For years, there have been rumblings of Pocono Raceway losing a date on the annual Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. After all, since 1984, the first year the track had two events, the races have been no more than two months apart from each other.
But that will change in 2020. On June 27 and 28, NASCAR will take over the Pocono Mountains, for the first doubleheader weekend in some time at the same track. Ultimately, this is a test for the potential 2021 schedule, as midweek races and doubleheaders have been rumored. Why? It saves the teams money, could potentially shorten the length of the season and appeal to a new audience, while NASCAR attempts to win back some of its diehards.
For years, the action at Pocono has been fast and furious. However, the 2019 rules package of more downforce and less horsepower proved to not work at the Tricky Triangle in June. Once a driver found clean air, it was near impossible to get by. Instead of a race, it was more like a Memorial Day Parade to see who was going to be the first to the community barbeque.
For this weekend's race, the track began to put down PJ1 traction compound – a ton of it – last week, hoping to put on a better show for the fans. As we've seen in the past two weeks, traction compound can lead to entertaining races, which it did at both Kentucky Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway with two great finishes.
Pocono isn't a place known for frantic finishes, but is known for first-time winners. Of the current field to notch their name into the record books include: Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher, two of which have come in the past six races at the venue. The other four have been dominated by Toyota.
This might be the final time Pocono Raceway has two weekends in a calendar year ever, so let's enjoy Pocono for what it is. Next year will be interesting within itself.
Gander RV 400
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday, July 28)
Track: Pocono Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kevin Harvick
After not getting to victory lane in 2019 until last weekend at New Hampshire, Harvick is looking to grab his first victory at Pocono. Last week, he fought off Hamlin in one of the better finishes in recent memory at New Hampshire, as the No. 11 used the bumper on the final lap. In turns 3 and 4, Harvick turned right, stopping Hamlin's progression to get a run on the outside to the stripe. The victory also is Stewart-Haas Racing's first of the season, while at this point in 2018, the same organization had eight. Harvick, himself, had six.
Leading into the playoffs, Harvick has victories at five of the next six tracks on the schedule before entering the postseason. Currently, the No. 4 team is ranked sixth on the playoff board with nine playoff points.
Who's at the Back: David Ragan
Ragan is in his third season back at Front Row Motorsports, but 2019 has been anything but special. Currently sitting 30th in points, which is also where he placed in 2017, the Georgia native has had little to blush about this season.
Sure, Front Row is an underfunded team at the Cup level. But this season, rookie Matt Tifft joined the team, as team owner Bob Jenkins purchased the former BK Racing charter last August. But the addition hasn't been what the team was hoping, with all three drivers ranking between 27th and 31st in the point standings. Even Go Fas Racing is ahead of two of FRM's drivers in points.
Entering Pocono, Ragan has seven consecutive finishes of 20th or worse, including four of 30th or worse. Three weeks ago at Daytona, per usual, Ragan was running toward the front before getting caught up in an accident with Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Daniel Hemric and Daniel Suarez.
The good news for Ragan? He has just three DNFs this season, but they've all come at his two best tracks on the schedule: Daytona and Talladega. The bad news? He has three top-20 finishes all season. At this point last year, the No. 38 squad had six, picking up its seventh at Pocono.
In a bit of overlooked news in the past week is Tommy Joe Martins making the move to MBM Motorsports, effective immediately.
Since 2017, Martins has made 37 starts with BJ McLeod Motorsports, the first organization to give him a break at the national level. In their time together, Martins picked up a best finish of 11th at Iowa Speedway in 2017. It was just the third race he competed in for McLeod.
On paper, it looks like a lateral move. This season, BJMM has three full-time entries in the Xfinity Series, with Matt Mills sitting 21st in points, picking up his first career top-10 finish at Daytona three weeks ago. Vinnie Miller is 12 points behind Mills, sitting 23rd.
MBM has had itself a season. Timmy Hill is always a factor at superspeedways and ran inside the top 10 for most of the race at Daytona in July. However, Chad Finchum is the team's highest driver in points at 26th, with Joey Gase in 27th and Hill 28th. Those three drivers are also separated by just 12 points.
However, one of Martins primarily goals is to race at the Cup level. This season, MBM has competed in eight Cup races with a best finish of 27th.
Martins will be competing in six races this season for MBM, though running at least half of the schedule next year for the team. He will be piloting the No. 66 at Watkins Glen International next week, where the accomplished road course driver finished 40th last year due to an early brake failure.
NASCAR by the Numbers
The number of active Cup drivers to have won at Pocono Raceway. Ryan Newman, entering this weekend's race 15th in points, was the first active driver to win at the Tricky Triangle in 2003, while Kyle Busch won the most recent race in June. After going winless in his first 25 starts at the track, the No. 18 team has won three of the past four races at Pocono.
The number of races Matt DiBenedetto raced on an oval before scoring his first top-five finish last weekend at New Hampshire. DiBenedetto enters Pocono on a string of two top fives (Sonoma and New Hampshire) and three top-10 finishes in the past five races. The No. 95 car finished 17th at Pocono in June.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Despite having seven different winners in the past seven races this season, expect that to come to an end this weekend at Pocono. All four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are stout at the Tricky Triangle, but Kyle Busch, in particular, is the heavy favorite, having won three of the past four races at the track.
Outside of the obvious, Denny Hamlin is always a sneaky pick, sweeping the races at the track in 2006, his first two wins at the Cup level. Over the course of his illustrious career, Pocono has always been one of Kurt Busch's better tracks, no matter what team he's driven for, having brought three separate organizations to victory lane.
If you're going to base your lineup off the June finishing order, expect Clint Bowyer and Chase Elliott to put an end to their recent bad luck.
Related: Best Pocono Raceway Drivers for DFS
Erik Jones rose above the pressure that was facing him at New Hampshire last weekend, running inside the top five for the majority of the race. The No. 20 is going to be a frontrunner this weekend with three top-five finishes in five career starts at the track. Earlier this year, he lined up alongside his JGR teammate for a late-race restart, only to finish third.
Jimmie Johnson needs something to go right, meaning he could be a risky pick this weekend. Since 2016 (seven starts), the No. 48 team has six finishes of 16th or worse, including three of 35th or worse. Johnson ended the spring race at Pocono in 19th. But as we've seen throughout his career, the seven-time champion always rises to pressure. And sitting 17 points below the cutline with six races remaining until the playoffs start, they've got to turn this ship around, right?
Who remembers the fog race three years ago at Pocono? Chris Buescher sure does, and he's a solid pick for Sunday's race. Sure, the No. 37 team isn't going to be the quickest car in qualifying, honestly, it would surprise me to see him in the top 20, but the Texan is on a streak of nine straight top-20 finishes, a career-long for both he and JTG Daugherty Racing. He has four top 20s in seven starts at the Tricky Triangle, but expect him to add a fifth this weekend, as well as his 10th consecutive this season. Quietly, Buescher is ahead of both the Richard Childress Racing teams in points.
Speaking of RCR, Daniel Hemric is a driver to keep your eyes on this weekend. 2019 started off disastrous for the No. 8 team, so much so, the team requested for fans to send in good luck charms. They did in astonishing fashion. However, Hemric has always run well at Pocono no matter what he races. His most recent outing at the track was a 13th, his first top-15 finish of his Cup career outside of a superspeedway. Can the No. 8 team go trouble-free throughout an entire race?
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch is the favorite to win, sitting as a 5/2 favorite, just ahead of Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick at 5/1. Four-time Pocono winner Denny Hamlin sits at 10/1. If you're a betting person, lay some money down on Erik Jones at 20/1 and Kurt Busch is a steal at 25/1.
What I Think
Joe Gibbs Racing is going to be tough to beat. Arguably, it's been Kyle Busch's best track on the circuit since aligning with crew chief Dave Rogers. Meanwhile, it's definitely Erik Jones' best track. Expect the two to be contending for the win, with Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch hot on their heels.