Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Pocono 400
This week has certainly been an interesting one in the world of NASCAR.
Jimmie Johnson scored his seventh career Dover win on Sunday, tying him with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most all-time wins at the Monster Mile. Kurt Busch was suspended for this weekend's race at Pocono after threatening Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass following Saturday's Nationwide Series race, also at Dover. Testing got underway on the freshly repaved Pocono Raceway, with Mark Martin leading the way on Wednesday. Kyle Busch won Wednesday night's Prelude to the Dream charity race at Eldora Speedway.
While much of the focus this week has centered around off-track news, it is time to put that aside and look ahead to this weekend's race a the Tricky Triangle.
With testing taking place Wednesday and Thursday, fantasy NASCAR players get a rare early glimpse of what teams are getting a handle on the freshly re-paved track.
To no one’s surprise, speeds have been much higher with the new pavement and tire combination provided by Goodyear. Martin’s top speed on Wednesday was 175.380 mph, while AJ Allmendinger was quickest in Thursday morning's session. Allmendinger's speed of 177.190 mph was nearly five miles per hour faster than the track record of 172.533 set in 2004 by Kasey Kahne.
“You never know what to expect when a race track gets paved,” Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton said on Wednesday. “This pavement is unbelievably nice, smooth. The quality of racing is going to be improved a great deal. [But] it’s still Pocono. It still has the same characteristics and the personality of Pocono, but just has more grip.”
AJ Allmendinger, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kahne, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top 10 speeds on Wednesday.
Keep an eye on the speed charts from Thursday's two test sessions, and even more so on Friday, when the Cup teams will enjoy nearly three hours worth of track time in both qualifying and race trim.
As Burton mentioned, the new pavement might have added more grip, but it is the same old Pocono. One of the trickiest tracks on the schedule, drivers and teams will have to setup their cars so they work through each of the track's three unique corners.
The same old Pocono also means Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon are three drivers to keep atop your list of fantasy favorites.
Coming off his second win of the season, Johnson and his No. 48 team are the hottest thing on the NASCAR circuit. While the championship battle is still many months ahead, the five-time champ seems to be preparing for a sixth title run.
Johnson also holds the best average finish at Pocono (9.0) with two wins, eight top 5s and 14 top 10s in 20 starts. The No. 48 car was third fastest in Wednesday's test session, so expect him to be among the front-runners come Sunday afternoon.
Whenever the series rolls into Pocono, Hamlin is also one of the drivers to beat. After sweeping the races in his rookie year, Hamlin has gone on to record a total of four wins on the 2.5-mile triangle. He has the second-best average finish (9.7) with seven top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 starts.
Like Johnson, Hamlin also has two wins this season, putting him fourth in the standings. With some security in his spot in the Chase, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb are focused on scoring bonus points for wins and there is perhaps no better place for them to accomplish that than at Pocono.
If Hamlin wants to score his third win of the season, he'll have to best veteran Jeff Gordon, among others. Gordon has the third-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Pocono, with five wins, 17 top 5s and 27 top 10s in 38 starts.
Currently mired in a season plagued by bad luck, Gordon heads to Pocono on a mission to turn his season around and knock the monkey off his back. The No. 24 car was strong last Sunday in Dover, but a loose lug nut and a poorly-timed caution ruined any chance at a solid finish. If Gordon can avoid the poor luck that has been chasing him all season, expect the four-time champion to have a solid day on Sunday.
Also keep an eye on the ageless Martin and last August's Pocono winner Brad Keselowski.
As previously stated, Martin led the way in Wednesday's test session and has the fourth-best average finish (11.2) at Pocono, but the veteran has never been to Victory Lane.
Keselowski already has two wins this season, but is currently 11th in the standings. Look for him to try and work his way into the top 10 in points for the first time this season. Keselowski won here last August.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski