Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, a Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Brad Keselowski rematch, Joe Gibbs Racing's improvement, Carl Edwards' departure from Roush Fenway Racing and Kasey Kahne's Chase hopes take center stage in Sunday's GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway.
Does this one again come down to Earnhardt and Keselowski?
The last time the Sprint Cup Series raced at Pocono, the final laps proved to be plenty gripping in the drama department. Brad Keselowski was being chased by Dale Earnhardt Jr., all while having to deal with an overheating issue due to debris on his car’s front grille.
When Keselowski tried to remedy the issue by closing on the bumper of Danica Patrick’s lapped car, he nearly wrecked in the process. Earnhardt Jr. slid by to take the lead. Keselowski never got the debris removed and never made a substantial run at passing Earnhardt – who also began to suffer overheating issues – again. Earnhardt took the win while Keselowski apologized for what he felt was a blunder.
Together, the drivers combined to lead a majority of the race (106 of 160 laps) with Keselowski taking the lion’s share (95).
Keselowski was optimistic about a replicate performance.
"We feel as though we are better now than we were then in a lot of areas, and that bodes well for us this weekend,” Keselowski says. “I am looking forward to it."
Joe Gibbs Racing looking for Pocono improvements
Hidden in last week’s finishing order at Indianapolis was a strong showing for the Joe Gibbs Racing bunch. For the first time since the fall Richmond race in 2010, all three entered JGR cars finished in the top 5. Of course, the result was later blemished by Denny Hamlin’s penalty for an improperly sealed firewall plates.
But it was a good sign for a team needing some improvement at a place where at least Hamlin formerly dominated. In June, JGR’s best showing came from Hamlin in fourth while Kyle Busch (12th) and Matt Kenseth (25th) scuffled to the checkered flag. In the last three Pocono races, JGR drivers have led just five laps with Hamlin the only driver to break the top 5.
Don’t be worried about Carl Edwards’ performance
There was odd sense of derision from Carl Edwards before last week’s Brickyard 400. He seemed upset that his current team – soon to be former – opted to announce his departure effective in 2015 on the morning of the race. The stance flew in the face of what seemed to be a much choreographed announcement with Roush Fenway Racing team president Steve Newmark referring many times to Edwards keeping him in the loop at every turn of the process.
It’s the type of dissension that can often lead to speculation that a team is throwing in the towel on an outgoing driver. In this instance, that seems highly unlikely because the decision isn’t news to those inside the organization. Edwards let the team know more than a month ago that he was leaving – so any performance regression would have already been visible.
In that span, he has finishes of 17th, 37th (crash), 13th and 15th. It’s not a great run, but excluding crash-affected finishes, it’s a span that has often been par for the course for the struggling RFR team this season. The RFR team as a whole has just one top-10 finish in that stretch.
Kahne short on Chase chances
It was one year ago that Kasey Kahne appeared to put a dagger in teammate Jeff Gordon’s Chase chances when he dominated the four-time champion on a late restart at Pocono. It was a stunning loss for Gordon – he wouldn’t perform well enough in the ensuing five regular season races to officially make the Chase – and a big triumph for Kahne. Of course, Michael Waltrip Racing’s Richmond shenanigans allowed Brian France to reverse Gordon’s exclusion. It left the Pocono point essentially moot.
A year later, the roles are reversed. It’s Gordon with two wins – including last week’s Brickyard 400 win when he passed Kahne on a late restart – and Kahne without any. Kahne isn’t far removed from the Chase as it stands, but he would undoubtedly prefer a little more security down the regular season’s final unpredictable stretch. Currently, he’s three points behind Austin Dillon – the last penciled-in qualifier for the Chase before Pocono.
Kahne owns twos wins at Pocono and has top-two finishes in two of last four races at the track. He can’t afford, however, to repeat finishes of 42nd and 36th that marked the other end of the four-race span.
Goodyear makes slight tire alteration
Tire issues didn’t factor much in the June race at Pocono, but it was a year ago at the track that Jimmie Johnson’s blowout while leading changed the entire race’s complexion. It also left Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus frustrated with a string of tire problems that his team had faced.
Goodyear, the sole tire supplier, hasn’t made major modifications to the tires for Sunday’s race but did make a small adjustment of team recommendations from the June race. Teams will be encouraged the raise the left side tire pressures by one pound – from 18 psi to 19 psi – to prevent issues.
The radial tire in use remains the same as used at the track since 2012.
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Photo by Action Sports, Inc.