Pocono Raceway holds court this weekend to a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff race that’s... a little dormant. Seven drivers have already clinched their spot by virtue of at least one victory; another eight are at least 95 points above the cutline. Only the final spot, currently held by Alex Bowman, appears to be in play over the final six regular season races.
Can the Tricky Triangle shake things up in a year where parity’s been at a premium? The three-turn track that drives somewhat like a road course has had its share of surprise winners. Fourteen different drivers have won the last 17 Pocono races, among them Chris Buescher, Ryan Blaney, and Kasey Kahne. Just three people: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Martin Truex Jr. have won twice during that stretch.
Gordon and Earnhardt are sitting in the broadcast booth these days. Truex won the Pocono race in June but sweeping both races at a track is a tall order. Could that mean we’re due for a bit of an upset, another new winner tilting the scales in this postseason chase?
Many observers assume Watkins Glen, the winding road course NASCAR heads to next week, is the lone wild card left on the schedule. But Pocono is a race tough on equipment and occasionally one in which a fuel mileage finish can occasionally sneak up and surprise. That’s what happened when Buescher captured a shocking rain-shortened win in this race two years ago, a rookie paired then with underfunded Front Row Motorsports.
The problem this year is the list outside playoff position isn’t exactly Hall of Fame caliber. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the first one on the outside looking in; he’s never won on a track without a restrictor plate. Next is Paul Menard, who runs the No. 21 for the Wood Brothers that reached Victory Lane last year here with Blaney. But Menard’s won just once himself, at Indianapolis way back in 2011.
Maybe Ryan Newman has a shot? He was a season-best sixth last weekend at New Hampshire and has a win at Pocono (way back in 2003). Daniel Suarez is a winless driver going through a sophomore slump but he ran top 10 at this race last summer. There’s also a shining star in Matt Kenseth, a former series champion, lurking back in the field. But the No. 6 Ford he’s running hasn’t flashed top-10 speed.
On paper, it’s not a list that appears ready and willing to knock down the Fab Foursome of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer. Remember, the last time anyone else reached Victory Lane on a track without a restrictor plate it was Kenseth driving the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Phoenix last November.
So maybe the Pocono upset is more subtle, a win by a driver already solidly in playoff position. Kyle Larson was second here in June, driving for a manufacturer that’s long overdue. Chevrolet hasn’t reached Victory Lane since the season-opening Daytona 500. Aric Almirola was third in New Hampshire and would have won without a late-race caution. Teammate Kurt Busch has led 139 laps over the last two weeks as Stewart-Haas Racing flexes their muscle.
In short, Pocono offers hope for a different group to rise to the front. Can one of the sport’s most unique racetracks deliver diversity in a ho-hum summer stretch?
45th Gander Outdoors 400
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Pocono Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Harvick’s New Hampshire win was an important step for a driver who’d taken a eensy-weensy step back in recent weeks. It’s been Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch taking charge of the Big Three as of late, winning five of the last seven races prior to last Sunday.
But some pit crew shuffles within Stewart-Haas Racing appeared to invigorate Harvick’s group. They put their driver in position to win and a bump-and-run on Busch took care of the rest. Now armed with six victories, more than any other driver Harvick tops the field again with 32 playoff points.
Who’s at the Back: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Daytona was the race Stenhouse was going to win, locking himself in NASCAR’s postseason field. Instead, he started a handful of crashes, drawing the ire of Kyle Busch, and nothing has gone right for the No. 17 team since.
At Kentucky, they ran an ugly 26th, cutting a tire early and dropping from contention. Then, at New Hampshire, he slapped the wall late and slumped to 30th. Add in a 17th at Daytona and he’s failed to capitalize on some bad luck for Alex Bowman, who currently sits in the last playoffs spot.
Darrell Wallace Jr. claims he’ll return to Richard Petty Motorsports next season.The Cup Series rookie has had it rough, without a top-5 finish after a surprising second in the season-opening Daytona 500. The single-car No. 43 effort is still putting together some sponsorship before making their 2019 plans official.
Brian France, calling in to SIRIUS XM Radio this week, would not comment further on news NASCAR has been put up for sale. Claiming the France family is “locked and loaded in its dedication to NASCAR” the sport’s CEO deflected to focus on competition and scheduling questions.
A new XFINITY Series team, Tullman-Walker Racing, is making their debut this weekend in Iowa. ARCA rookie Max Tullman will drive for the team in at least three races with sponsorship from Zoomi and Myota.
The sale of Cup Series team BK Racing will be conducted Aug. 20 in a North Carolina bankruptcy court. Bill Elliott’s former crew chief, Mike Beam, is among the bidders for an organization whose minimum bid has been set at $1.8 million. Keep in mind the No. 23 Toyota comes with a charter and guaranteed entry into the remaining 16 Cup races this season. JJ Yeley drives the car this weekend in a partnership with NY Racing.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led this season by David Ragan. He’s the only Cup driver to run every race this season and fail to lead at least one lap.
DNFs since the start of the 2017 season for Brad Keselowski. He had nine DNFs total from 2011-16.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
While I don’t expect Martin Truex Jr. to sweep at Pocono, the No. 78 team remains a solid bet. Truex now has three straight top-six finishes at the track, leading 67 laps during that span.
Looking to stay away from the Fab Foursome? Another under-the-radar bet with a smaller daily fantasy salary is Brad Keselowski. Keselowski has six straight top-five runs at a Pocono racetrack that’s always been good to him; a victory here in 2011 helped jumpstart his rise to superstardom.
Could Chase Elliott and Hendrick Motorsports be turning the corner? A solid top-five run at New Hampshire came out of nowhere in what was easily one of Elliott’s most consistent races of 2018. Now, he heads to a Pocono track that still owes him one. Leading 51 laps in June 2016, then-rookie Elliott seemed to be cruising to victory until losing control of the race on the final restart. He hasn’t led a single lap there since but has been eighth, 10th, and 10th his last three times out.
Don’t like that Hendrick Motorsports driver? How about Jimmie Johnson? He was eighth back in June and has three career victories at this triangular-shaped track.
Matt Kenseth should be a sneaky play here with most people forgetting he’s even running the No. 6 Ford. Coming off a top-15 run at New Hampshire he was 13th with this team at Pocono back in June. A second time running these racetracks with Roush Fenway Racing could allow Kenseth’s veteran experience to help this struggling organization.
Of the earlier “upset” drivers on the list, take Paul Menard. He was 11th at this race in June and is a solid top-15 bet these days with the Wood Brothers.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick leads the pack with 11/4 Pocono odds. Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. sit just behind at 3/1.
What I Think
I’ll say Pocono throws us a curveball... just not the one we expect. Aric Almirola continues the diverse list of Pocono winners as he earns the first victory for the No. 10 car at Stewart-Haas Racing -- Danica Patrick’s former ride.
-- 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.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)