M&M's Fan Appreciation 400 Preview: The Tricky Triangle

M&M's Fan Appreciation 400 Preview: The Tricky Triangle

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

With the conclusion of the New Hampshire race, we're now entering the hot summer months of racing, as the series will pay a visit to Pocono Raceway for the first time in the 2022 season. 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 straightaways and the three distinctly different corners are the primary reason why the track has more of a road course feel. You can't hit the setup 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 but more like a road course due to the relatively flat banking and three distinctly different turns. 

Now that we've completed 20 races of the 26 that determine the field for the Chase, we're on the downhill run towards NASCAR's playoff. The Tricky Triangle in Pocono makes a good, challenging track to mark the beginning of the stretch run in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season. In a break with recent history, we're racing for the first and only time this year at Pocono Raceway. The last couple seasons we've raced doubleheaders at the huge Pennsylvania

With the conclusion of the New Hampshire race, we're now entering the hot summer months of racing, as the series will pay a visit to Pocono Raceway for the first time in the 2022 season. 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 straightaways and the three distinctly different corners are the primary reason why the track has more of a road course feel. You can't hit the setup 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 but more like a road course due to the relatively flat banking and three distinctly different turns. 

Now that we've completed 20 races of the 26 that determine the field for the Chase, we're on the downhill run towards NASCAR's playoff. The Tricky Triangle in Pocono makes a good, challenging track to mark the beginning of the stretch run in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season. In a break with recent history, we're racing for the first and only time this year at Pocono Raceway. The last couple seasons we've raced doubleheaders at the huge Pennsylvania track, and prior to that, NASCAR raced its top touring division at Pocono Raceway twice a summer. We're breaking with that history and tradition this season and racing a lone, 400-mile event at Pocono, so there will be many unknowns with the new stock car.

Since this is our only time at Pocono Raceway this season, we need to take a quick look at the loop stats for this unique facility. Coming off the races at Road America, Atlanta and New Hampshire, 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 17 years or 34 races at Pocono Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Denny Hamlin11.11,1685437974,307107.1
Kevin Harvick9.51,3173372774,01899.7
Kurt Busch13.01,1544005923,98798.8
Kyle Busch15.11,1633725224,03597.2
Kyle Larson11.4560861161,66996.5
Brad Keselowski10.68022212272,45195.8
William Byron9.1264417082194.4
Chase Elliott15.242659671,32992.7
Erik Jones14.4300424599390.6
Joey Logano17.28211343042,48088.8
Martin Truex Jr.14.79492032352,81488.1
Ryan Blaney11.434159421,08888.1
Daniel Hemric10.0644319584.4
Christopher Bell23.0697321276.1
Daniel Suarez16.2242223980974.8
Alex Bowman18.5298153482472.5
Aric Almirola20.835137671,00471.6
Austin Dillon18.5325121099271.3
Tyler Reddick21.3918025868.9
AJ Allmendinger22.94709596065.6

Pocono Raceway had been a NASCAR track up for grabs for years. With Kyle Busch's victory here in 2017, we saw the Toyota camp run away with five straight victories at the Tricky Triangle. However, the last two seasons have seen the Pocono track tilt back towards more of a parity among manufacturers. All three makes have at least one win in the last four events at Pocono Raceway Since Toyota has been a bit down compared to Chevrolet this season, it will be interesting to see if there's a changing of the manufacturer guard at Pocono or if we'll still stay with this trend of parity. With the ball squarely in Toyota's court, this weekend is a timely visit to Pocono Raceway for drivers of this brand. Toyota drivers have won sporadically this season with five victories in the 20 events to date, and the larger ovals have been a bit of a puzzle for everyone in this camp.

It would seem that despite Alex Bowman's victory here last season, Chevrolet will be charged with upsetting Toyota this Sunday afternoon. Bowman's win was the only victory for the bowtie brand at Pocono since 2016 and shows the tough odds Chevrolet drivers face. Toyota is fresh off a Christopher Bell win this past weekend at New Hampshire and will carry the momentum into Pennsylvania this week. The best-positioned Chevrolet drivers to challenge this Toyota camp will be Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain. They've been the top two performers for this camp most of the spring and summer and will continue to be top contenders going forward. 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's M&M's Fan Appreciation 400 at Pocono Raceway.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Chase Elliott – Elliott is on fire coming to Pennsylvania this week, with two victories and two runner-up finishes in the last four races. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet will carry this hot streak into Pocono race weekend. Elliott has never won at the unique three-turn oval, but he has posted a strong 58-percent Top-10 rate at the track since moving to the Cup Series in 2016. The Next-Gen car could be the variable that pushes the Hendrick Motorsports star to his first Pocono win this Sunday afternoon. Elliott has had good speed on the big ovals this season with a pair of Top 10s on the superspeedways. Everything just seems to be clicking for this driver and team right now and Elliott should take full advantage of the situation in Sunday's M&M's Fan Appreciation 400.   

Kyle Busch – Busch's four victories at Pocono since the 2017 season make him one of the more dominant performers at this track in its recent history. The Joe Gibbs Racing star nabbed a win and a runner-up finish in the Pocono doubleheader last season, so that's a very strong look heading back to the Tricky Triangle this weekend. Busch has been a bit of a tough luck performer of late and has not been posting the finishes he expects. Still, this would be a great rebound track for the No. 18 Toyota team given how well they've raced here over the last few seasons. Busch has not won yet on the big ovals in 2022, but he's been one of the most consistent drivers in the Cup Series with sixth-, 14th- and third-place finishes on ovals greater than 1.5-miles in length.  

Ross Chastain – Chastain's career-best 2022 campaign will continue at Pocono Raceway this weekend. The Trackhouse Racing veteran has three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in his last five events entering Pocono, one of which was a brilliant runner-up performance at the lightning-fast Atlanta oval. We expect the No. 1 Chevrolet team to continue racing among the leaders this weekend despite Chastain's lack of career accomplishments at Pocono Raceway. The veteran driver won in his last start on an oval greater than 1.5 miles with his big victory at Talladega in the late spring. Chastain knows how to navigate this three-turn oval, as his Camping World Truck Series resume shows, with one win and four Top 10's in four starts in that division.

Kyle Larson – The reigning champion is still trying to find his dominant, race-winning form in 2022, and it could get a kickstart this weekend at Pocono Raceway. Larson has never won at the Pennsylvania oval, but he's finished runner-up there twice in his career, including last season's Explore the Pocono Mountains 350. Larson's Top-10 rate stands at a strong 57-percent rate at Pocono Raceway. One aspect of Larson's game this season has been strong and that's big oval racing. With a win at Fontana early in the year, a pole at Daytona, a Top-5 finish at Talladega and 61 combined laps led, Larson has been sharp on the big ovals. Pocono should play to those strengths in Sunday's M&M's Fan Appreciation 400. 

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin leads the driver rating in the table above thanks to his six career Pocono wins. Two of those, as well as a runner-up finish, have come since the 2019 season. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is just as sharp at this track as a veteran as he was as a young NASCAR star over 15 years ago. Hamlin has been a decent performer of late but hasn't quite been in race-winning form. He has a pair of Top 10s in the last four races leading up to Pocono weekend. Big ovals have been a bit of a bugaboo for Hamlin in the new Next-Gen car, but Pocono Raceway is the place where he should turn it all around. He loves racing at this unique oval, and his incredible 66-percent Top-10 rate at this track speaks to his excellence at Pocono.   

Kevin Harvick – Harvick is still not in race-winning, championship-contending mode, but his consistency has seen an uptick in recent weeks. The Stewart Haas Racing star has two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his last five events and is coming off a strong fifth-place showing in New Hampshire last weekend. Harvick is a one-time Pocono winner (2020) and rides a five-race Pocono Top-10 streak into this Sunday's M&M's Fan Appreciation 400. The recent streak brings Harvick's Pocono Top-10 rate to a respectable 52-percent. The big ovals have been pretty good for the driver of the No. 4 Ford this season, with Top 10's at Fontana and Talladega. Given Harvick's recent consistency and overall proficiency at Pocono Raceway, he should easily crack the Top 10 in Sunday's 400-mile Pocono battle.      

Daniel Suarez – Speaking of recent streaks of consistency, Suarez has been on quite a tear since winning at Sonoma five races ago, with one win, two Top 5s and four Top 10s in the last five events. The average finish over the span for Suarez is a strong 7.2, and that includes his 9th-place finish at New Hampshire this past weekend. Pocono Raceway has offered up some success over the years to the Mexican driver. Suarez won the pole and finished runner-up at the Tricky Triangle in 2018, and his three Top 10's help contribute to his respectable 16.2 average finish at this Pennsylvania track. We believe he'll be much sharper than that this Sunday afternoon, making him a Top-10 threat in the M&M's Fan Appreciation 400.

Kurt Busch – The 23XI Racing veteran is fresh off a Top-10 finish at New Hampshire and has a pair of Top 10s in his last four events entering this weekend. Busch has been a career-long performer at the Tricky Triangle, with three wins and 21 Top-10 finishes over a 41-start career. With nearly 600 laps led at Pocono Raceway, Busch is well accustomed to racing up front here. The driver of the No. 23 Toyota has been a good performer on the big ovals in the Next-Gen car, and his eighth-place finish earlier this season at Fontana is a good indicator as we head to Pocono this Sunday afternoon. Busch is a good qualifier at Pocono Raceway (10.2 average) and often parlays that good starting track position into equally good finishes.  

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Pocono & solid upside

Martin Truex Jr. – The driver of the No. 19 Toyota turned around some recent struggles with a strong performance the New Hampshire short track last weekend. Truex won the pole and led a dominating 172 laps but faded to a fourth-place finish at the checkered flag. Still, it was a strong performance for a driver and team that have been floundering in recent weeks. Truex loves the Pocono triangle, with two-career victories and 13 Top-10 finishes (a 41 percent rate). With over 200 laps led at this facility, most of which have come since 2015, Truex is used to racing up front at the Tricky Triangle. The veteran Joe Gibbs Racing driver has been consistent on the big ovals this season with a respectable 10.3 average finish. All indicators look good for the No. 19 team this Sunday in Pennsylvania. 

Christopher Bell – Last week's New Hampshire winner will look to stay on a roll as the NASCAR Cup Series rolls into Pennsylvania this week. Bell's surprising late rise at Loudon last Sunday resulted in him out-dueling Chase Elliott to grab his second-career Cup Series win. Returning to victory lane this week will be a tricky proposition, but a good performance at Pocono is likely in the cards for the No. 20 Toyota team. Bell has had some bad luck but hasn't lacked for speed on the big ovals this season. If we go back to his developmental years, we see a Truck Series win for Bell at Pocono Raceway as well as an Xfinity Series Top-5 performance. Bell knows how to navigate this three-turn raceway, and the momentum of last week's win should be good enough to push this driver and team to a good finish.

Austin Cindric –  What has been a challenging season for Cindric and the No. 2 Ford team has been gradually turning very positive of late. The young driver has nabbed four of his six Top 10s this season in just the last five races, so it seems the Penske Racing youngster is finally finding his groove in the Next-Gen car. Big ovals have been good tracks for this driver and team, as Cindric won the Daytona 500 earlier this season and placed in the Top 15 at Fontana. If we go back to his Xfinity Series career, we see that Cindric has one win, two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes at Pocono Raceway. The road-racing characteristics of this track plays very well to Cindric's strengths as a driver.

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski's tough season showed signs of a turnaround last week at New Hampshire, as the veteran driver peddled the No. 6 Ford to a solid seventh-place finish at the Magic Mile. Keselowski has been a top performer at Pocono Raceway for years, so this is the perfect follow-up race to his New Hampshire success. In 24 career starts at the Tricky Triangle, the Roush Fenway Keselowski veteran has one win, 15 Top-10 finishes (good for a 63 percent rate) and a strong 10.6 average finish. Those stats are not lightly dismissed despite his struggles this season. Last season alone, Keselowski claimed 10th- and third-place finishes at Pocono Raceway. The M&M's Fan Appreciation 400 is the perfect race to help get this driver and team on a good streak.  

Ryan Blaney – The Penske Racing driver has been battling consistency issues this season, but Blaney has shown some signs of getting his act together lately. Blaney's two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in the last five races are a good indicator heading into the M&M's Fan Appreciation 400. The big ovals have been consistent for this driver and team, with one Top 5, two Top 15s and a respectable 11.0 average finish. Blaney is a one-time Pocono Raceway winner and has a 50-percent Top-10 rate over 12 starts. His two starts here last season alone netted strong fifth- and sixth-place finishes, and Blaney's 11.4 career average finish at the Tricky Triangle is another good sign for this weekend. We believe the Penske Racing youngster is a good fantasy racing candidate for Sunday's 400-mile battle at Pocono Raceway.

Erik Jones – Jones has been on a pretty decent tilt in recent weeks. The driver of the Petty GMS Motorsports Chevrolet had a Top 5 recently at Atlanta and a solid 11th-place finish a couple weeks before that at Nashville. The intermediate ovals have been good tracks for the No. 43 team, and Jones should carry that momentum into our lone Pocono start this weekend. The three-turn Pennsylvania oval has been a favorite of his for years. In 10 starts, the veteran has compiled 45 laps led, five Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes for a strong 60-percent Top-10 rate and a respectable 14.4 average finish. The transition to Pocono with the Next-Gen car should be less difficult for Jones than some other drivers.   

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

William Byron – Byron has been Mr. Inconsistency this season, with two victories but only five Top-10 finishes to this point in the campaign. That inconsistency doesn't seem to be going away. Byron's last five starts have netted just one Top 10 and two finishes outside the Top 30, with an inflated 20.2 average finish over the span. It's just very difficult to tell each week where Byron is going to wind up in the finishing order. The Hendrick Motorsports youngster has had good stats at Pocono Raceway with a 63-percent Top-10 rate in 8 starts, but Byron's lack of reliability this season is a big concern heading into the M&M's Fan Appreciation 400.

Joey Logano – Things have been pretty lean of late for Logano and the No. 22 Ford team. He's currently mired in a three-race Top-10 drought and is looking to turn things around at the challenging Tricky Triangle. Logano is a one-time winner at the Pennsylvania raceway, but that victory came way back in 2012. This track has been more of a place of struggles for the Penske Racing star. Logano's 10 Top-10 finishes in 26 starts works out to a subpar 39-percent Top-10 rate. The 17.2 career average finish is also higher than what we'd recommend for an "A"-tier driver. Logano's performance this season on the big ovals in the Next-Gen car is also another red flag heading into this race, as his 19.3 average finish is also higher than we'd expect for this driver and team. This is a good weekend to keep Logano and the No. 22 Ford team on the fantasy racing bench.

Tyler Reddick – Outside of the surprising win at Road America three weeks ago, things have been very lean for Reddick and the No. 8 Chevrolet team of late. Aside from his first career win, the young driver has labored to three finishes outside the Top 20 in the last five events. Reddick's recent average finish over that span sits at an unimpressive 20.8, a number that looks even more disappointing when you factor in that number includes the win. The Richard Childress Racing youngster has four Cup Series starts at Pocono Raceway, and it's been a mixed bag so far. Ninth- and 11th-place finishes have been coupled with a pair of finishes outside the Top 30, and that's far from reassuring. Reddick is struggling and he's visiting an uncertain track in Pocono this weekend.

Alex Bowman – The same struggles that William Byron has had most of this season have plagued Bowman as well. The Hendrick teammates have mirrored each other in that respect. Things have been particularly tough of late for Bowman and the No. 48 team. With three DNF's in the last four races, he's limping coming into Pennsylvania this week. His cold streak over the last five races has seen him slip from eighth- to 11th-place in the championship standings. Bowman will find it tough to hit the reset button at Pocono Raceway, as this tough tri-oval doesn't tend to bail out struggling drivers. The veteran driver has one career win at the Tricky Triangle, but he's been far from consistent with a lowly 33-percent Top-10 rate at Pocono. He'll be a high-risk fantasy racing driver for the M&M's Fan Appreciation 400.   

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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