and the No. 43 team at Pocono in June. That's not a frequent, but still not uncommon, error to make at this facility. We've even seen stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others make that mis-shift and fry an engine at Pocono, so it does happen. You can bet that very thought will be weighing heavily on Wallace's mind entering Sunday's Gander Outdoors 400. Now with 26th- and 38th-place finishes to his credit in Pocono starts, we have to start wondering if Wallace is capable of a good performance at this facility. At this point it could be as much psychological as anything else.
Ryan Newman - Coming off a brilliant sixth-place finish at New Hampshire, it's a bit of a shock to see Newman in the slow down list this week. However, that's what we're recommending. Despite his one-career Pocono win and 14 Top 10's, the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has struggled on the bigger tracks this season. Recent stops at Pocono, Michigan and Kentucky have all seen Newman finish outside the Top 20. The veteran driver's 25th-place finish at Pocono Raceway in June looms large this week. That dropped Newman's career Top-10 rate at this facility to just 42-percent. It's better to err towards caution with Newman at Pocono.