RotoWire Partners 400 Preview: Pocono Reloaded

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.

This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series travels back to Pocono Raceway for the second and final race at the tri-angular 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. So, 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 August date at this tri-oval. The style of racing is also very similar to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that the series just left this past week. Current momentum will also play a roll in Sunday's 400.

Considering that this is the second race of 2013 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 eight years or 17 races at Pocono Raceway.

Denny Hamlin10.55884346632,244113.8
Jimmie Johnson8.97412594152,536110.0
Kurt Busch13.66183044452,219103.8
Jeff Gordon10.47211111242,337100.0
Tony Stewart9.173782652,29198.8
Carl Edwards13.56201752212,00297.8
Ryan Newman11.277433562,37995.4
Mark Martin12.160393972,12693.1
Matt Kenseth15.868744311,94690.7
Kevin Harvick10.56713351,95590.2
Kasey Kahne18.96452431471,83589.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.18.357060621,86388.0
Greg Biffle17.0659971092,08387.8
Jeff Burton14.960866341,89286.5
Kyle Busch18.459775631,94985.9
Joey Logano16.6302509377384.5
Brad Keselowski14.7179373148282.7
Martin Truex Jr.15.34483541,16681.7
Clint Bowyer15.148328911,25480.0
Juan Pablo Montoya18.340822531,09979.0

Season sweeps are not common at Pocono, but they're not unheard of either. Twice 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. 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 Hendrick Motorsports star Johnson this Sunday afternoon. The five-time champion destroyed the field at Pocono in June by leading 128 of the 160 laps and running away with his third career victory at the Long Pond oval. It was a jaw-dropping effort from the No. 48 Chevrolet team, and Johnson will be the heavy odds favorite to win again this weekend. Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and recent Brickyard winner Ryan Newman were the only drivers to stay within eyesight of Johnson that day, and they're likely the best list of candidates to step up their game for Sunday's 400. Two drivers who were expected to make a big splash in June's Party in the Poconos 400 were Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski. Both had really high expectations, but both had unforeseen issues that caused them to have lackluster days at Pocono. 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. Carl Edwards and the other Roush Fenway Racing drivers will have some pressure to perform given that Chevrolet and Toyota have pushed this camp to the background at least temporarily at Pocono Raceway. 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

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson snapped a long drought at Pocono with his dominant victory here in June. So once again all eyes will be on the No. 48 Chevrolet this weekend. The five-time champion pulled the season-sweep at this facility in 2004 and it looks as though nothing can stop him from doing it again in 2013. Johnson is a three-time Pocono winner and he's coming off a dominant runner-up performance at Indianapolis last weekend. A Top-10 finish in the 400 goes without saying, and if the Hendrick Motorsports star brings his "A" game on Sunday, he could quickly turn this one into another runaway and hide affair.

Tony Stewart -
The two-time Pocono winner will return to the mountains of Pennsylvania this weekend and attempt to post his second victory of the season in the 400. Stewart has quite a resume at this three-turn oval, and his string of three consecutive Pocono Top 5s shows the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet knows how to run up front at this facility. Smoke has an astounding 41 percent Top-5 rate in 29 starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval, so he and the No. 14 team have this place dialed-in. Stewart has led well over 150 laps at this facility and has only two career DNF's, so that is a good bit of security with this fantasy racing selection.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon's career numbers at Pocono Raceway are simply awe-inspiring. The six-time winner at the Pennsylvania oval picked up his sixth career trophy in this event one year ago, so his success at this oval is longstanding and quite recent. That victory gave him the all-time lead in wins at Pocono Raceway with one more than legendary Bill Elliott. When Gordon isn't getting a post-race victory shower, he's not far off the point. The Hendrick Motorsports star cracks the Top 5 at the 2.5-mile triangle at an astounding 44 percent rate and the Top 10 at 68 percent. His Top 10 run at Indy this past weekend is a good indicator of his potential this Sunday afternoon.

Kasey Kahne - Misfortune has been the word of the year for the Hendrick No. 5 team. Kahne has muddled his way through all kinds of bad luck in 2013, but he still sports homerun potential as he showed in cracking the Top 3 at Indianapolis last weekend. He's finished runner-up on a couple occasions this season, so it's just a matter of the luck breaking his way for once. Kahne is a hit-or-miss prospect at Pocono Raceway. He qualified fourth and finished runner-up in this event one year ago, so he clearly has great potential at the three-turn oval. However, it's his career 32 percent Top-10 rate at Pocono that is concerning. Boom or bust is definitely a term that applies.

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

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 won the two pole positions, led 93 laps and cracked the Top 10 twice at the 2.5-mile tri-oval in the Pocono Mountains the last four events. 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 new No. 22 team. Logano is racing up front and contending for wins at this track. His 11 laps led and strong eighth-place finish at Indy this past week only bolster our opinion of the young driver this week.

Ryan Newman -
Our Brickyard 400 winner will travel to Pocono this week and look to expand upon what he accomplished at Indianapolis last weekend. Newman enters this week 16th in the championship standings and finally showing some signs of life this season. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran will be happy to see the Tricky Triangle this weekend as it is one of his favorite facilities. Newman is a one-time Pocono winner and checks in at a respectable 48 percent career Top 10 rate. That averages out to a nice 12.0 average finish at the Pennsylvania tri-oval. For a measure of confidence, hang your hat on the fact that Rocket Man hasn't finished outside the Top 15 at this track since way back in 2008.

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 has been career redefining for the former champion. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has 10 career Top-10 finishes at Pocono and he qualified a career-best fourth here in June before problems relegated the team to a sub-par 25th-place finish. We believe Kenseth will rebound this Sunday afternoon in the 400. He comes to Pocono Raceway sixth in the overall driver standings and fresh off a Top-5 finish at Indianapolis. Kenseth will be a top performer on Sunday afternoon.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The NASCAR icon made believers of us this past weekend at Indianapolis. The historic speedway hasn't really been the site of much success for Earnhardt over his career, but he turned in an incredible sixth-place finish after rallying from a loose wheel early in the race. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Pocono, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet turned in a stellar third-place finish in the Party in the Poconos 400. Earnhardt should build on that effort and other recent efforts at the three-turn oval this weekend. He has four Top 10s in his last five visits to Pocono Raceway. We see a tremendous amount of upside in an Earnhardt fantasy racing selection in the 400.

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

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is the driver rating leader at this oval going into this weekend's Pocono race, but he's not won at the facility since early 2010. He's also battled a nagging back injury and performance struggles in 2013. These are the reasons for the downgrade to the sleepers list this week. The four-time Pocono winner finished eighth here in June despite his ailing back and other problems. 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. The Joe Gibbs Racing star might struggle, but he should surely solider his way to another Top 10 this Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Busch -
Pocono Raceway has been a boom-or-bust track for Busch during his colorful NASCAR career. There are signs that this situation is improving though. The No. 18 Toyota team has turned in some of their best performances at the huge triangle in the last four years. Those efforts have netted a pair of runner-up finishes, one third-place finish and one sixth-place finish, earlier this season. Busch is coming off a workmanlike Top-10 performance at Indianapolis, so even when things aren't going the greatest he's turning poor cars into Top-10 finishers. We have to greatly respect the security and homerun potential that the Joe Gibbs Racing star brings to the table at Pocono Raceway.

Kurt Busch -
The two-time Pocono winner showed he could carry his excellent Pocono resume to his new No. 78 team with his Top-10 performance here in June. Busch saddled up at the Tricky Triangle for the first time with Furniture Row Racing in the Party in the Poconos 400 and he brought home an impressive seventh-place finish. It was the veteran driver's 13th career Top 10 at Pocono Raceway. That works out to a respectable 54 percent over 24 starts. Busch will look to equal, if not better, that effort in Sunday's 400. He didn't lead any laps here and June and had to overcome a poor qualifying effort. Busch could right those wrongs this weekend.

Paul Menard -
Coming off the Top-15 finish at the Brickyard, how can we not list Menard in the sleepers list this week? The Richard Childress Racing driver used good pit strategy and good moves to finish 12th last weekend at Indianapolis. We believe it's a sign of the No. 27 team returning to consistency. Menard's last six Pocono Raceway starts have yielded two Top-10 and five Top-15 finishes. Only his last outing here in June was the lone bad start in recent years. Much of that was due to bad luck and problems beyond Menards control. He should return to Top 15 form in the 400.

Jeff Burton -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran had a mechanical (drive train) failure at Indianapolis this past weekend, but he was well on his way to a Top-20 finish before the malfunction. Burton should rebound nicely this weekend at a track that has held a lot of success for him. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has led 104 career laps and collected 17 Top-10 finishes over the years at Pocono Raceway. His most recent outing here in June netted a solid 11th-place finish. It was Burton's sixth Top-20 finish in his last seven Pocono starts. We expect the dependability to continue this Sunday afternoon.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
One would think that Montoya's past open-wheel racing experience would make Pocono a solid venue for the Earnhardt Ganassi veteran. However, times have been tough at the three-turn oval for the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet. Montoya's recent past has held only one Top-15 finish in the last four trips to Long Pond, PA. We have good reason this will change this time around. The EGR veteran is fresh off his fourth Top-10 finish of the season at Indianapolis, and the team performed very admirably. Montoya won the pole position for this event one year ago and he's led 53 career laps at Pocono Raceway. His current momentum and clear knowledge of how to race this track are keys in this selection.

Jamie McMurray -
Things appear to be lining up for a very successful weekend at Pocono for Earnhardt 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 finishes of 10th-, 17th- and 13th-place in his last three trips to Long Pond, PA. He's also coming off five laps led and a Top-15 finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. McMurray rides into Pennsylvania performing much better in the last few weeks. There seems to be a lot of indicators pointing towards at Top-15 finish at Pocono Raceway.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Mark Martin -
Martin's shocking irrelevance at Indianapolis this past week on the heels of the No. 55 team's victory at New Hampshire is nearly unexplainable. The veteran driver has always been a top performer at the historic Indiana oval. However, his 23rd-place finish at the Brickyard is concerning coming to Pocono. Martin's last five trips to the Pocono Mountains have only yielded one Top-10 finish. His career Top-10 rate at this facility has dropped from 64 percent historically, closer to 38 percent in the last five years.

Greg Biffle -
Despite his runner-up finish at Pocono in June, we're still recommending you bench Biffle this week. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran had a shockingly bad performance at Indianapolis this past week. That has us greatly concerned for the No. 16 Ford team as Biffle heads to a track where he's historically hit-or-miss. With only five Top 10s in 21 career starts at Pocono Raceway, there is better fantasy racing options than Biffle out there this weekend.

Brad Keselowski -
The defending Sprint Cup Series champion really seems like a boom-or-bust pick this week, but we're leaning towards the bust based on what we saw here in June. Keselowski finished a subpar 16th in the Party in the Poconos 400. That is one of a handful of disappointments for the No. 2 team over the years at Pocono Raceway. The Penske Racing star has only two career Top 10s in seven starts at the Tricky Triangle. Given his less-than-inspiring 21st-place finish at Indy this past week, we consider Keselowski a high risk play at Pocono.

A.J. Allmendinger -
We're used to putting Allmendinger in the sleepers list occasionally, so it's a change of pace putting him in the flops list this week. The driver of the No. 51 Chevrolet has been solid this season; he's just not a good performer at Pocono Raceway. He slogged his way to a 33rd-place finish here in June for the No. 51 team. Allmendinger will return and try to rebound from that performance but his historical numbers at the huge triangle suggest otherwise. The journeyman driver has only one Top-10 finish in 11 career starts at Pocono and a lowly 23.5 average finish. It's best to skip over the Phoenix Racing driver this weekend.