The second half of NASCAR's regular season kicks off Sunday in the Pocono mountains with one of the most unique tracks on the circuit. Nicknamed the Tricky Triangle, 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., has a unique style where all three of its turns have different bankings and lengths. The transitions are so different drivers sometimes feel like it's a mini road course.
That could open up an opportunity for someone new to get to Victory Lane, a welcome relief for many competitors in a season that’s been dominated by a select few. Just two race teams have combined for 12 of the season’s 13 victories to date: Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. The six drivers who have won represent the fewest to this point in the year in NASCAR’s playoff era.
So the second half of the regular season becomes a proving ground to discover who, if anyone, can stand up to these powerhouses. Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and 2018 champion Joey Logano appear to be a powerful quartet from the Penske-Gibbs group that rank 1-2-3-5 in laps led. Combined, they-ve won 10 races and pulled off 24 top-5 finishes, edging JGR Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin as Championship 4 favorites. But these veterans, all former Cup titlists know far too well the danger of peaking too early. This time last year, Logano was an afterthought and he wound up charging through the postseason to beat the "Big Three" of Busch, Truex and Kevin Harvick who dominated the first half of 2018.
So who are the big names that can break through in the season's second half? We’ll start with the obvious. Chase Elliott has won once already but he's leading a Chevrolet charge as Hendrick Motorsports claws back after a sluggish start. Kurt Busch has 11 top-15 finishes in 13 races with a Chip Ganassi Racing team where he's likely fighting for his future career. Harvick, despite sitting fourth in points, sits winless with the worst start of his six-year tenure at Stewart-Haas Racing. That's almost certain to change.
Next, there are the dark horse candidates. A sport looking to transition to younger talent may come from some twentysomethings on the brink. Ryan Blaney has had the worst luck imaginable, mechanical failures and awkward mistakes keeping him from joining his two Penske teammates in Victory Lane. This weekend, the site of his first career win in 2017, offers an opportunity at redemption. Alex Bowman, after a choppy first season-plus replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled off three second-place finishes over the past month and Victory Lane seems inevitable.
Then there's Erik Jones, the lone winless Joe Gibbs Racing driver whose contract extension remains a central topic of conversation. There's no better way to keep NASCAR Xfinity Series star Christopher Bell from jumping in your seat then by ripping off several wins in a row during the summer months.
But the biggest intrigue may come with two of the sport's most well-known names. Jimmie Johnson stated at Charlotte "he doesn't know what he's going to do in 2021 yet" as the seven-time champ is wrestling with a winless streak that's over two years old. Currently sitting on the playoff bubble, the success or failure of his summer could determine whether 2020 turns into a formal retirement tour. On the flip side of the Chevrolet garage, Kyle Larson has gone from a man many thought could be a yearly title contender to a Logano pre-Penske burnout candidate to switch rides. His next 13 races with Chip Ganassi and a potential postseason miss may start the dominoes on driver Silly Season heading to 2020.
Through it all, NASCAR is dealing with a pending merger of track arm International Speedway Corporation and rumors of a potential sale altogether. But a baby rollout of some Gen-7 pieces (the next-generation car debuting in 2021) at the All-Star Race last month received positive reviews. Television ratings are up for roughly half the races this season, a sign bleeding track attendance and viewership have started to stabilize. And a much-maligned handling package seems to have found its footing in night racing at Kansas and Charlotte.
It all adds up to drama and intrigue that could make the summer stretch one of its best in years, beginning with this weekend up in the Pennsylvania countryside. For a sport that’s suffered so much in recent years, that’s welcome news.
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Pocono Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Starting Lineup for Pocono 400
Who's at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex has come into his own with the JGR No. 19 Toyota, winning three of the past five points-paying Cup races and leading 100-plus laps in each. While teammate Kyle Busch has stolen the spotlight, Truex’s runs to the front have arguably been more impressive.
There was Richmond, a place where Truex snapped an 0-for-80 career drought on Cup Series short tracks. At Dover, he charged from the back after failing pre-race inspection to win an event where passing was near impossible. Then, during the Coca-Cola 600, he recovered after a blown tire left him slamming into the outside wall on lap 75. He was back out front within 60 laps and wound up leading 116 en route to his second victory in NASCAR’s longest race the past four years.
Who's at the Back: Erik Jones
An early tire failure in Charlotte's 600 miler left Jones sitting inside the garage after just 22 laps. The last-place finish was more devastating than usual as NASCAR's longest race offers an extra stage and a chance to earn up to 10 extra bonus points. That means some of Jones' competitors on the postseason bubble earned 40-plus points while he was stuck at just one. The resulting tumble in the regular season standings left him on the outside looking in by two points with 13 races left to go.
Erik Jones remains adamant he's close to a deal for a contract extension at Joe Gibbs Racing. Jones, as mentioned above has been under scrutiny this year with the likely promotion of NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell to the Cup Series in 2020.
Charlotte TV ratings were up 13 percent over 2018, capping a successful weekend of racing at the Coca-Cola 600. The 2.6 Nielsen number was still far behind the 3.9 for the Indianapolis 500 but represented a rare increase for the Memorial Day Weekend event.
NASCAR by the Numbers
NASCAR Cup Series teams that hold down the top 16 playoff spots, the fewest in the five-year history of this playoff era. Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing have four apiece while Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing have three each. Chip Ganassi Racing’s duo of Kurt Busch and Kyle Larson round out the other two.
Laps led by Ryan Newman this season despite three top-10 finishes. He’s the highest in points (18th) of any driver yet to make it to the front of the field.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It's hard to be against Martin Truex Jr. based on his recent string of success. He's the defending winner of this race and has four straight top-15 finishes at Pocono overall. But there may be cheaper options sitting around the top tier. Kevin Harvick has yet to win at this track but has been sniffing around Victory Lane for years; he's got five straight top-five finishes at the triangle along with 126 laps led during that stretch.
Denny Hamlin also has four career Pocono victories and has three top-10 finishes his last five times out. The 12.6 average finish over the course of his career here (26 starts) makes him a reliable option.
Related: Best Pocono Raceway Drivers for DFS
Alex Bowman is red hot and there's no reason to expect a race at Pocono will slow him down. An awful track record here (no top-20 finishes his first five starts) was corrected with a strong third-place result last July. Bowman still has yet to lead a lap here but recent history tells us that should change this weekend; he’s led 94 in the last month alone. Expect him to run up front early and often Sunday.
It's feast or famine for Kyle Larson lately which could make him a little cheaper heading into Sunday's race. Beware of the risks but also know he had a second in the Pocono race here last June. Five top-10 finishes in 10 career starts isn't a bad track record for a guy whose skill set translates well to this unique challenge on the NASCAR circuit.
Chris Buescher. Chris Buescher. Chris Buescher. We can't say enough good things about the JTG Daugherty Racing driver who's pulled off back-to-back top-10 finishes in the Cup Series. His lone career Cup win came at Pocono with a different team in 2016 (Front Row Motorsports) and his history at the track is ho-hum other than that. But don't discount the power of momentum that' left this underdog driver just 55 points outside of a postseason bid at the season's halfway point.
Speaking of Front Row Motorsports, David Ragan put together two top-20 finishes at Pocono with the No. 38 team last year. Ragan was on the front row for Charlotte’s final restart last weekend and hung on for a 15th-place finish, overachieving for this smaller program.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch leads the pack, as he typically does with 5/2 odds this week. Kevin Harvick is second with 9/2 and Martin Truex Jr. is at 6/1. Former Pocono winner Chris Buescher might be a good dark horse candidate; he’s sitting at 100/1.
What I Think
I'll go outside the box and say Alan Bowman takes the first Cup Series victory of his career. It'll also be the first for the No. 88 team since Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Phoenix in November 2015.
— 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.