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Pocono 400 Preview and Fantasy NASCAR Predictions

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One year after Ryan Blaney's breakthrough Pocono win, perhaps NASCAR's brightest new young talent returns to the track stuck on that single victory. Rival Chase Elliott still hasn't visited Victory Lane after 90 career Cup Series starts. And best friend Bubba Wallace? He's hardly been heard from after a runner-up finish in February's season-opening Daytona 500.

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Youth, thus far in NASCAR has certainly not been served.

Halfway through the 2018 regular season just two drivers under 30 have won a Cup race: Joey Logano and Austin Dillon. None of them have won outside of the plate tracks that also provide parity to all 40 cars on the grid. Other than Logano, who's been a competitor for 10 years in the Cup Series, and Kyle Larson no 20-something sits inside the top 10 in points.

What's gone wrong? For some, it's a simple matter of Lady Luck. Blaney looked in strong position to win the Daytona 500 but saw his car damaged in a late-race wreck. Months later, he dominated Bristol, leading 100 circuits only to get wrecked again by lapped traffic. His 418 laps led are the third most this season, trailing only Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick but he doesn't have the wins (and needed publicity) to show for it.

Elliott, for his part has been saddled with an underperforming Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. He's also had chances, running third in a Phoenix race he nearly won last fall and a surprising second at Richmond. But overall, the victory drought seems to be frustrating a 22-year-old who's collected eight runner-up finishes already. The longer it takes for him to clear that hump, the louder critics get questioning his talent.

For Wallace and fellow rookie William Byron, their issues come from a case of inflated expectations. Wallace, posting the best Cup results for an African-American driver since Wendell Scott's win in 1964 upped the ante with his Daytona performance. But the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team remains a single-car effort. RPM has an alliance with larger programs but is still accumulating primary sponsorship just to run the full season. It's at a disadvantage to the multi-car giants and a rookie isn't going to make up that gap; at least, not yet.

As for Byron, the Hendrick Motorsports rookie has used pit strategy to push to the front on several occasions. But a quick learning curve he developed in the sport's minor leagues, XFINITY and Camping World Trucks, has not materialized. Instead, three wrecks in the last four races have the driver sitting a distant 21st in series points.

Other young drivers (the Dillon brothers, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman) have also failed to run up front on a regular basis. It's kept the focus away from new blood as the series returns to Blaney's latest triumph.

NASCAR can only hope his pole run Friday starts a turnaround for this 20-something group in the regular season's second half. Their lack of success is just another reason on a long list explaining the sport's recent decline.

44th Annual Pocono 400

Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)

Track: Pocono Raceway

TV: FS1

Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90

Who's at the Front: Kyle Busch

Busch's Coca-Cola 600 dominance completed a rare historic feat. Busch has now won on every active track on the Cup Series schedule, going 23-for-23 across the board while putting years' worth of near misses at Charlotte behind him.

How rare is Busch's across-the-board victories? Jeff Gordon came close but retired without a win in Kentucky. Tony Stewart also whiffed at Kentucky and failed to win a Cup race at Darlington. And seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson? He's still winless at Kentucky, Chicagoland and the road course at Watkins Glen.

If there's any doubt Busch was a NASCAR Hall of Famer, well, that feat should put any such debate to rest. Now, the question is whether he'll reach Richard Petty's 200-win total in the sport's top three series this year (12 away) while pursuing another Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Who's at the Back: William Byron

Those three wrecks for Byron have come in the past four races. In the process, he's torn up other drivers' equipment, most notably in a wild Kansas wreck where the youngster was lucky to walk out unhurt.

It's expected for freshmen to make these types of rookie mistakes. But for Byron, anointed as the "chosen one" within HMS, it's easily the most difficult stretch of his short career. Keep in mind he had three wrecks total in a 33-race XFINITY Series schedule last season.

News Briefs

This year was expected to be a rough one in terms of ratings for NASCAR. But the Coca-Cola 600 is a race that's fallen more than most. A 2.3 final rating and 4.1 million viewers is just half of what the audience was seven short years ago. What's worse, a down year for the Indianapolis 500 also trounced the stock car series. Their 3.1 rating beat NASCAR by 35 percent as open-wheel's marquee event has reassumed its place atop Memorial Day Weekend's racing audience.

A report from Sports Business Daily this week claims Toyota will reintroduce their Supra model into the minor-league XFINITY Series next season. The manufacturer, which has run Camrys on the Cup level since 2007, could choose to experiment with the sports car while evaluating its long-term plans for the sedan.

Former NASCAR and IndyCar driver John Andretti announced this week his stage 4 colon cancer has returned and spread. Please keep the Andretti family in your thoughts and prayers; the 55-year-old won two career Cup races along with a victory in the former CART open-wheel series.

NASCAR by the Numbers

10

Of 13 victories this season won by last year's Championship 4 drivers: Kevin Harvick (5), Kyle Busch (4) and Martin Truex Jr. (1).

2

Drivers within 120 points (two races' worth) of Kyle Busch in the regular season standings. Only Joey Logano (-67) and Kevin Harvick (-88) remain in striking distance.

Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)

Top Tier

Kyle Busch won the last race held at Pocono in July. Martin Truex Jr. has a reasonable track record here the last two seasons. But I think this race is leaning Kevin Harvick'sdirection. Harvick has always wanted a win at Pocono but never been able to cash in; he's 0-for-34 despite four second-place finishes here in the No. 4 Ford. Last year, Harvick was runner-up twice despite not leading a single lap. With the speed this team has been showing plus a front-row starting spot it's easy to see him doing one spot better.

Denny Hamlin has four career Pocono wins although none of them have occurred since 2010. But the No. 11 Toyota has four straight top-15 finishes at the track and has been just a tick behind the speed of teammate Kyle Busch. He's not your top option here but a quiet, top-5 result is a strong possibility.  

Related: The Best Pocono 400 Lineup for FanDuel

Middle Tier

Ryan Blaney enters the race as defending champion amid high expectations for his Team Penske Ford. The pole-sitter has three career top-11 finishes at the track and is looking to bounce back after engine failure cut short his Coca-Cola 600.

Kyle Larson may lead the way for a resurgent Chevy group that found its way closer to the front last weekend at Charlotte. A 33rd last July at Pocono ended a run of seven straight top-15 finishes here for the driver of the No. 43 Chevrolet.

Lower Tier

Matt Kenseth had two top-10 finishes behind the wheel of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Pocono last season. Shaking the rust off last weekend at Charlotte, his second race of 2018 he took a mediocre No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford to a respectable 17th-place finish. He could do even better with that car at Pocono, a track where the driver matters just as much as aero and chassis.

What Vegas Thinks

Surprise, surprise. Kevin Harvick leads the way with 7/2 odds followed by Kyle Busch at 4/1.

What I Think

Harvick will get a challenge from Ryan Blaney and perhaps a wild card like Denny Hamlin this weekend. But the No. 4 Ford team is too good to be sidelined a second straight week. He takes this one.

-- 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 tbowles81@yahoo.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)