The comforting summer breeze in the Pocono Mountains greets NASCAR this weekend as drivers attack its 2.5-mile, triangular oval a second time. It’s the perfect backdrop as in a little less than two months, winds of change have swept NASCAR Nation a few times over as the sport wrestles with who’s on top heading into its Chase playoff in September.
It feels like we were just visiting this place, an event delayed by rain and won by Kurt Busch the first weekend in June. Not a single Toyota finished inside the top five, as instead Busch’s Chevy combined with two Hendrick pseudo-teammates (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott) plus the Team Penske Fords of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. It appeared that after months of playing second fiddle to Joe Gibbs Racing it would be their rivals who were prepared to break out.
Not quite. Those three Chevy drivers have posted exactly two top-10 finishes in the six races since; in Earnhardt’s case, he won’t even race this weekend, out again after suffering through concussion-like symptoms for nearly a month. Elliott, meanwhile has suffered through a rookie slump that’s seen him post an average finish of 24.6 over the last five races; he’s gone from a lock on Victory Lane to a Chase also-ran. Busch, despite completing every lap on the circuit through 20 events (no small feat in itself), has suffered through several late-race maladies to kill solid performances. Teammate Kevin Harvick has seen pit road problems kill potential wins; the team appears to have taken a slight step back. Only their car owner, Tony Stewart out of the Chevy camp has won since Busch’s Pocono triumph.
In their place, Penske’s two Fords rose a bit, winning three of four races while using unconventional strategy to contend at Indianapolis. But as we return to Pocono a second time it’s Toyota, once again, which enters with all the momentum. JGR has won two straight races and for a time had their squad running 1-2-3-4-5 at Indy (adding in Furniture Row pseudo-teammate Martin Truex Jr. to the mix). They’ve now won half of the Sprint Cup races to date (10 of 20) and have their entire fleet solidly positioned in the Chase.
The question now is whether Toyota can put Pocono demons behind them. Aside from Matt Kenseth last summer Chevys have won seven of the last eight races here, putting this track decisively in their camp. Hendrick Motorsports itself won five of those events, including a sweep by Earnhardt in 2014 and a victory by his replacement this weekend, Jeff Gordon, in ‘13.
Can the Bowties hold serve here, flip-flopping momentum again? Or will Toyota’s recent strength prove to be too much?
2016 Pennsylvania 400
Time: 1:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Pocono Raceway
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Busch
Busch’s dominating Indy performance has been well-documented this week: 149 of 170 laps led, no lead changes other than during pit stop exchanges, and completing the weekend virtually unchallenged from the pole. Busch is only the second driver to win back-to-back Brickyard 400s; the other, Jimmie Johnson, now holds six series titles.
But the strength of Busch has deeper roots. He’s earned a total of 12 victories in NASCAR’s top-3 divisions this year, including an absurd win percentage of 63.6 in the XFINITY Series (7 for 11). Busch’s 1,360 laps led there is more than six times that of the next closest competitor (Kyle Larson and Erik Jones have 210 apiece). Add in a solid Truck season on the ownership side (young William Byron is on pace for Rookie of the Year) and there’s not much for the 31-year-old to complain about these days.
Who’s at the Back: Ryan Blaney
While his Ford counterparts Keselowski and Logano have excelled as of late, this rookie’s fallen behind the curve. Bad luck has played a large part; two wrecks in the last three races cost Blaney top-10 finishes and a comfy cushion inside the Chase on points. Instead? He sits 22 points outside the transfer spot and has now gone six straight races without a top-10 finish. Considering how successful his Team Penske comrades have been that puts Blaney, driving for the single-car Wood Brothers satellite team, under the gun to perform.
Jeff Gordon has offered to stay in the No. 88 car as long as needed while Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to recover from injury. Earnhardt posted significant improvements this week but a timetable to return to competition is uncertain. Gordon, who said Indy was “one of the hardest things he’s ever done,” after not getting in a race car for eight months finished a respectable 13th in the race. Watkins Glen would give incentive to keep Gordon in the car; he’s one of the most decorated road course racers in history and the physical demands of that type of racing could put a little extra pressure on a recovering Earnhardt. NASCAR would love for Gordon to stick around, too; viewership for the Brickyard was up over 10 percent based largely on the three-time champ sliding back behind the wheel.
Said-heads, unite! After looking like he was retiring from NASCAR Cup competition last year Boris Said has announced he’ll once again drive at Watkins Glen in the No. 32 Go FAS Racing Ford. The “road course” ringer, now 53 years old, once finished third at the Glen in 2005 but has since fallen on hard times. Driving in underfunded equipment, Said hasn’t cracked the top 20 in a Cup race since 2013 although he retains a hardcore group of dedicated fans famous for sporting his “fro” in the stands.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes for Danica Patrick this season, her fourth in Sprint Cup. Patrick sits well outside Chase contention, 24th in the current standings and a whopping 99 points behind the cut line.
Lead changes last Sunday in Indianapolis, the fewest in Brickyard 400 history.
Attendance at Indy for the NASCAR Cup race as estimated by the Indianapolis Star.
Estimated attendance at Indy for the sold-out Indianapolis 500 Memorial Day Weekend.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Jimmie Johnson crashed here in June, part of his difficult summer slide that’s seen all of Hendrick Motorsports suffer. But a third-place effort at Indy righted the ship for the No. 48 while Pocono was one of the best tracks for HMS in the past few months. One historical note in Johnson’s favor is he hasn’t finished two straight Pocono races outside the top 10 since 2003. With that type of history? I’d start him and go for consistency.
Brad Keselowski had a hard wreck in Watkins Glen last week during testing. Sound familiar? A similar incident in 2011, this one during testing at Road Atlanta left him with an injured foot. It also left the driver incredibly motivated, leading to an emotional Pocono victory that jumpstarted his Cup career and a run of momentum that didn’t finish off until he was holding the championship trophy 16 months later. With his strength at this facility, don’t count the No. 2 Ford out.
Kasey Kahne still has yet to lead a lap this year. How amazing is that stat? But Hendrick’s No. 5 team, struggling to establish consistency, might be a sleeper at Pocono. Kahne was sixth in June, has a win here as recently as three years ago and is sitting precariously on the Chase bubble in a year where the bubble is extremely soft. With a team that has the resources they do, at some point even a blind squirrel finds an acorn.
I would go after Jeff Gordon if you’re in a league where he’s available. Finishing 13th at Indy is nothing to sneeze at and keep in mind the car he’s driving was runner-up at Pocono back in June. You could tell Gordon needed most of those 400 miles last Sunday to get back in rhythm but the team made adjustments that improved his handling every time out. At this level, you could do much worse.
Front Row Motorsports hasn’t gotten much column space this year but both Chris Buescher and Landon Cassill earned respectable top-20 finishes. Pocono could be a rare track for the small team to carry momentum over as attrition can often play a role here. Expect both to stay on the lead lap due to the more than 50 seconds it takes to get around this place; pit strategy could propel both to better runs under the right conditions.
What Vegas Thinks
According to Bovada, as of Friday afternoon Kyle Busch leads the pack at +475. Keep in mind Busch has never won at Pocono. Kevin Harvick is next at +625 followed by Martin Truex Jr. at +700.
What I Think
Joe Gibbs Racing, despite a difficult June at Pocono continues their string of recent momentum. This time, it’s Carl Edwards who breezes through the pack and winds up in Victory Lane to make it three straight Cup wins for JGR.
— 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.)