Weekly Preview: The Tricky Triangle

Weekly Preview: The Tricky Triangle

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

With the conclusion of the Nashville 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 2021 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 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 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 at all, but more like a road course due to the relatively flat banking and three distinctly different turns. 

Now that we've completed 17 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.  Since we will be racing the three-turn oval for the first time in 2021, the teams and drivers will be in information-gathering mode.  The lessons learned in this first

With the conclusion of the Nashville 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 2021 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 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 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 at all, but more like a road course due to the relatively flat banking and three distinctly different turns. 

Now that we've completed 17 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.  Since we will be racing the three-turn oval for the first time in 2021, 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 the weekend's doubleheader.  Historically, the Pocono races have been separated by about 6 weeks in the traditional schedule.  However, NASCAR shook things up last season with the first-ever doubleheader weekend at the Tricky Triangle.  It looks like this event schedule will continue at this track for the foreseeable future.  This weekend's Pocono Organics CBD 325 and Explore the Pocono Mountains 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 Charlotte, Sonoma and Nashville, 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 16 years or 32 races at Pocono Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Denny Hamlin11.31,0945347854,083107.1
Kevin Harvick9.81,2473312773,822100.1
Erik Jones11.42824245978100.0
Kurt Busch13.01,1123905803,77999.3
Kyle Busch16.01,0803364623,79595.3
Kyle Larson12.4491591011,48895.3
Chase Elliott14.337356671,18895.0
Brad Keselowski11.07311971962,25395.0
William Byron9.7188143559288.4
Martin Truex Jr.14.78971912162,63188.1
Joey Logano17.97601212862,27488.0
Ryan Newman13.11,20339723,58687.6
Ryan Blaney12.6282454290685.9
Christopher Bell21.5421010580.9
Daniel Suarez16.8180223963274.4
Austin Dillon18.730391092672.0
Aric Almirola21.4312366786370.7
Alex Bowman21.42094061566.6
Chris Buescher20.311191523864.3
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 22.3238151448162.2

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 six of the last seven wins at the Tricky Triangle.  This trend shows that Pocono has developed mostly into a track of manufacturer streaks.  When the NASCAR Cup Series last visited here in June of last year, Kevin Harvick (Ford) would win the first of the weekend doubleheader and then Denny Hamlin (Toyota) would take the second race of the twin bill.  Harvick's win is the lone outlier to Toyota's streak of dominance at this track since 2017.  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.  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 Busch.

Considering that Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet drivers, in general, have been greatly improved this season, it will be hard to keep some of their drivers out of victory lane at Pocono Raceway.  Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Tyler Reddick have done a lot in recent weeks to put Chevrolet teams in the winner's circle.  None of the five have ever won at the Tricky Triangle, so visiting victory lane here would seem to be a tall order.  However, all five drivers are trending in the right direction, and Larson, Elliott and Bowman have won the last four points-paying events coming into Pocono weekend.

It would seem that despite Harvick's victory here last season, Ford's chances of upsetting the Toyota party would be slim.  Ford drivers have only won four of the 17 races to date (23.5-percent) and lately have been trending in the wrong direction with a six-race winless streak coming into Pocono.  The burden for this manufacturer will largely fall on the Penske trio of drivers as Harvick and the rest of the Stewart Haas gang are still seeking their first win of 2021.  We'll examine the recent trends as well as 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

Kyle Larson – The winner of the last three races, four if you count the All-Star Race, is headed to Pennsylvania this week.  Larson and his torrid roadshow will pull into the Pocono Mountains for the NASCAR doubleheader at Pocono Raceway.  The Hendrick Motorsports star has never won at the Tricky Triangle, but he's flirted with victory lane there on a few occasions.  Larson's last start at the three-turn track yielded a strong fifth-place finish in the summer of 2019.  With a career 50-percent Top-10 rate at the track and over 100 laps led, he's always been respectable here but not a world-beater.  That will change in this weekend's twin billing.  There's a very good chance that Larson and the No. 5 Chevrolet team could sweep the weekend.     

Chase Elliott – Elliott has been picking up Larson's table scraps the last several weeks, and that theme should stay well intact in the doubleheader at Pocono.  The Hendrick Motorsports star is his teammate's biggest threat right now and is leading laps and challenging for wins on almost a weekly basis.  Elliott has one win, two runner-up and four Top-3 finishes in the last five races.  He's led a grand total of 53 laps during the span.  Elliott's Pocono resume shows no victories, but three Top-5 and seven Top-10 finishes in 10-career starts.  Those are strong numbers and even somewhat better than Larson's career stats at the Tricky Triangle.  If someone is going to upset Larson this weekend in either of these races, that burden will largely ride with Elliott and the No. 9 team. 

Kyle Busch – Busch's three 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 has led close to 500-career laps at the Pocono tri-oval and that means he's quite accustomed to racing up front here.  While Busch has taken a brief backseat to some other drivers the last couple of seasons at Pocono, that by no means diminishes his value this weekend.  The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has been the strongest driver in 2021 for this manufacturer.  Busch has been pretty sharp of late with finishes of 10th-, third-, fifth- and 11th-place the last four events.  It's going to take some heavy lifting for Busch to get past Larson this weekend, but he's capable of pulling off the feat.  His 28-percent Top-5 rate at this track can't be easily dismissed. 

William Byron – This weekend's doubleheader gives youngster Byron not one, but two shots at upsetting the streaking Larson at Pocono Raceway.  The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet now has six-career starts at this facility, and judging by his stats he's quite comfortable with this unusual oval.  Byron won a pole position at Pocono in 2019 and he's led a combined 35 laps in his six starts.  Four of those efforts have netted Top-10 results (67-percent) for Hendrick Motorsports.  Coming off Top-5 finishes in three of the last five races, including his strong third-place effort at Nashville Superspeedway this past Sunday, Byron is well positioned to potentially steal the thunder Saturday or Sunday.  This young driver is just one tick off winning these weekly Cup Series races and he could find that nudge he needs to win in either of these races.

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

Denny Hamlin – Our last Pocono winner heads up the solid plays list this week.  Hamlin is the statistical leader in a lot of categories at Pocono Raceway and he boasts the top driver rating of the field in the last 32 races at the three-turn oval.  He has led close to 800 laps and owns six victories at the track in his NASCAR Cup career.  With a Top-5 rate of around 43-percent at Pocono, Hamlin is among the elite drivers in the series at this facility.  The No. 11 Toyota team has been a bit off in recent races, so that's the primary reason for not including him in the contender list this week.  However, the Joe Gibbs Racing star is simply too good to ignore at Pocono Raceway, and he brings that performance potential to the table. 

Kevin Harvick – Harvick has come a long way in recent seasons to elevate his Pocono stats to the most elite level.  He won and finished runner-up in last season's doubleheader at the Pennsylvania track.  Harvick led 28 combined laps in those two events and added to a very impressive recent resume at the facility.  The veteran driver now has one win and five runner-up finishes at Pocono since the 2014 season.  That has whittled Harvick's career average finish down to a stellar 12.0 at Pocono and elevated his Top-5 rate to a robust 35-percent at the three-turn track.  His recent level of performance on ovals larger than one mile in size has been spot on with three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes for a 5.4 average finish in the races since late April of this season.  While we don't view Harvick as a major threat to win either race this weekend he should be a contender to challenge the Top 5 in both races.      

Kurt Busch – The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran may have finally pulled out of his slump with a strong eighth-place finish at Nashville last weekend.  Coupled with the earlier Top 10 at Sonoma, Busch now has a modest two-race Top-10 streak going coming to Pocono.   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 51-percent Top-10 rate at Pocono Raceway.  He should keep his Pocono excellence going in this weekend's doubleheader. 

Aric Almirola – The Stewart Haas Racing veteran finally reversed his struggle-filled season with a great outing at Nashville Superspeedway last Sunday.  Almirola won the pole position and peddled the team's No. 10 Ford to a strong fourth-place finish in last weekend's Ally 400.  It was Almirola's second Top 10 of the season and first since April.  He'll look to build on that effort in this weekend's Pocono doubleheader.  Almirola has been strong at this facility since moving to Stewart Haas Racing in 2018.  The veteran driver has earned two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his last six starts at the Tricky Triangle with SHR.  Almirola led 65 combined laps in the Pocono double dip last season, so that experience will surely pay dividends this weekend.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Pocono & solid upside

Alex Bowman –  The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has been racing well of late.  Bowman has fifth-, ninth- and 14th-place finishes in his last three events, and if you count his All-Star appearance then throw a sixth-place on top of the stack as well.  The intermediate and larger ovals have always been a strength for this driver and team.  Pocono Raceway offers that opportunity to stay on a roll.  While Bowman has just a 20-percent Top-10 rate at this facility, it's his "last look" that we're most interested in this weekend.  Last year the Hendrick Motorsports veteran peddled to a ninth-place finish in the Pocono 350.  That was his second Top 10 and third Top 15 in his last five starts at the Tricky Triangle.    

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski's Pocono history book is quite impressive given its 11-season lifespan.  He owns 13 Top-10 finishes in 22 starts, but he's been on an absolute tear since 2015 to boost that career rate to its current 59-percent.  The Penske Racing star has nine Pocono Top 10's in his last 11 starts heading into this weekend's action.  Keselowski has been quite impressive over that span.  He's nabbed three runner-up finishes and led 56 combined laps.  This makes the perfect venue for the No. 2 Ford team to visit given their current performance status.  Keselowski has been off just a tick recently, but this track is the perfect opportunity to get the No. 2 team a pair of great finishes.  He has tremendous upside in both of these Pocono races.  

Austin Dillon – Pocono Raceway isn't one of Dillon's best tracks, but he has amassed seven Top-15 finishes there since his rookie season.  The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet has been an incredibly consistent performer in 2021.  With six 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 very optimistic heading into Pocono Raceway this weekend.  Coming off a steady 12th-place finish at Nashville this past week, that's a good measuring stick for Pocono.  Dillon earned a 14th-place finish in his last outing at the Tricky Triangle last season, and we believe he can be even sharper in this upcoming doubleheader.

Erik Jones – While he was somewhat pedestrian this past week finishing 19th-place at Nashville, we believe this weekend's outing at Pocono Raceway could be a real highlight in the season for the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team.  Jones absolutely loves this place and it has shown in this stats at this race track.  In eight-career starts the young driver has nabbed five Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes, which include his brilliant third-place effort in last year's Pocono 350.  Granted most of these career-long stats came with Joe Gibbs Racing, it still shows his affinity for this three-turn track.  While we don't expect Jones to grab another third-place finish this weekend, he should have opportunities to challenge and possibly register at least one Top-10 finish in this two-race tilt.     

Daniel Suarez – It seems improbable, but in just their first season of competition Trackhouse Racing is rubbing elbows weekly with the best in the Cup Series.  Suarez is coming off finishes of 15th-, 12th- and seventh-place the last three events.  He appears set for success in the two races at Pocono Raceway this weekend.  Suarez has some past success at this facility.  He grabbed a pole position here in 2018 and runner-up finish in the Gander Outdoors 400 for former boss Joe Gibbs.  That was one of three Top 10's he grabbed in a three-season span for JGR at the Tricky Triangle.  The way this No. 99 Chevrolet team is currently performing, we would not bet against them this weekend in Pennsylvania.  Suarez has the talent to grab a couple of great finishes at Pocono Raceway.

Ross Chastain – Chastain is the "lottery ticket" this week in weekly lineups and salary cap leagues.  It looks like the switch has finally flipped "on" big time for the journeyman driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet.  After finishing an impressive seventh at Sonoma a few weeks ago, Chastain has followed that up with a stage win in the All-Star Open and a very impressive runner-up finish at Nashville this past week. Things appear to be clicking within this team after a slow start to the season.  Chastain has four-career Cup starts at the Tricky Triangle, but they were with a much less-equipped race team.  We're going to toss those numbers aside for now. Instead, we're going to focus in on his runner-up finish at Pocono last season in the Xfinity Series for Kaulig Racing.  He led 31 laps that day in a great race car and showed his skill and potential at this race track.  Chastain is also a truck series winner at this tri-oval in 2019. He can get around Pocono well when he has good equipment. 

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Martin Truex Jr. – The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has fallen into a real rut of late.  Outside of his third-place finish at Sonoma, it's been pretty bleak for Truex.  He has four finishes outside the Top 15 in the last five events, and his All-Star outing was incredibly subpar as well.  Now we come to Pocono Raceway for the doubleheader weekend.  These are a pair of races where the Joe Gibbs Racing star could really struggle.  Despite two-career wins at this facility, it's not one of his better ovals.  Truex sports a 43-percent Top-10 rate at Pocono and his average finish of 14.7 is a bit in the middle ground when compared to other star drivers in the Cup Series.  The data all seems to point in the direction of another underperform weekend for this driver and team.

Joey Logano – While Logano was on good pace at Nashville this past week, scoring a respectable 10th-place finish in the Ally 400, we tend to shy away from the Penske Racing star this week at Pocono.  Despite being a one-time winner at this tri-oval, Logano has had a lot of difficulties the last few seasons racing at this track.  Just two of his last nine (22-percent) starts at Pocono have yielded Top-10 results.  Last season the driver of the No. 22 Ford registered 36th- and 24th-place finishes in the Pocono doubleheader weekend.  That saw his career average finish at this facility balloon to 17.9.  Logano has better tracks for fantasy racing deployment. 

Tyler Reddick – We've really been beating the drum most of this season for Reddick, especially in the sleepers list each week.  However, this week we're going to briefly step back from the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet.  Some signs of cooling have begun to emerge of late and the young driver has finishes of 19th and 18th place in the last two events.  Reddick made his Cup Series debut at Pocono last season in the doubleheader weekend, and it didn't go very well.  Without the benefit of practice and qualifying the young driver labored to finishes of 30th- and 35th-place in those two races.  Since we're poised for a similar two-race weekend with no practice, we're a bit concerned for this driver and team.  We're going to step back this week and reevaluate this driver before the next race at Road America. 

Ryan Blaney – The Penske Racing driver had his share of success at Pocono early in his career.  The driver of the No. 12 Ford nabbed a victory here in 2017 and he registered three Top 10's in his first five appearances at the Pennsylvania tri-oval.  Times have been a bit leaner for Blaney at Pocono since 2018.  Only one of his last five starts has netted him a Top-10 finish.  While he's not been terribly off, generally a Top-15 finisher, it's clear that this has not been one of his better race tracks the last three seasons.  Blaney's recent performance is a concern as well.  It seems all the Penske Ford teams are struggling a bit of late.  Blaney crashed and finished 37th at Nashville this past week, and that's not a good look heading into the Pocono doubleheader.    

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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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