As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the triangular-shaped track of Pocono this weekend it kicks off the second half of its 26-race “regular season” before the Chase. Eight drivers so far have won a race and almost certainly secured a chance to battle for the season title. They’ll spend much of the next few months with a “win-or-bust” attitude.
The nearly three dozen names that are not a part of that list? They include names that might surprise you. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart are among those still with a “goose egg” in the win column. Pocono for them offers a chance at redemption. Earnhardt, for example swept both of the races held here in 2014. It also is a race, 400 miles in length, which tends to lend itself toward an upset winner. The track’s three unique turns make it more like a road course than an oval; some drivers still shift between third and fourth gear throughout their lap. The way it is run provides additional parity throughout the field, as Pocono is a place that “shifts” right into the driver’s hands.
For others, though like the five Toyota teams that have already “clinched” a Chase bid, Pocono offers a chance to go for broke. Reigning Sprint Cup champ Kyle Busch has never won at the track; he’d love to cross that off his checklist. Denny Hamlin, the active leader with four wins here, has a chance to give his season a shot in the arm after a Daytona 500 victory failed to provide continued momentum. The speed of Joe Gibbs Racing, a four-car juggernaut has continued to be head and shoulders above everyone else week to week.
Which group will win the battle of the season’s second half? If it’s the Logano-Busch-Earnhardt crowd, we could end up with 14, 15, maybe even 16 winners to fill out the Chase grid in September. If the Toyotas still stay head and shoulders above the field? We may end up with just 10 winners, the fewest we’ve ever seen under this format to date. Pocono gives us the first opportunity to play this storyline out.
2016 Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Pocono Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
I’d say so. Truex set a NASCAR record with 588 miles led in last weekend’s stomping of the field in Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600. Truex, whose Cup career to this point has been defined by “near misses,” was a big hit as he earned one of the sport’s “crown jewel” races. A new pairing with Toyota has paid major dividends for Truex’s single-car team, Furniture Row Racing, and launched them into championship contention a second straight year. This time, a trip to Homestead for the final four won’t be considered as much of an upset.
Who’s at the Back: BK Racing
There’s been so much talk about Toyotas dominating the Cup Series these days. Low-budget BK Racing looked to ride those coattails and appeared to be making progress after Matt DiBenedetto scored a surprising sixth for the team at Bristol. His results since then? 30th, 36th, 30th, 40th and 32nd, hardly the type of trend Chase teams are made of. Teammate David Ragan, bringing veteran experience to the team this year has been just as disappointing. His No. 23 car has cracked the top 20 just once (17th at Dover) in 13 races.
NASCAR’s new lug nut rule has taken full effect with two crew chiefs suspended this week for violations. Crew chiefs for AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch will sit out Pocono due to NASCAR spotting issues with tightening all the lug nuts on their pit stops. In Allmendinger’s case, the lug nut was straight up missing while Busch’s team failed to secure all of them during a stop. Add in a two-race suspension for Greg Biffle’s crew chief after failing post-race inspection and the NASCAR disciplinary office found itself busy this week.
Here’s a quick look at who’s in and who’s out on the pit box this weekend.
No. 41 Kurt Busch
Crew chief Tony Gibson suspended, engineer John Klausmeier in (no previous Cup CC experience)
No. 47 AJ Allmendinger
Crew chief Randall Burnett suspended, veteran former crew chief Ernie Cope in
No. 16 Greg Biffle
Crew chief Brian Pattie suspended, former championship-winning head wrench Robbie Reiser in (Pattie is out the next two weeks)
Television ratings for the Coca-Cola 600 were some of the worst NASCAR has seen for the event in 15 years. Barring the rain-delayed race of 2009, the 3.4 final Nielsen number was the worst FOX has posted since starting to cover the Charlotte event in 2001. Even worse, the Indy 500 blew by NASCAR in the final ratings, allowing open-wheel to crow they’re trending back in the right direction. A sellout crowd of 350,000 for that race, unlike any stock cars have seen this season, also gave credence to their claim Indy is “back” as the biggest race on the schedule Memorial Day weekend.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led out of 400 for Truex Sunday at Charlotte, setting a new track record.
Caution flags in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the fewest for that event since 1975.
Lead changes in the Coca-Cola 600, the fewest in the history of the race.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
When it comes to fantasy racing, consistency is just as important as earning wins. Sometimes, snagging the 2nd-3rd-4th-5th place finishers are much better for your team than picking the winner only to have his “teammate” on your roster wind up 39th. That’s why Jimmie Johnson is a solid bet for your team this week. Third and sixth last year, he’s earned 19 top-10 finishes at Pocono in 28 career starts and typically doesn’t have that DNF disaster that can ruin your race. Is it the six-time champ’s strongest track? No. But a career 9.5 average finish here should ensure you’ve banked a good points day with your anchor driver.
This race is one that Kyle Busch has never won. That’s a good thing for your roster this weekend as the reigning Sprint Cup champ is motivated to knock it off his “to do” list. Ninth and 21st last year, the numbers on the stat sheet prove erratic but Busch seems incredibly motivated this weekend after coming up short in Charlotte. Don’t count him out.
For some, Martin Truex Jr. is in the top tier at this point and for others he remains a “B” driver pick. Either way, he should be on your roster if possible. This race’s defending champ, he led 97 laps here last June and looks to be on the verge of an extended hot streak.
Greg Biffle has quietly become a solid dark horse pick at Pocono. Replacement crew chief Robbie Reiser is solid, he’s earned seven straight top-20 finishes here and even has a Pocono win on his resume (2010). Roush Fenway Racing has experienced a resurgence this season but the results have yet to trickle down to the No. 16 car. Perhaps a swap on the pit box, albeit temporary, is happening at the right time?
Landon Cassill? For real? Yes. This Front Row Motorsports driver was barely making it to the track last season with a team that was severely underfunded. Somehow, he took a No. 40 team held together by duct tape and finished 25th and 14th at Pocono, blowing away competitors that had ten times the cash. FRM is a little better outfit and Cassill has had some promising runs in the No. 38 (see: Bristol). He’s a solid pick for your team this weekend.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, 1-2 in last weekend’s race opened the betting with 5/1 odds to lead all drivers at Pocono. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch slot in next at 13/2.
What I Think
When you’re hot, you’re hot. Martin Truex Jr., after getting over the hump, wins the first back-to-back races of his Sprint Cup career after a second straight dominating performance.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)