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. With that in mind, 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 techniques used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the series just raced this past weekend. Because of this, current momentum and hot streaks will also play a role in Sunday's 400.

Considering that this is the second race of 2014 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 nine years or 19 races at Pocono Raceway.

Denny Hamlin12.16304346672,404109.0
Jimmie Johnson9.08192724632,723108.7
Kurt Busch12.47223124592,521105.5
Jeff Gordon9.88271431332,626101.8
Tony Stewart9.384099922,54998.9
Carl Edwards14.87011762212,23896.0
Kyle Larson5.0531710396.0
Ryan Newman10.685136582,59895.8
Brad Keselowski12.32719614077392.8
Kasey Kahne19.27322972132,05791.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.766479752,14790.8
Kevin Harvick11.17445352,15490.7
Matt Kenseth16.671845321,99987.6
Greg Biffle16.6738971092,27087.4
Kyle Busch17.566880632,17286.8
Brian Vickers17.3469721591,53586.2
Joey Logano17.839952931,03985.8
Jeff Burton16.163066341,93185.1
Clint Bowyer14.858731911,53481.7
Martin Truex Jr.14.951535111,28681.5

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 Dale Earnhardt Jr. this Sunday afternoon. The NASCAR icon out-dueled Brad Keselowski at Pocono in June and picked up his first-career victory at the Long Pond oval. It was a surprising effort from the No. 88 Chevrolet team, and Earnhardt will be the heavy odds favorite to win again this weekend. Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Keselowski were the only drivers to give Earnhardt some heated competition 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 Pocono 400 were Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards. Both had really high expectations, but both were tangled in a late-race crash that sent each to the garage area for the rest of the day. 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. Keselowski and his Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano will have some added 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

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 two years ago, so his success at this track is longstanding and very 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 here. 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 70-percent. His big victory at Indy this past weekend is a good indicator of his potential this Sunday afternoon.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The NASCAR icon made believers of us this past June at Pocono Raceway. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet turned in a brilliant, strategic performance to capture his first-career victory at this three-turn oval. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Pocono, Earnhardt led 11 laps and out-dueled Brad Keselowski to capture the win in the Pocono 400. He should build on that effort and other recent efforts at the Tricky Triangle this weekend. He has a three-race Top-5 streak at this facility entering the weekend. We see a tremendous amount of upside in an Earnhardt fantasy racing selection in the 400.

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 2014, but he still sports homerun potential as he showed in leading 70 laps and cracking the Top 10 at Indianapolis last weekend. He's finished in the Top 5 on a couple occasions this season, so it's just a matter of the luck breaking his way for once to get that first win of the season. Kahne led 66 laps and won this event one year ago for his second-career victory at the three-turn oval. That was one of two Top-2 finishes for the veteran driver in his last four trips to the Pocono Mountains.

Tony Stewart -
The two-time Pocono winner will return to the mountains of Pennsylvania this weekend and attempt to post his first victory of the season in the 400. Stewart has quite a resume at this three-turn oval, and his strong 39-percent Pocono Top-5 rate shows the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet knows how to run up front at this facility. Smoke has four Top-10 finishes in his last five starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval, so he and the No. 14 team have this place dialed-in. Stewart has led 24 laps here in June's Pocono 400 before fading late to finish 13th. Make no mistake, the veteran driver has the potential to steal the victory here.

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

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has cooled a bit in recent races, so we've downgraded him from the contenders list to the solid plays list this week for that reason. The six-time champion pulled the season-sweep at this facility in 2004 and he finished a steady sixth at the 2.5-mile oval in this past June. Johnson is a three-time Pocono winner and he's led over 700 career laps at this facility in the last 12 years. 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.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star really seems like a boom-or-bust pick this week, but we're leaning towards the boom based on what we saw here in June. Keselowski led a dominant 95 laps and finished runner-up in the Pocono 400. That gives him four Top-10 finishes in his last six visits to the unique oval in Pennsylvania. A very good trend given the struggles he had earlier in his career at this facility. Given his less-than-inspiring 12th-place finish at Indianapolis this past week, we consider Keselowski a major rebound candidate for this Sunday's race at Pocono Raceway.

Kurt Busch -
The two-time Pocono winner showed he could carry his excellent Pocono resume to his new No. 41 team with his Top-5 performance here in June. Busch saddled up at the Tricky Triangle for the first time with Stewart Haas Racing in the Pocono 400 and he brought home an impressive third-place finish. It was the veteran driver's 11th career Top 5 at Pocono Raceway. That works out to a impressive 42-percent over 26 starts. Busch will look to equal, if not better, that effort in Sunday's 400. He only led 5 laps here in June and that could just be a preview of things to come.

Ryan Newman -
Our steady Pocono hand returns to the scene of his seventh-place finish here in June. Newman enters this week seventh in the championship standings and with a lot to race for in the 400. The Richard Childress 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 52-percent career Top-10 rate. That averages out to a nice 11.5 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 and he rides a four-race Pocono Top-10 streak into this event.

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

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 picked up a victory and three Top-10 finishes in his last five trips to the 2.5-mile tri-oval in the Pocono Mountains. 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 No. 22 Ford team at Penske. Logano had some bad luck here in June with an engine failure and DNF, so he'll be working hard to atone for that disappointment. His fifth-place finish at Indy this past week sets up pretty well for this event on a similarly configured flat oval.

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 inconsistency and performance struggles in 2014. Despite all this, he managed a good effort in June at the Tricky Triangle. The four-time Pocono winner won the pole here and finished fourth in June despite his inconsistency. 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 finish this Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Busch -
Pocono Raceway has been a boom-or-bust track for Busch during his colorful NASCAR career. There are signs in recent seasons that this trend is reversing. The No. 18 Toyota team has turned in some of their best performances at the huge triangle in the last five years. Those efforts have netted a pair of runner-up finishes, one third-place finish and two other Top 10s in the last nine events. Busch is coming off a workmanlike Top-5 performance at Indianapolis, and that tends to be a good forecast for the following Pocono weekend. We have to greatly respect the security and homerun potential that the Joe Gibbs Racing star brings to the table at Pocono Raceway.

Jamie McMurray -
Things appear to be lining up for a very successful weekend at Pocono for Chip 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-, 13th-, 16th- and 10th-place in his last five trips to Long Pond, PA. His 10th-place finish here in June was no fluke. It was his fifth-career Top-10 finish at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. There seems to be a lot of indicators pointing towards a Top-15 finish for the CGR veteran at Pocono Raceway.

Clint Bowyer -
The MWR veteran checks in with a cool pair of Top 10s in his last five trips to Pocono Raceway. When Bowyer hasn't been cracking the Top 10 he's been solidly in the Top 15 as most of those race weekends show. He just missed the Top 10 in June's Pocono 400 finishing a respectable 11th that afternoon. These results are pretty typical of his career-long record at the 2.5-mile triangle. Bowyer's 91 laps led and 41-percent Top-10 rate at this facility are respectable numbers. He has no DNF's and has been running at the end of every Pocono race for the last nine seasons. That's some added measure of security in your fantasy racing lineup.

Kyle Larson -
The rookie has looked like anything but a rookie in 2014. To this point Larson has nine Top-10 finishes through the first 20 races and sits a lofty 12th overall in the championship standings. The CGR driver has been going to tracks for the first time and mastering them in the same weekend. That was the case earlier in June when Larson first took to the three-turns of Pocono. He led 7 laps and battled with the stars of the series for 400-miles before finishing a super impressive fifth in the Pocono 400. Larson comes from Indianapolis with a similar performance in tow. This rookie is red hot right now.

Michael Annett -
In the deep sleeper category we find Annett and his Tommy Baldwin Racing team. He's been a Top-20 finisher on these larger ovals in the second half of the summer, and he turned in one of those performances here in June finishing 20th in the Pocono 400. Annett is coming off a sub-par 31st-place finish at the Brickyard, but he should rebound this week having such good data from the first visit this season to the three-turn Pocono oval. We expect the No. 7 TBR Chevrolet team to give any fantasy racing team a lift at the bottom of the lineup at Pocono Raceway.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Paul Menard -
Coming off the crash and utter disappointment at the Brickyard, how can we not list Menard in the slow down list this week? The Richard Childress Racing driver has had a tough go of those at the triangular oval in recent appearances. After posting a pair of Pocono Top 10s in 2011 and 2012, Menard has stumbled there of late. He has finishes of 32nd-, 30th- and 26th-place in his last three visits to the Pocono Mountains. Coming off the Brickyard disappointment, that makes him a shaky prospect for the 400. He should return to Top 15 form once the series returns to the short tracks later this summer.

Danica Patrick -
The rear-gear problem that forced Patrick out of the Brickyard 400, may have been just a sign of things to come for the No. 10 Chevy team. Patrick's Pocono resume doesn't lift any expectations for a rebound performance this weekend. She has three starts at the Tricky Triangle with 29th-, 35th- and 37th-place finishes to his credit with one of those being a DNF. Patrick is still figuring out stock cars and oval track racing at this point in her career, and Pocono is probably the most difficult to master of them all. The challenge shows in her three career starts to-date. It's best to leave Patrick on the fantasy racing bench this weekend.

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 was career redefining for the former champion, but his Pocono numbers have still lagged. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has 10 career Top-10 finishes at Pocono and most of those came much earlier in his career at this facility. His last four trips to the track have netted four finishes outside the Top 20. That's not the level of performance we expect with this driver and team on a week-to-week basis.

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 slow down list this week. The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has been solid this season; he's just not a good performer at Pocono Raceway. He slogged his way to a 21st-place finish here in June and that was his best effort in the last four Pocono starts. Allmendinger will return and try to improve on that performance but his historical numbers at the huge triangle suggest otherwise. The journeyman driver has only one Top-10 finish in 13 career starts at Pocono and a lowly 24.1 average finish. It's best to skip over the JTG Daugherty Racing driver this weekend.