Pocono 400 Preview: The Tricky Triangle

Pocono 400 Preview: The Tricky Triangle

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

With the conclusion of Dover, we're now past the half-way point in the run up to the Chase for the Cup as the series will pay a visit to Pocono Raceway for the first of two races at the track this summer. 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 straight-aways 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 Monster Energy Cup Series regular season. Since we will be racing the three-turn oval for the first time in 2017, the teams and drivers will

With the conclusion of Dover, we're now past the half-way point in the run up to the Chase for the Cup as the series will pay a visit to Pocono Raceway for the first of two races at the track this summer. 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 straight-aways 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 Monster Energy Cup Series regular season. Since we will be racing the three-turn oval for the first time in 2017, 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 12 years or 24 races at Pocono Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kurt Busch12.68903605343,095105.7
Denny Hamlin12.18174486693,012105.6
Jimmie Johnson11.39642854633,169104.8
Chase Elliott18.5542251252102.7
Kyle Larson8.822755772495.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.6823112932,64693.9
Kevin Harvick11.2920162682,71893.6
Joey Logano16.6569992751,63293.2
Brad Keselowski11.34341251511,29293.1
Ryan Newman12.399037593,05992.5
Matt Kenseth16.087477682,58689.9
Kasey Kahne18.89233112152,60389.6
Ryan Blaney10.5645021087.3
Kyle Busch18.5804126862,70786.4
Martin Truex Jr.16.56021081301,64082.9
Austin Dillon19.01249843279.8
Clint Bowyer15.068432911,77179.7
Jamie McMurray 18.160917211,55074.1
A.J. Allmendinger 23.44169587066.9
Paul Menard24.03577088964.6

Pocono Raceway had been a venue up for grabs for years. Then with Jeff Gordon's victory here in 2012, we saw the Bowtie camp run away and hide with six-straight victories at the Tricky Triangle. However, if the last two seasons are any indicator, we may be tilting back towards manufacturer parity here again. In August of 2015, Matt Kenseth stole one for the Toyota camp and broke that six-race winning streak Chevrolet had enveloped Pocono within. When the Monster Energy Cup Series last visited here in August of last year, Chris Buescher and his Front Row Motorsports Ford team took that manufacturer back to victory lane at Pocono Raceway in one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. It was Ford's first win at the three-turn track since Greg Biffle won there in 2010. The defending Pocono champion faces near-impossible odds of repeating his victory this weekend, but there is still hope for the Ford camp in the form of Penske and Stewart Haas Racing. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kurt Busch sport a combined five victories at Pocono Raceway, and Kevin Harvick isn't half bad either despite no wins at the track.

Considering that Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota in general have been heating up the past couple races, it will be hard to keep any of their drivers out of victory lane at the Tricky Triangle. Joe Gibbs Racing stars Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth are still seeking their first win of the season, and they're drawing closer to that victory with each passing week. 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 Dover (eighth-place), he is certainly trending north coming into the Pocono 400. Another Gibbs driver to consider this week would be Busch. He has never won at the Pennsylvania track, but he's flirted with victory lane on a handful of occasions over his 13-season career. His teammate Kenseth is a one-time winner at Pocono. All three drivers are trending north right now, and should not be overlooked in weekly fantasy lineups. However, Toyota's largest threat going into the weekend has to be Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team. Truex has led 439-combined laps over the last three events, and he's come away with one win and a pair of third-place finishes. His lone Pocono win of 2015 cannot be overlooked this weekend.

If Chevrolet hopes to wrestle control of this unique oval back from the competition, those hopes will largely ride with young ace Kyle Larson and grizzled veteran Jimmie Johnson. The two are racing the best for this manufacturer from their respective teams, and will no doubt be mixing it up at the front Sunday afternoon. 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 Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Larson -
The speed of the No. 42 Chevrolet team each week is undeniable. The luck and skill at closing races is the only thing in question at this point. After near brushes with victory at Charlotte and Dover, Larson comes to Pocono looking to put a notch in the win column. This oval may be the perfect set up for the young driver to do so. Larson has one-career pole at the track (2014) and he has three Top-10 finishes in six starts. However, it's his last start at Pocono Raceway last August that draws the most scrutiny. Larson led 37 laps in the late stages of the event and was denied a shot at the victory due largely to the race ending prematurely due to rain. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet was stronger than Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano that afternoon, and Larson could easily do so again.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The driver of the No. 78 Toyota has looked like a world-beater over the last three events. Truex has over 400 laps led, one victory and a pair of third-place finishes during this span. He was denied victory lane at Dover this past week despite leading 102 laps and being in the mix for the win on the late restart. Pocono Raceway could be yet another strong outing for the Furniture Row Racing star. Truex won the pole and led 16 laps at Pocono last August, but crashed out before the end of the race. Truex is on fire coming to the Pocono Mountains this weekend, and there's little doubt he's one of the top drivers to beat in the Pocono 400.

Jimmie Johnson -
Pocono Raceway isn't one of Johnson's best tracks, but in his 15 years of racing the Pennsylvania tri-oval he's collected three victories and 19 Top-10 finishes. The seven-time Monster Energy Cup champion has had a pretty good season to this point with three wins, including last week's victory at the Monster Mile. Johnson was unimpressive in his Pocono outings last season, but we're still talking about a driver that cracks the Top 10 at this triangular oval near a stellar 63-percent rate. The current momentum of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team is undeniable, and a large reason to roll Johnson in this 400-mile battle. There's no more solid name you need in your fantasy racing lineup this weekend for the Pocono 400.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is the statistical leader in a lot of categories at Pocono Raceway and he boasts the second-best driver rating of the field in the last 24 races at the three-turn oval. He has led close to 670 laps and owns four victories at the track in his Monster Energy Cup career. The No. 11 Toyota team has been incredibly improved over the past three weeks, with finishes of fifth- and eighth-place at Charlotte and Dover. 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. He makes an excellent sleeper candidate for the win.

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

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been coming around of late. Kenseth's excellent efforts at Charlotte and Dover of late are good evidence of this fact. The three-turn Pennsylvania oval had been a real puzzle for the veteran driver until moving to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. Kenseth broke through in 2015 for his first Pocono win, and he's visited the Top 10 three times in his last four trips to Pocono Raceway. 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 improving consistency and speed, and Kenseth's improved performance of late at Pocono should not be overlooked.

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 63 laps, claimed a pair of runner-up finishes, and four Top 10s in his last five Pocono starts. These have been the veteran driver's best efforts in recent memory at the three-turn oval. Harvick has only 13-career Top-10 finishes at the raceway tucked away in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. That works out to a lowly 40-percent rate. However, that rate has been steadily on the rise since the 2014 season. The driver of the No. 4 Ford should be a dependable performer in Sunday afternoon's race at the Tricky Triangle.

Brad Keselowski -
The Pocono book shows a driver that has had mixed results in his brief Monster Energy Cup career at the three-turn oval, but it has been trending north the last few seasons. Keselowski owns only seven Top-10 finishes in 14 starts, but those have mostly come since the 2013 season for the veteran driver. His last three starts at Pocono Raceway have netted 11 laps led and finishes of second-, third- and second-place. The Penske Racing star has been edging closer to his second-career win at this track. Keselowski has been battling some bad luck the last couple weeks at Charlotte and Dover. He's been caught up in wrecks that were no fault of his own. Keselowski has tremendous upside in this Sunday's 400-mile race Pocono Raceway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt's second straight decent performance at Dover this past weekend has gotten him off of our fantasy racing probation list for this week. 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 seven-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. Although he's not been a world-beater of late, he has been improved, and this is just the track to jump start Earnhardt's season going into the summer months.

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

Kurt Busch -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has had an up-and-down season in 2017, although it has trended better in recent weeks. A sixth-place finish at Charlotte two weeks ago was tarnished by some bad luck at Dover this past week. Busch will hope to hit the reset button at one of his better tracks this Sunday afternoon. There's more than a reasonable chance for Busch to finish well this week at the Pocono tri-oval. The Pennsylvania track has yielded three wins and 18 Top-10 finishes over the years to the veteran driver. His most victory came in this event one year ago. Busch sports a strong 58-percent Top-10 rate at Pocono Raceway. He should keep his Pocono excellence going in Sunday's 400-mile race.

Chase Elliott -
As we come out of the Dover race weekend, we gain a renewed appreciation for the No. 24 Chevrolet team and young driver Elliott. He had been mired in one of the deepest slumps of his career, and came out of it with a strong fifth-place finish at the Monster Mile. This will be his third-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 led 51 laps and finished a stellar fourth in this event one year ago, but then he had a poor outing a few weeks later in the Pennsylvania 400. We're willing to bet the earlier outing is more indicative of what to expect this weekend. The three-turn oval can be a challenging track for young drivers, but Elliott has what it takes to succeed in the Pocono 400.

Ryan Newman -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran has been showing some good signs the last few weeks. Newman nabbed a seventh place finish at Richmond at the end of April, and then he's collected a pair of Top 10s the last two weeks at Charlotte and Dover. The No. 31 team is racing pretty well coming to the Pocono Mountains this weekend. The triangle at Pocono has been one of his better venues over his 16-season career. Newman owns 14 career Top-10 finishes at the big triangle for a steady 47-percent rate. Last season he fell just outside the Top 10, collecting a pair of 12th-place finishes at the facility. Newman has only finished outside the Top 20 twice since the 2006 season at Pocono Raceway. That's a measure of security and assurance that he'll almost definitely crack the Top 15 in this 400-mile race.

Clint Bowyer -
Last week's unexpected 31st-place finish at the Monster Mile snapped an 11-race Top-15 streak for the Stewart Haas Racing No. 14 team. Bowyer has been rebound driver of the year so far in 2017, and we're going to chalk Dover up to a one-off bad outing. Pocono Raceway presents a great opportunity for this veteran driver and team to rebound. Bowyer owns nine-career Top-10 finishes and a very respectable 15.0 average finish across 22 starts. That equals a lot of racing on the lead lap and absolutely zero DNF's. Those are the type of stats you look for when it comes to fantasy racing. Bowyer brings the upside of a possible Top 10, but he also presents the safety net of finishing the event running on the lead lap.

Austin Dillon -
The Richard Childress Racing driver opened eyes with his big win at Charlotte a couple weeks ago, but don't overlook the pair of Top-16 finishes sandwiched around that victory. Sure, we would have loved to seen him crack the Top 10 at Dover this past week, but Dillon still finished a respectable 12th. Pocono Raceway hasn't been this young driver's best track, but he's still performed admirably at the Tricky Triangle. In six-career starts he's nabbed four Top-15 finishes and only one finish outside the Top 20. That works out to a steady 19.0 average finish. In Dillon's last start at Pocono Raceway he claimed a 13th-place finish in last August's Pennsylvania 400. He should be at least that good in Sunday's Pocono 400.

Ryan Blaney -
The Wood Brothers Racing driver has had some fast cars of late, but he's also had some tough luck. Still, it's hard to look past his pole position and fourth-place finish at Kansas just a few short weeks ago. Blaney made his only two-career starts at Pocono Raceway in 2016. The results were very impressive. The driver of the No. 21 Ford claimed 10th- and 11th-place finishes in those starts. This three-turn oval can be challenging for young drivers, but clearly Blaney was not rattled by that lack of experience. The larger tracks have been his best ovals in terms of performance and finishing, and we don't expect that to change at Pocono Raceway.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kyle Busch -
Busch has struggled for many seasons at Pocono Raceway. With only nine Top 10s as compared to 5 DNF's in his 24 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. The mishap wheel-change at Dover this past week led to the Joe Gibbs Racing star doing major damage to his car, falling one lap down, and racing from behind most of the race at the Monster Mile. It culminated in a 16th-place finish on an afternoon where the No. 18 Toyota was fast enough to win. Busch's two Top 10s in his last six Pocono starts mirrors his 37-percent Top-10 rate at this facility.

Joey Logano -
Another driver who has fallen into a string of bad luck of late is Logano and the No. 22 Penske Racing team. The veteran driver won five races ago at Richmond, but he's struggled ever since. Logano has two DNF's and no finishes inside the Top 20 in his last four starts. His disappearing act and 25th-place finish at Dover this past week are almost unexplainable. Pocono Raceway has been a track of success for this driver and team. Logano has one-career victory at the Pennsylvania track, and he's posted three Top-5 finishes in his last five starts at the three-turn oval. However, his career average finish dropped to 16.6 after finishing 37th in last August's Pennsylvania 400. The driver of the No. 22 Ford is down right now, and the causes aren't completely clear. It might be best to steer clear of Logano until he shows some signs of improvement.

Paul Menard -
Menard's unspectacular season continued at the Monster Mile last week. The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet struggled to a 33rd-place finish after crashing at that one-mile oval. It was his second DNF in the last three races. Menard comes to Pocono this week 24th in the driver standings with only two Top-10 finishes for the season. Pocono Raceway has held a number of years of struggles for the RCR veteran. In 20 starts at the Pennsylvania triangle, Menard has posted only two Top-10 finishes as opposed to seven finishes outside the Top 30. The 24.0 career average finish for this driver at Pocono Raceway falls well below any fantasy racing expectations. Menard's two starts at the track last season netted 33rd- and 35th-place efforts.

Danica Patrick -
While she grabbed a rare Top 10 at Dover this past weekend, this facility is one that throws up all kinds of caution flags for the Stewart Haas Racing driver. Patrick has eight-career starts at this difficult tri-oval. Those starts netted five finishes outside the Top 30 and seven finishes outside the Top 20. That works out to a 29.8 average finish at the Tricky Triangle. This season's struggles combined with Patrick's lack of results at this particular oval are enough warning to lay off the No. 10 Ford team this weekend. Keep Patrick benched for this one, and look for better future ovals for her deployment in weekly fantasy racing lineups.

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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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