NASCAR Preview: Pocono Doubleheader

NASCAR Preview: Pocono Doubleheader

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

With the conclusion of the Talladega race, we're now past halfway to the Chase for the Cup. The series visits Pocono Raceway this weekend for the first time in the 2020 season with a doubleheader set for Saturday and Sunday.  

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 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've completed 13 races of the 26 that determines 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 start of the second half in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season.  Since we will be racing the three-turn oval for the first time in 2020, the teams and drivers will be in information

With the conclusion of the Talladega race, we're now past halfway to the Chase for the Cup. The series visits Pocono Raceway this weekend for the first time in the 2020 season with a doubleheader set for Saturday and Sunday.  

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 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've completed 13 races of the 26 that determines 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 start of the second half in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season.  Since we will be racing the three-turn oval for the first time in 2020, the teams and drivers will be in information gathering mode.  The lessons learned in this first race will be quickly employed in the second race of weekend's doubleheader.  Typically, the Pocono races are separated by about six weeks in the traditional schedule.  However, NASCAR in looking to shake things up this season, decided to run a twin bill at Pocono Raceway for the first time ever.  This weekend's Kids Free 325 and Worry-Free Guarantee 350 are the result of this scheduling shakeup. 

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 Martinsville, Homestead and Talladega, 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 15 years or 30 races at Pocono Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Denny Hamlin12.01,0204937263,839105.1
Erik Jones8.32184045830103.6
Kurt Busch12.81,0853815453,653100.7
Jimmie Johnson13.31,1502934683,74099.1
Kevin Harvick10.31,1542972493,57798.6
Chase Elliott14.330654671,02198.2
Kyle Busch15.61,0183224603,61695.4
Brad Keselowski11.16621711832,05394.7
Joey Logano16.87341102752,14789.3
William Byron9.3140133545889.0
Ryan Newman12.91,15039593,45488.3
Matt Kenseth15.597080772,85687.7
Martin Truex Jr.15.28231881972,39887.1
Ryan Blaney11.5245232175185.9
Daniel Suarez13.3174223962283.9
Clint Bowyer14.389546982,49683.1
Austin Dillon19.126391081472.2
Aric Almirola23.726510265965.1
Alex Bowman22.31603047063.6
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 23.2173131432660.2

Pocono Raceway had been a NASCAR track up for grabs for years.  With Jeff Gordon's victory for Chevrolet here in 2012, we saw the Bowtie camp run away with six-straight victories at the Tricky Triangle.  Ever since, Pocono has developed mostly into a track of manufacturer streaks.  When the NASCAR Cup Series last visited here in July of last year, Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team took that win to the bank.  It was Toyota's fifth-straight victory at the huge tri-oval and fifth-career Pocono win for Hamlin.  In this event one year ago, it was Kyle Busch and his No. 18 JGR team that took the checkers.  That was his second-straight win at the Tricky Triangle and third-career at the track.  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, and the larger ovals have been a bit of a puzzle for everyone in this camp short of Hamlin.

Considering that Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet drivers in general have been much improved this season, it will be hard to keep some of their drivers out of victory lane at Pocono Raceway.  Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Tyler Reddick have done a lot in recent week to put Chevrolet teams in winner's circle.  None of the four have ever won at the Tricky Triangle, so visiting victory lane here will be a tall order.  However, all four drivers are trending in the right direction, and should not be overlooked in weekly fantasy lineups. 

Toyota's largest threats going into the weekend has to be the Fords of Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.  These four veterans and youngsters have to be viewed as a major threat for victory lane.  Combined they have three-career Pocono wins, so they're not unfamiliar with what it takes to win at this facility.  If Chevrolet hopes to wrestle control of this unique oval back from the competition, those hopes will largely ride with young aces Elliott and Bowman.  The duo is racing the best for this manufacturer from their respective teams, and will no doubt be mixing it up at the front in both these Pocono races.  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 doubleheader at Pocono Raceway.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Denny Hamlin – Our last Pocono winner heads up the contenders list this week.  Hamlin is the statistical leader in a lot of categories at Pocono Raceway and boasts the top driver rating of the field in the last 30 races at the three-turn oval.  He has led well more than 700 laps and owns five victories at the track in his NASCAR Cup career.  With a Top-5 rate of around 39-percent at Pocono, Hamlin is among the elite drivers in the series at this facility.  The No. 11 Toyota team has been pretty hot this season with three victories already, and coming to one of Hamlin's better tracks.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star is simply too good to ignore at Pocono Raceway, and he brings that race-winning potential to the table.  He makes an excellent fantasy racing selection to build your team around this weekend. 

Kyle Busch – Busch struggled for many seasons at Pocono Raceway.  However, in 2017 it's like someone finally switched the light on for the No. 18 team at the Tricky Triangle. In the last three seasons Busch has nabbed three victories and strung together a whopping seven-race Top-10 streak at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has led a staggering 374 combined laps in his last six Pocono starts.  Busch has clearly worked his way into being one of the top drivers to beat each time we visit this Pennsylvania track.  His career-long stats at Pocono Raceway pale by comparison to some other veteran drivers, but don't let that fool you.  Busch is clearly a top choice this weekend for the Pocono doubleheader.

Martin Truex Jr. – The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has looked much improved over earlier this season.  After a slow start to 2020, Truex has grabbed a win and a pair of Top-5 finishes in the last four events as he continues to build chemistry with his new crew chief.  He'll ride that momentum into Pennsylvania this weekend.  Pocono Raceway should be yet another strong outing for the Joe Gibbs Racing star.  Truex has one victory, three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his last six visits to the Pocono tri-oval.  He's turned that good speed into improving career stats at this triangular track.  In his last start at the Tricky Triangle last July, Truex peddled to a brilliant third-place finish in the Gander RV 400.  Pocono used to be one of his worst ovals on the circuit, but that has been rapidly changing since 2015.  The two-time Pocono winner is heating up coming into this weekend, and there's little doubt he's one of the top drivers to beat in this pair of Pocono races.

Chase Elliott – As we come out of the Talladega race weekend, we have to consider Elliott the top driver of the Chevrolet stable.  He's been heating up over the last month, with a victory and two runner-up finishes coming into Pocono.  This will be his ninth-career start at Pocono Raceway so Elliott and the team should be starting to show some results from the data collected to this point.  He's led 67 laps and grabbed six Top-10 finishes in those eight prior Pocono starts.  The Hendrick Motorsports youngster clearly loves racing at this facility, and his team has been steadily improving each start at Pocono Raceway.  His fourth-place finish last June in the Pocono 400 is his career-best performance at the triangle to this point.  We believe he's got the potential to improve upon that this Saturday and Sunday.

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

Kevin Harvick – While Harvick may not have the best loop stats at Pocono Raceway, we still have to give a huge fantasy racing endorsement this weekend to the strong Stewart Haas Racing driver.  He finished runner-up in both Pocono races in 2017, and he claimed a pair of fourth-place finishes at the oval in 2018.  Harvick led 62 laps in his last start at Pocono Raceway, so we saw the No. 4 Ford at the front a lot at Pocono last year.  The veteran driver now has seven Top 10's in his last eight starts at the track heading into this weekend's doubleheader action.  While we're still waiting on Harvick's first-career win at this oval, it shouldn't be much longer.  He's been incredibly close to winning at Pocono many times since the 2014 season.       

Ryan Blaney – The Penske Racing rising-star has had some fast cars all season, and he's been converting that speed into great finishes.  The last six weeks have seen Blaney nab one victory and six Top-5 finishes coming into Pocono Raceway this weekend.  He had great speed at Talladega this past weekend, and he won his second-consecutive Talladega victory.  Pocono has been a pretty good oval for the young driver.  He has one victory and four Top-10 finishes in eight-career starts.  That 50-percent Top-10 rate is respectable, and he earned a steady 10th-place finish in his last attempt at the track last summer.  Blaney is an intriguing fantasy racing option with a ton of upside for this Pocono double dip. 

Brad Keselowski – The Pocono history book shows a driver that had mixed results at this facility for several years, but things have been improving dramatically over the last five seasons.  Keselowski now owns 12 Top-10 finishes in 20 starts, but he's been on an absolute tear of late to boost that career rate to its current 60-percent.  The Penske Racing star has eight Pocono Top 10's in his last nine starts heading into this weekend's action.  Keselowski has been quite impressive over that span.  He's nabbed three runner-up finishes and led close to 45 combined laps.  This makes the perfect venue for the No. 2 Ford team to visit given their current performance status.  Keselowski has tremendous upside in both of these Pocono races.  

Erik Jones –  The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has had quite an impressive first three seasons of racing at the Pocono triangle.  Jones led 20 laps in his debut at the facility three seasons ago and collected a surprising third-place finish.  That was an eye-opening performance for the then-rookie driver.  Jones has gone on to add four more Top-10 finishes since then.  He now has five Top 10's in four-career starts at Pocono Raceway.  In his last start, last July, the driver of the No. 20 Toyota led 10 laps and finished second to Denny Hamlin in the Gander RV 400.  The average finish across his six-race Pocono stat sheet shows a miniscule 8.3 average.  That's by far the best average of any driver in the Cup Series with five or more starts at the Tricky Triangle.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Pocono & solid upside

William Byron – Byron's season has suddenly heated up in June.  The young Hendrick Motorsports driver has overcome a slow start, and nabbed three Top 10's in the last five events.  Byron made his debut at the Pocono triangle two seasons ago, and earned an 18th-place finish in his Pocono debut.  Since then, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has improved with each start at this three-turn track.  Byron rides a three-race Pocono Top-10 streak into this weekend's double header.  In this event one year ago, he won the pole position, led 25 laps and finished ninth in the Pocono 400.  This is a driver and team that is trending in the right direction to follow up on recent good performances at Pocono Raceway.   

Kurt Busch – The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran has had a very strong last six weeks.  Busch strung together five-straight Top 10's prior to his 17th-place effort at Homestead two weeks ago.  The veteran driver is looking to put together another Top-10 streak like the one he had in May.  There's more than a reasonable chance for the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet to finish well this week at the Pocono tri-oval.  The Pennsylvania track has yielded three wins and 20 Top-10 finishes over the years to the veteran driver.  His most recent victory here came in the 2016 season.  Busch sports a strong 54-percent Top-10 rate at Pocono Raceway.  He should keep his Pocono excellence going in this weekend's doubleheader. 

Austin Dillon – Pocono Raceway isn't one of Dillon's best tracks, but he has amassed six Top-15 finishes there since his rookie season.  The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet is a renewed driver in 2020.  With four Top-10 finishes already this season, Dillon is on pace to challenge his career-best mark for a season with 13 Top-10 finishes.  With most of the RCR No. 3 team's success this season coming on the intermediate and larger ovals, we're left very optimistic heading into Pocono Raceway this weekend.  Dillon earned a pair of Top-15 finishes at the Tricky Triangle in 2018, and his last start at the three-turn speedway netted a 19th-place finish in last year's Gander RV 400.  We expect Dillon to be much sharper in this pair of races.        

Tyler Reddick – This is more of a hot-hand selection than a Pocono historical selection.  Reddick will be making his Cup Series debut at the Tricky Triangle this weekend.  The impressive rookie has been piling up the stats all season long, and there's no reason to forecast a slowdown for this pair of Pocono races.  Reddick nabbed a career-best fourth-place finish at Homestead two weekends ago, and that's just the most recent success.  The young driver isn't unfamiliar with the Pocono oval.  Reddick made two Xfinity Series starts here the last two seasons and earned strong ninth- and second-place finishes in those attempts.  The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet should once again be one of the stronger rookies in the field at Pocono Raceway.   

Aric Almirola – The Stewart Haas Racing veteran had been a Pocono no-start for years until he arrived at SHR.  The last two seasons have seen Almirola reverse his fortunes at this challenging track.  In those four starts he's earned a pair of Top 10's and three Top 15's for an average finish the last two seasons of 13.5 at the Tricky Triangle.  In this event one year ago he peddled the No. 10 Ford Mustang to a respectable 10th-place finish in the Pocono 400.  Almirola has raced well of late.  He earned a strong Top-5 finish recently at his home state track of Homestead, and he followed up with another Top-5 finish at Talladega this past Monday.  Almirola has the current momentum, and skill at Pocono Raceway to be a worthy fantasy selection in most weekly lineup leagues this week.         

Christopher Bell – Bell is another rookie who'll be making his Pocono debut this weekend.  The good points that Bell and the No. 95 team have going for them in this weekend's doubleheader are the team's Toyota Joe Gibbs Racing affiliation, and Bell's current uptick in performance.  Both of these factors can't be overlooked when filling out the bottom half of your fantasy lineups for the twin Pocono races.  Bell's last Xfinity Series start at Pocono Raceway fetched 7 laps led and a strong fifth-place finish last June. After a slow start to 2020, Bell's recent Top 10's on the intermediate ovals of Charlotte and Homestead are of note.  This driver and team seem to be finally developing some chemistry, and Bell's true talent will begin to show through.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Pocono Raceway has never really suited the eight-season veteran driver.  Stenhouse's 14-career starts at this facility have never netted a Top-10 finish, and of late even Top 15's has been scarce.  His last three starts at Pocono have been finishes of 22nd-, 32nd- and 21st-place.  Stenhouse's career average finish at the Tricky Triangle is a lofty 23.2, and he's only led 14 laps for his career at this challenging oval.  This is just clearly a week to stay clear of the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet.  Stenhouse is simply too inconsistent at this race track, and he has much better ovals in his resume. 

Joey Logano – Despite being a one-time Pocono winner, Logano is an "A" tier driver to be wary of this weekend.  The Penske Racing star won this event in 2012, but since then it's been a terribly mixed bag of results.  Only seven of the 15 starts at Pocono Raceway since that victory have netted a Top-10 result (47-percent), and it's turned far worse in more recent outings.  Logano has just two Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts at the Pennsylvania oval.  Those efforts have lowered his career Top-10 rate at Pocono Raceway to a lowly 36-percent.  While we're very high on Logano for the remainder of the 2020 season, this may just be a very good opportunity to bench him in weekly lineup leagues, and save those starts for elsewhere.    

Darrell Wallace Jr. – The driver of the No. 43 Chevrolet is having a pretty solid season, and has had some surprising results of late.  Wallace is like every other driver though, and has good tracks and bad tracks in his resume.  Pocono Raceway has been that puzzle that the Richard Petty Motorsports driver has yet to figure out to this point in his career.  In five starts Wallace has yet to crack the Top 20 at this facility, and he has two DNF's.  One of those was a self-inflicted engine failure when he missed a shift in the 2018 Pocono 400.  Wallace's Pocono average finish stands at a very bloated 28.0.  While this is an improving driver and team, there are far too many questions marks to deploy Wallace at Pocono Raceway.        

Matt Kenseth – The 20-season veteran is certainly having a tough time transitioning back into full-time NASCAR Cup Series competition.  Kenseth took over the No. 42 Chevrolet in May and has raced to only one Top-10 finish in his nine starts since resuming action.  He's been pretty slow on the uptake to this point, and we have to wonder if no practice and no qualifying is really hurting the veteran driver each week.  Pocono Raceway hasn't been one of his better ovals anyway.  Kenseth does have one-career victory there (2015), but his 15 Top 10's check in at a subpar 40-percent rate at the Tricky Triangle.  His last two starts at the track in 2018 were unimpressive 13th- and 18th-place finishes.  Kenseth will be challenged to even equal those marks in the twin Pocono races this weekend.

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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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