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Pocono 400 Preview: The Tricky Triangle

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

As we pass the half-way point in the run up to the Chase for the Cup, 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. So, this track races nothing like an oval at all, but functions more like a road course due to the relatively flat banking and three distinctly different turns. Now that we're 13 races into the 26 that determines the field for the Chase, we're on the downhill run towards NASCAR's post-season. The tricky triangle in Pocono makes a good, challenging track to mark the start of the second half in the Sprint Cup Series' regular season. NASCAR has shortened this race to 400 miles as opposed to the traditional 500 miles that we have raced in this event in the past. While it could make for better televised motor sports, it could also have an impact on the outcome, so we'll need to keep this important factor in mind looking over the numbers.

Since we'll be racing for the first time this season at Pocono Raceway this weekend we need to take a quick look at the loop stats from 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 seven years or 14 races at Pocono Raceway.

Denny Hamlin9.74954096391,953118.6
Jimmie Johnson9.56422062432,194107.0
Kurt Busch12.95382994422,029105.8
Jeff Gordon10.4610951162,063100.8
Tony Stewart10.161780651,97799.5
Carl Edwards13.85351682121,70198.4
Ryan Newman12.065727372,04694.8
Mark Martin12.453579931,90093.2
Kevin Harvick10.05993151,72491.4
Kasey Kahne18.25561611461,63989.5
Jeff Burton14.754466341,75189.2
Kyle Busch17.452971631,72187.6
Matt Kenseth15.358812161,58087.3
Greg Biffle17.754389901,72086.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.14832991,49982.0
Martin Truex Jr.15.33773341,01581.9
Juan Pablo Montoya18.7303204390479.0
Brad Keselowski16.3111271927178.7
Clint Bowyer16.5402289198278.6
Joey Logano20.8215284450878.3

Pocono Raceway has been a venue dominated by many racing stables in the past few seasons. We've seen as much parity at Pocono as any other track on the circuit. All four manufacturers have put a driver in victory lane at Pocono Raceway in the last four races at the facility. Chevrolet and Dodge teams won the two races at the Pennsylvania oval in 2011. Jeff Gordon outfoxed Kurt Busch and rolled into victory lane in this event one year ago. When the Sprint Cup Series returned later in the summer, it would see Penske Racing get its revenge as Brad Keselowski would pick up his first career win at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. Roush and Gibbs teams have also fared very well at the Pennsylvania track in the last few years, and we expect those teams to be racing with the leaders on Sunday afternoon. Denny Hamlin has been searching for his third victory of the season, so we're visiting Pocono Raceway at a very good time for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Hamlin is a four-time Pocono winner and his No. 11 team sports the most dominant loop stats of any driver in the series at this triangular oval. The Ford teams of Roush Fenway Racing have picked up two wins in the last four years at Pocono. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle won each of those two events. Considering how well championship standings leader Biffle is performing entering this weekend, he could easily notch career win number two at this facility on 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

Jimmie Johnson -
Pocono Raceway isn't one of Johnson's best tracks, but in his 10 years of racing the Pennsylvania tri-oval he's collected two victories and 14 Top-10 finishes. The five-time Sprint Cup champion had a pair of fourth-place finishes at this oval in 2011. Johnson enters this weekend as one of the hottest drivers in the series with victories in two of the last three races. This is shaping up to be a classic Johnson hot streak and Pocono Raceway is next on the list. A third career win at the Pennsylvania tri-oval could be in store this Sunday afternoon.

Greg Biffle -
Up until his 2010 victory in the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500, Biffle had yet to really make his mark on Pocono Raceway. That all changed when he captured the win at the Tricky Triangle in the second Pocono race of that season for his first career win at the track. Biffle's career average finish still stands at a sup-bar 17.2 at this 2.5-mile triangle, but Roush Fenway Racing's current momentum coupled with the championship standings leader's mastering of this track in the last couple seasons should add up to a challenge for the win. The No. 16 Ford has been very fast on the larger speedways this season, and the Pocono 400 should be no exception.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is the statistical leader in a lot of categories at Pocono Raceway and he boasts the best driver rating of the field in the last 14 races at the three-turn oval. He has led close to 650 laps and owns four victories at the track in his Sprint Cup career. The No. 11 Toyota was incredibly fast at Pocono in the two events one year ago. Hamlin led over 140 laps in those two races, but managed to come away with no wins. The Joe Gibbs Racing star already has two wins this season so Hamlin should be excited about the prospect of visiting one of his better ovals this weekend.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne is riding a tsunami wave of momentum thanks to a great month of May coming into this Pocono weekend. That's great news for the No. 5 Chevrolet team. The Hendrick Motorsports star is in the midst of a career-best seven-race Top 10 streak and that includes his win at Charlotte a couple weeks ago. Kahne has had great runs in the past at this unusual oval. He's a two-time pole-winner and one-time race winner at Pocono Raceway. Kahne has led 150 career laps at this Pennsylvania oval, so he knows what it takes to race up front here. The No. 5 Chevy team has had fast cars the last couple of months and that shouldn't change this Sunday afternoon.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Jeff Gordon -
As we come out of the Dover race weekend, we gain a renewed appreciation for the No. 24 Chevrolet team. At this point we can confidently say that Gordon has all but put his bad luck behind him and is getting back into top form. The veteran driver led 60 laps at the Monster Mile last weekend and dueled with teammate Jimmie Johnson most of that race. Gordon has had a great deal of success at the Pennsylvania oval with five victories and 27 Top 10s. He won this event one year ago and makes a good outside sleeper pick to challenge for the win in Sunday afternoon's Pocono 400.

Kyle Busch -
Busch showed that he was human yet again at Dover International Speedway this past weekend. He raced with the leaders for a good deal of the event, but an engine failure was all that kept him from finishing in the Top 10. We expect to see another fast No. 18 Toyota at Pocono Raceway this week. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been stellar in recent Pocono outings. Busch has one pole position and three Top-3 finishes in his last four trips to the Tricky Triangle. He's quickly reversing some very poor personal stats at this three-turn oval from earlier in his NASCAR career.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star is our last Pocono winner. Keselowski out worked the Busch brothers to win last August's Good Sam RV Insurance 500. While another trip to victory lane at this 2.5-mile tri-oval is not likely, a good finish is almost certain. Keselowski has raced well this season and already shown the ability to win races in 2012. The Penske Racing stable has shown some real speed at the three-turn Pennsylvania oval, and we don't expect that factor to change at all this Sunday afternoon. Keselowski should be able to race with the leaders and cruise to a Top-10 finish at Pocono Raceway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Mr. Consistency can hardly wait to take a shot at the Pocono triangle. Earlier in Earnhardt's NASCAR career, he led laps and finished up front at the 2.5-mile triangle. His first nine starts at Pocono saw Earnhardt collect four Top 10s and lead 89 laps in those starts. The Hendrick Motorsports star is capable of returning to that form in Sunday's Pocono 400. Earnhardt logged sixth- and ninth-place finishes in the two Pocono races one year ago, and that should be a reasonable expectation for this Sunday afternoon.

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

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 surging Richard Childress driver. He's fresh off a brilliant runner-up finish at the Monster Mile and that is a good indicator that the No. 29 team is about to heat up. Harvick has Top-5 finishes in three of his last four trips to the raceway tucked away in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. He should be up for another challenge of the Top 5 in this weekend's Pocono 400.

Tony Stewart -
While Stewart has had anything but a consistent season, we have to pay him some respect at one of his better tracks. He just seems to come to life at the triangular Pocono Raceway. Smoke owns two career wins at Pocono with five Top 10s in his last seven trips to the Tricky Triangle. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has had some brilliant runs mixed in with some sub-par finishes this season, but we expect this weekend's Pocono event to be one of those "uptick" performances for the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion.

Carl Edwards -
The driver of the No. 99 Ford has such a great resume at Pocono that he's nearly a mandatory fantasy racing play this Sunday. Edwards owns two career victories at Pocono Raceway and a 50 percent Top 10 rate at the three-turn oval. In his last effort at the Pennsylvania triangle, he brought home a steady seventh-place finish in last August's Good Sam RV Insurance 500. Edwards has not quite been himself this season, but that's no reason to shy away from him this weekend at Pocono Raceway. The Roush Fenway Racing star should grind out a Top-10 finish at the 2.5-mile triangle.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 56 MWR team has been a very consistent performer this season. Truex has eight Top-10 finishes to this point in the season and is well on pace to have a career-best campaign. His last three trips to Pocono Raceway have yielded finishes of ninth-, 10th- and 12th-place so Truex has been quite consistent in recent performances at this facility. Considering the momentum of the Michael Waltrip Racing star and this race team, a career-best Pocono finish could be in the offing this weekend.

David Reutimann -
In a surprise, late-breaking development ... Reutimann will be in the seat of Phoenix Racing's No. 51 Chevrolet this weekend at Pocono. Regular driver Kurt Busch is serving a one-race suspension this weekend for the trouble that his mouth got him in at Dover this past weekend. Soap opera aside, Reutimann will make a very competent fill-in for the embattled Busch. The journeyman driver has 10 career starts at Pocono Raceway with one Top-10 finish to his credit. Reutimann's most recent body of work at the Tricky Triangle has been two Top-15 and three Top-20 finishes in his last four trips to the Pennsylvania oval.

A.J. Allmendinger -
This isn't as much a driver call as a team call for Allmendinger at Pocono. His career stats are that impressive at the 2.5-mile tri-oval, but it's more what Penske Racing has accomplished at the track in recent seasons that grabs our attention. Busch, former driver of the No. 22 Dodge, won one pole and finished second- and third- in the two Pocono events last season. Granted Allmendinger is not Busch, but this team must still have some of that Pocono magic left in the tank. Allmendinger is capable enough and this team is good enough to crack the Top 15 in Sunday's Pocono 400.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Marcos Ambrose -
Given what Richard Petty Motorsports has accomplished the last couple weeks, this would seem like a very bold call for a down trend this weekend. Ambrose has had very fast cars, and he cracked the Top 10 at Dover this past weekend in the FedEx 400. However, the driver of the No. 9 Ford has had a rough go of things at the Pocono oval over his Sprint Cup career, despite its road racing feel. Ambrose has only one Top-10 finish compared to four finishes outside the Top 30 in six career starts at Pocono Raceway. The odds look difficult to overcome for Ambrose this weekend.

Matt Kenseth -
The Roush Fenway Racing star has never won at Pocono Raceway and he's never really been a big time performer at this unusual track. Nine Top-10 finishes in 24 career starts equate to a lack-luster 14.2 average finish at the facility. Six of Kenseth's last seven trips to the Tricky Triangle have resulted in finishes outside the Top 10 and mostly in the middle-teens. For a driver ranked second in the championship standings and definitely a tier "A" driver in most formats, that's not what we look for in a start for Kenseth. It's a good week to bench the driver of the No. 17 Ford, and redeploy him at Michigan.

Joey Logano -
Another driver who is performing well of late, but will likely have a down week at Pocono is Logano. After racking up Top 10s in two of his last three races, we have to downgrade the Joe Gibbs Racing driver for the Pocono 400. Logano has six career starts at the three-turn oval in Pennsylvania, but no Top-10 finishes to-date. The sub-par 20.8 average finish is a big warning sign as well. Logano took a pole winning-car to the point and led 44 laps in last August's Good Sam RV Insurance 500 only to finish a disappointing 26th at the end of 500 miles. That is just the kind of luck that he has had at this three-turn oval.

Kurt Busch -
What more can be done to this driver that he already hasn't done to himself? That's the question begging to be answered going forward from this week. Busch verbally threatened reporter Bob Pockrass during a post-race interview this past weekend at Dover and the fall out was immediate. NASCAR has suspended him from this week's race at Pocono and team owner James Finch has arranged to meet with the embattled driver next week. Chances are very good that Busch will be without a racing job after the Pocono weekend, so it's best to lay off any fantasy racing expectations for this driver for the foreseeable future.