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Party in the Poconos 400 Preview: Hamlin's Time to Shine

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 halfway 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 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. The new generation stock car will be the x-factor this Sunday afternoon. Since we'll be racing the three-turn oval for the first time with the new Gen-6 car, the teams and drivers will be in information gathering mode. The lessons learned with the new car 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 adapt to the new car at the facility.

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 eight years or 16 races at Pocono Raceway.

Denny Hamlin10.75594306632,105115.1
Jimmie Johnson9.47252232872,376107.6
Kurt Busch14.05753004452,068103.7
Jeff Gordon10.36921101242,231100.9
Tony Stewart9.468580652,13898.6
Carl Edwards13.25951692121,86797.4
Ryan Newman11.675027372,28795.4
Mark Martin11.760093972,10094.4
Kasey Kahne17.96451921471,83591.4
Matt Kenseth15.366140311,82090.7
Kevin Harvick10.66403151,83589.6
Jeff Burton15.259966341,85487.1
Greg Biffle17.9616921091,93087.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.354554621,70386.1
Kyle Busch19.255875631,79184.6
Joey Logano17.4262509369084.5
Martin Truex Jr.14.84393541,11982.3
Clint Bowyer15.146428911,15379.9
Brad Keselowski14.5144332734279.0
Juan Pablo Montoya18.7376225399278.4

Pocono Raceway has been a venue up for grabs in the past few seasons. We've seen as much parity at Pocono as any other track on the circuit. All three manufacturers have put a driver in victory lane at Pocono Raceway in the last three years at the facility. Toyota and Ford split the 2010 events with Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle taking those victories. Jeff Gordon outfoxed the field twice in the last four races at the Pennsylvania oval and won in both 2011 and 2012 at the tricky triangle. When the Sprint Cup Series visited here in this event one year ago, it would see would see surprising youngster Joey Logano pick up his first career win at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. Roush and Penske Ford 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. Hamlin has been searching for his first 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 are seeking desperately to get back into victory lane. Carl Edwards is a two-time Pocono winner, and looking to pick up his second victory of 2013 entering this weekend. Considering how well the driver of the No. 99 Ford is performing entering this weekend, he could easily notch career win number three 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 Party in the Poconos 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 11 years of racing the Pennsylvania tri-oval he's collected two victories and 15 Top-10 finishes. The five-time Sprint Cup champion had three fourth-place finishes at this oval since 2011. Johnson enters this weekend looking to rebound from his late black-flag penalty at Dover last week. The judgment call of NASCAR was all that stood between the No. 48 team and an eighth Dover victory, so the team is hot coming to Pocono. A third career win at the Pennsylvania tri-oval could be in store this Sunday afternoon.

Tony Stewart
The win at the Monster Mile last week has breathed life back into this slumping No. 14 team. 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 seven Top 10s in his last nine trips to the Tricky Triangle. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has had some tough times this season, but there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. We expect this weekend's Pocono event to be one of those performances that leads to the annual summer hot streak for Stewart.

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 16 races at the three-turn oval. He has led close to 670 laps and owns four victories at the track in his Sprint Cup career. The No. 11 Toyota was incredibly fast at Pocono in this event one year ago. Hamlin led 21 laps and finished fifth in the Pocono 400. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is still looking for his first victory of 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 wave of momentum thanks to a great start to this season coming into this Pocono weekend. That's great news for the No. 5 Chevrolet team. The Hendrick Motorsports star has led close to 400 laps this season and has one victory and three runner-up finishes on the larger ovals. 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 led 161 laps and finished second in this race one year ago. 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 posted his second Top 5 in the last three races with his third-place finish at the Monster Mile last Sunday. Gordon has had a great deal of success at the Pennsylvania oval with six victories and 28 Top 10s. He's won two of the last four Pocono races and makes a good outside sleeper pick to challenge for the win in Sunday afternoon's Party in the Poconos 400.

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 solid Top-10 finish at the Monster Mile and that was one of four Top 10s in the last five races. Harvick has Top-5 finishes in three of his last six 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 400-mile battle at the Tricky Triangle.

Joey Logano
Another driver who is performing well of late and likely to keep it going this week at Pocono is Logano. After racking up Top 10s in his last two races, we have to upgrade the Penske Racing driver for the Party in the Poconos 400. Logano has two pole positions, 93 laps led and one victory in his last three Pocono appearances. In this race one year ago, Logano led 44 laps from the pole and bested veteran Mark Martin to capture his first career win at the 2.5-mile triangle. The young driver may have moved to the No. 22 Ford team during the off-season, but we're willing to bet Logano hasn't forgotten his recent lessons in success at the Pocono tri-oval.

Kurt Busch
The new lease on life is looking good on Busch and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team. The veteran driver brings the experience of two career Pocono victories and 449 laps led at the Pennsylvania oval to this small team for this weekend's Party in the Poconos 400. Busch sports a stellar driver rating of 103.7 at Pocono Raceway and that should be a big confidence boost in light of his recent success. He's been strong on the larger ovals this season as his Fontana Top 5 and Charlotte 5 can attest. Given the career record at Pocono Raceway and recent string of success, we heavily recommend the No. 78 Chevrolet team this weekend.

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

Clint Bowyer
The Michael Waltrip Racing star has been a consistent Pocono performer (50 percent Top-10 rate) over the years. Bowyer picked up a pair of Top-10 finishes at the Pennsylvania oval last season when he finished sixth and eighth in those two events. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota has raced well this season and enters this event a lofty third in the series standings. The MWR 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. Bowyer should be able to race with the leaders and cruise to a Top-10 finish at Pocono Raceway.

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 Pennsylvania 400. Edwards has not been a dominant driver 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 on the larger ovals. Truex has five Top-10 finishes to this point in the season and all have come on ovals of 1.5-miles in length or larger. Three of his last five trips to Pocono Raceway have yielded Top-10 finishes so Truex has been quite consistent in recent performances at this facility. The MWR veteran is coming off an engine failure with a very fast car at Dover this past weekend, so a rebound performance is in order. There's no better place than Pocono for this driver and team to get back in the groove.

Marcos Ambrose
Given that the Richard Petty Motorsports driver has his racing roots on road circuits, it's no surprise to see him in the sleepers list at Pocono Raceway. This triangular oval is often described as the oval that races like a road course, so Ambrose will feel right at home this weekend. The driver of the No. 9 Ford had a good pair of outings here in 2012. Ambrose collected finishes of 13th- and 10th-place at Pocono last season. That brought his career totals to four Top-20 finishes in eight starts at the facility. While Ambrose has been steadily improving at this oval during his Sprint Cup career, we should expect a similar performance in Sunday's Party in the Poconos 400.

Juan Pablo Montoya
The big surprise of last weekend was Montoya's flirtation with victory lane at the Monster Mile. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet has been steadily coming on in recent weeks and it culminated with a late charge for the win at Dover last Sunday afternoon. Montoya's 19 laps led and runner-up finish gives him three Top 10s in the last five races entering this weekend. He comes to Pocono at a great time. His last appearance at the 2.5-mile triangle netted a pole position, seven laps led and a Top-20 finish at the end of the day. Montoya has led 53 career laps at this facility, so he's no stranger to racing up front at Pocono Raceway.

A.J. Allmendinger
This isn't as much a driver call as a team call for Allmendinger at Pocono. His career stats aren't that impressive at the 2.5-mile tri-oval, but it's more what Phoenix Racing has accomplished this season that grabs our attention. The driver trio has posted a pair of Top-10 finishes through the first 13 races and Allmendinger himself has managed an impressive 13.5 average finish in his four starts alone in the No. 51 Chevrolet. Allmendinger is capable enough and this team is good enough to crack the Top 15 in Sunday's Party in the Poconos 400.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Greg Biffle
Biffle is a one-time Pocono winner, so it may seem odd that we've moved him to the flops list this week. The victory in the 2010 Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 is one of only four Top 10s in 20 starts for the Roush Fenway Racing driver at the Tricky Triangle. He's found the going very difficult at this facility outside of that one career victory. Biffle has finishes of 27th-, eighth-, 24th- and 15th-place in the four races since that win at Pocono. That's wildly inconsistent at best, and that's been the theme for this driver at this track over the years. Save Biffle on the bench this week and redeploy him at Michigan to greater effect.

Aric Almirola
The RPM driver's good season has turned a bit south the last few races. Almirola's 20th-place finish at Darlington and crash at Charlotte have dipped him from eighth- to 12th-place in the championship standings over the last four races. We wouldn't classify this as a crash-and-burn, but more the No. 43 Ford team drifting back to reality. Almirola isn't coming to the best oval to get things back on track this weekend. He has only two starts at Pocono Raceway and finishes of 28th- and 18th-place in those efforts. His lack of experience on this oval and current level of performance likely equal a finish outside the Top 20 this weekend.

Kyle Busch
Busch has shown that he is very human this season. He has mixed Top-5 performances with engine failures and finishes outside the Top 30, despite the consistently fast race cars he receives each weekend. We expect to see another fast No. 18 Toyota at Pocono Raceway this week. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has struggled for his career at the three-turn Pennsylvania track. Busch has no victories at Pocono and a scant 63 laps led in 16 starts at this facility. This all equals out to a subpar 19.2 career average finish at the big tri-oval. Busch's engine failure and 30th-place finish in this event one year ago almost seem to foreshadow what's in store this weekend for the No. 18 team.

Matt Kenseth
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been nearly a weekly play this season in most league formats, so if you're looking for a reason to bench Kenseth this would be it. Most fantasy racing players are probably still smarting from the No. 20 Toyota's blown engine and DNF at the Monster Mile this past week. Pocono Raceway has not been a good facility for Kenseth over the years. He has no victories, 54 laps led and sports merely a 39 percent Top-10 rate at the Tricky Triangle. This weekend will likely be one of the few occasions this season when the No. 20 team is not the team to beat on a given Sunday. Give him a richly-deserved week off at Pocono Raceway.