Pennsylvania 400 Preview: Pocono the Sequel

Pennsylvania 400 Preview: Pocono the Sequel

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series travels back to Pocono Raceway for the second and final race at the triangular oval for this season. The Pocono races are the closest back-to-back races in the schedule aside from the All Star Challenge and Coca-Cola 600 back-to-back weekends. This short, eight-week interval between races affords the competitors with a unique, quick turnaround from their first race at this facility. With that in mind, it's not unreasonable to expect those drivers who performed well the first time around to have a good chance at repeating their success since they'll likely be unloading the same chassis and running a similar if not identical race set-up. Given the vital information teams gathered here earlier this summer, it's not unusual to see season-sweeps or repeat winners at this 2.5-mile triangle. Repeating one's success at Pocono Raceway is more likely to happen than at almost any other track that the Sprint Cup Series visits. Those drivers and teams that figured out the fastest way around the Tricky Triangle in June should have a leg up now that we've come to the late-July date at this tri-oval. The style of racing is also similar to the techniques used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway just this past weekend. Because of this, current momentum and hot streaks will also play a role in Sunday's Pennsylvania 400.

Considering that this is the second race of 2016 at Pocono Raceway, we need to take a quick look at the loop stats for

This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series travels back to Pocono Raceway for the second and final race at the triangular oval for this season. The Pocono races are the closest back-to-back races in the schedule aside from the All Star Challenge and Coca-Cola 600 back-to-back weekends. This short, eight-week interval between races affords the competitors with a unique, quick turnaround from their first race at this facility. With that in mind, it's not unreasonable to expect those drivers who performed well the first time around to have a good chance at repeating their success since they'll likely be unloading the same chassis and running a similar if not identical race set-up. Given the vital information teams gathered here earlier this summer, it's not unusual to see season-sweeps or repeat winners at this 2.5-mile triangle. Repeating one's success at Pocono Raceway is more likely to happen than at almost any other track that the Sprint Cup Series visits. Those drivers and teams that figured out the fastest way around the Tricky Triangle in June should have a leg up now that we've come to the late-July date at this tri-oval. The style of racing is also similar to the techniques used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway just this past weekend. Because of this, current momentum and hot streaks will also play a role in Sunday's Pennsylvania 400.

Considering that this is the second race of 2016 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 11 years or 23 races at Pocono Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Chase Elliott4.0241751158130.9
Kurt Busch12.78643595343,014106.8
Jimmie Johnson11.09562834633,144106.3
Denny Hamlin12.47894406692,918106.0
Jeff Gordon9.59611781992,935102.4
Carl Edwards14.97881892372,65595.1
Tony Stewart12.094899922,82594.7
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.6823112932,64693.9
Kevin Harvick11.5872137612,58892.4
Ryan Newman12.396737582,93192.3
Joey Logano15.2542912371,53092.2
Brad Keselowski12.04061151431,18191.9
Kyle Larson9.419332059191.6
Matt Kenseth16.084876682,47390.2
Kasey Kahne19.08873082152,49189.5
Ryan Blaney10.0341011387.5
Kyle Busch19.0772124852,58985.8
Greg Biffle15.88131051222,52085.8
Martin Truex Jr.15.5601971141,62183.8
Clint Bowyer14.567732911,76381.1

Season sweeps are not common at Pocono, but they're not unheard of either. Three times in 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 Stewart Haas Racing veteran Kurt Busch this Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet out-dueled Earnhardt Jr. at Pocono in June and picked up his third-career victory at the Long Pond oval. It was a surprising effort from the veteran driver and team, and Busch will be a steady odds favorite to win again this weekend.

Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Earnhardt were the only drivers to give Busch some heated competition that day, and (short of Earnhardt) they're likely the best list of candidates to step up their game for Sunday's Pennsylvania 400. Two drivers who were expected to make a big splash in June's Axalta We Paint Winners 400 were Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. Both had really high expectations, but both had their separate issues en route to sub-par finishes that afternoon. These two should certainly rebound given their good historical stats at Pocono Raceway and how well both performed last weekend at Indianapolis. One other thing to keep in mind this week in Pennsylvania is that Ford is looking for their first victory at this track since 2010. Keselowski and his Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano will have some added pressure to perform given that Chevrolet and Toyota have pushed this camp to the background at least temporarily at Pocono Raceway. The X-factor this weekend is certainly Kyle Busch. He rides a torrid hot streak into the Pocono Mountains, but he comes to a track where he's never won nor enjoyed much success. Will the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team continue their recent tear in Pocono 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

Kyle Busch -
Pocono Raceway has been a boom-or-bust track for Busch during his colorful NASCAR career. There are signs in recent seasons that this trend is reversing. The No. 18 Toyota team has turned in some of its best performances at the huge triangle in the last six years. Those efforts have netted a pair of runner-up finishes, one third-place finish and three other Top 10s in the last 13 events. Busch comes to the Pocono Mountains as the winner of last weekend's dominant Indianapolis performance. We have to greatly respect the home run potential that the surging Joe Gibbs Racing star brings to the table at Pocono Raceway.

Joey Logano -
Our Pocono winner from early 2012 will return to Pennsylvania and look to continue building on his recent success at the raceway. Logano has picked up a victory and four Top-5 finishes in his last nine trips to the 2.5-mile tri-oval in the Pocono Mountains. Whatever the Penske Racing driver has figured out about this facility while he was with Joe Gibbs Racing, it seems to have crossed over to his No. 22 Ford team at Penske. Logano qualified on the outside pole, led 17 laps and finished fifth in June at this same facility. He's led a combined 114 laps in just his last two Pocono outings. Logano's 6 laps led and Top-10 finish at Indy this past week sets up pretty well for this event on a similarly configured flat oval.

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 June. Busch saddled up at the Tricky Triangle eight weeks ago and grabbed the victory with an impressive performance. It was the veteran driver's 13th-career Top 5 at Pocono Raceway. That works out to a very high 43-percent over 30 starts. Busch has led well over 500 laps for his career at the three-turn Pennsylvania oval, and 45 of those have come in just the last two starts here. Season sweeps of Pocono aren't rare by any stretch, and the No. 41 SHR team appears to have a real punchers chance at breaking out the brooms this weekend.

Kevin Harvick -
The championship standings leader has never won at the three-turn Pennsylvania oval, but recent signs have been pointing to a breakthrough. Harvick has led 56 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 23-percent. The Stewart Haas Racing star has been within an eyelash of winning several events this year, so Harvick is worthy of weekly contender status from a fantasy racing standpoint. He was just about the only Chevrolet driver that could keep within eyesight of Kyle Busch this past weekend at Indianapolis so the No. 4 Chevrolet team is dialed-in and running strong coming to Pocono.

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

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has cooled a bit in recent races, so we've downgraded him from the contenders list to the solid plays list this week for that reason. The six-time champion pulled the season-sweep at this facility in 2004 and he finished a strong sixth at the 2.5-mile oval in this event one year ago. Johnson is a three-time Pocono winner and he's led well over 700 career laps at this facility in the last 14 years. Considering the No. 48 team's strong performance at Indianapolis this past week, a Top-10 finish in the Pennsylvania 400 goes without saying. If the Hendrick Motorsports star brings his "A" game on Sunday, he could quickly turn this one into a runaway and hide affair.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The highlight of last season for Truex and the Furniture Row Racing team had to be their dominant Pocono victory in the Axalta We Paint Winners 400. Truex led 97 laps that Sunday afternoon and left little to doubt in a dominant victory over Kevin Harvick. The veteran driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet has cooled off in Pocono outings since then, but he's still a very strong driver to start at this tri-oval. Truex posted his ninth Top 10 of the season with a strong eighth-place performance at Indianapolis this past weekend. So returning to Pocono Raceway this week has to be a major morale boost for Truex and company. There's good reason to believe we'll see Truex's name among the Top-10 finishers in this 400-mile contest.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star really seems like a boom-or-bust pick this week, but we're leaning towards the boom based on what we've seen out of the No. 2 Ford team of late. Keselowski has led a combined 206 laps over the last four races and has two victories, but also has two finishes outside the Top 10. His historical numbers at Pocono Raceway show a victory in 2011and six Top 10s in 13-career starts. Inconsistency had been an issue with Keselowski at this oval in the past, but he's quickly turning that around. He has one pole and a pair of Top-3 finishes in his last two starts at Pocono. That should be the edge to carry him to another Top-5 finish at the Tricky Triangle.

Matt Kenseth -
While Kenseth's career numbers at the three-turn Pennsylvania oval are considered mild-mannered at best. The move to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013 was career redefining for the former champion, and it has started to show at this oval. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has 13-career Top-10 finishes at Pocono and most of those came much earlier in his career at this facility. However, it's his most recent outings that catches our eye this time around. Kenseth's last three results at the Tricky Triangle are finishes of sixth-, first- and seventh-place. Considering that he's riding a three-race Top-10 streak entering this event and coming off a brilliant runner-up finish at Indy, we think Kenseth will be strong in this 400-mile event.

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

Jeff Gordon -
While Gordon showed a little rust in his return to racing last week at Indianapolis, he was still good enough to solider the No. 88 team to a Top-15 finish at the Brickyard. Not bad considering he hadn't raced in nearly nine months. He'll get the start again this weekend and at a better historical track for his skills. Gordon is a six-time Pocono winner, and he sports 32 Top-10 finishes at the Pennsylvania triangle (70-percent). Four of his last five starts at Pocono Raceway before retiring yielded Top-10 finishes. Gordon will look sharper this weekend and he'll be racing on a track to maximize his homerun potential.

Chase Elliott -
Elliott's rough patch appears to be nearing a close. His Top-15 finish in a tough Indianapolis race last weekend is a good sign of a corner about to be turned. The rookie driver will return to an oval to hasten that rebound in Pocono Raceway. Elliott's performance here in June was easily his best of the season. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet led a career-best 51 laps and set the pace for a good part of that event. He would eventually finish an impressive fourth at the end of the Axalta We Paint Winners 400. The notebook from that outing should come in pretty handy Sunday afternoon, and Elliott should once again return to the Top 10.

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 managed a good effort in June at the Tricky Triangle. Hamlin qualified 10th on the grid and finished 14th here in June despite his inconsistency. Hamlin is so good at this 2.5-mile triangle that he's a contender for the win on the good years, and an almost sure Top-10 finisher even in the bad years. Things have been turning positive of late for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota. Ninth- and fourth-place finishes each of the last two weeks have set him up well coming to Pennsylvania. The Joe Gibbs Racing star might struggle, but he should surely solider his way to another Top-10 finish at Pocono Raceway.

Kyle Larson -
The third-year driver has been getting his act together over the past couple weeks. Larson has a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last four events coming into Pocono, and he'll look to build on that consistency and momentum. Pocono Raceway has all the markings of a good outing for the No. 42 team. Larson's five-career starts at this unique track have been finishes of fifth-, 11th-, eighth-, 12th- and 11th-place. The last of those coming in June's Axalta We Paint Winners 400, which was just a few short weeks ago. If Larson's speed at Indianapolis last weekend is any indication, he'll have a good car for Pocono.

Jamie McMurray -
Things appear to be lining up for a very successful weekend at Pocono for Chip Ganassi Racing. Not only does the No. 42 team have a good look heading to the three-turn oval, but the No. 1 team of McMurray could be a steady performer as well. McMurray owns three Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes in his last five trips to the Pennsylvania raceway. The veteran driver has a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last three starts leading up to this weekend, so things are running quite well with this team at the moment. There seems to be a lot of indicators pointing towards a Top-15 finish for the CGR veteran at Pocono Raceway this Sunday afternoon.

Ryan Blaney -
The Wood Brothers Racing rookie has only one-career start at Pocono Raceway, and it came in this past June's Axalta We Paint Winners 400. Blaney qualified 14th on the starting grid and raced hard all day long to claim an impressive 10th-place finish. That's been the trademark of this young driver this season. He's outperformed most weeks, even when visiting new tracks in a Sprint Cup Series car. Blaney looked very strong at Indianapolis last weekend. However, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a late crash took him out at the Brickyard. It was a performance that was well on its way to a Top-10 finish. Blaney should rebound nicely at Pocono Raceway this week.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The NASCAR icon will be sidelined once again this week with his concussion-like symptoms. It's a real shame too as the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has really showed a major uptrend in performance at Pocono Raceway in recent outings. Earnhardt has two wins and six Top-5 finishes in his last eight starts at Pocono Raceway. That included his runner-up finish here this past June. It's all for not this week as Earnhardt continues to do therapy and recover from his nausea and balance issues. His status for Watkins Glen next week is still up in the air, but at this point it doesn't sound too hopeful that he'll be able to race at the New York road course either.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
Coming off the Top-15 finish at Indianapolis this past week, we could easily get overoptimistic for the No. 17 team this week at Pocono Raceway. We need to remember that the Roush Fenway Racing driver has had a tough time at the triangular oval in recent appearances. Two of Stenhouse's last three starts have resulted in finishes outside the Top 35. Over seven-career starts at the Tricky Triangle the young driver has no Top-10 finishes and an average finish of 27.3. While Stenhouse may prove us wrong and rebound this weekend, the stats dictate that this is a very unlikely scenario. It's best to lay off Stenhouse at least for this week.

Danica Patrick -
The up-and-down performances of the last seven events entering this weekend may be just a sign of things to come for the No. 10 Chevy team. Patrick's Pocono resume doesn't lift any expectations for a rebound performance this weekend. She has seven starts at the Tricky Triangle with 29th-, 35th-, 37th-, 30th-, 37th-, 16th- and 32nd-place finishes to her credit with one of those being a DNF. Patrick has made strides the last two seasons on the larger ovals, but Pocono is proving difficult for her to master. The challenge shows in her seven-career starts to-date. It's best to leave Patrick on the fantasy racing bench this weekend.

Aric Almirola -
This season has been nothing short of a disaster for Almirola and the No. 43 team. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is a lowly 25th in the driver point standings entering the weekend and has yet to crack the Top 10 even once this season. It's been by far Almirola's worst campaign since becoming a full-time Sprint Cup Series driver in 2012. Pocono Raceway has proven to be a track of struggles for the driver of the No. 43 Ford. It ranks as one of Almirola's three worst tracks on the circuit in terms of average finish. Nine-career starts at the Tricky Triangle have yet to net a single Top-15 finish for this driver, and his average finish of 25.0 leaves a lot to be desired. The struggling Almirola is not likely to resurrect his season this weekend at Pocono Raceway.

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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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