Pocono Raceway will host its 2021 doubleheader this weekend, beginning with the 2021 Pocono Organics CBD 325 on Saturday, June 26. The triangular-shaped track debuted in 1974, a rain-shortened race won by Richard Petty and has remained a regular stop on the circuit ever since.
A second Pocono race was added in 1982, the unique 2.5-mile layout a favorite among fans and drivers alike. Races that year featured 44 and 46 lead changes, respectively, as the sport's top stars would mix it up with regularity in packs up front. Only the giant superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega could compete with Pocono's competitive edge.
Sadly, those nail-biting finishes are a distant memory, as the last four Cup races combined here have produced an average of just 11 lead changes. Pocono, one of the last independent tracks on the circuit, faced the consequences of those poor performances after the 2019 season with NASCAR reducing its race weekends from two to one.
Now, all the action gets crammed into two days, as Pocono hopes more racing leads to better attendance at the closest track NASCAR has to New York City (100 miles west). Weather, however, is a concern as scattered thunderstorms pop up all over the forecast for northeastern Pennsylvania the next few days.
Was timing and marketing really the issue for a speedway that's known for being accommodating to fans? Adding everything from a dog park to pre-race concerts in recent years, Pocono has gone out of its way to provide one of the best at-track experiences in the country.
No, the problem has simply been the racing under the current handling package. Teams are no longer allowed to experiment with gear ratios, reducing the number of transmission problems over the course of a race. Add in better-performing engines and an aura of unpredictability is gone; only one car suffered mechanical failure in Pocono's two Cup races last year.
Throw in modern engineering, an increasing amount of aero push, and, suddenly, passing at this place becomes near impossible. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin each cruised to victories last year, unchallenged during the final laps after building comfortable leads during long green-flag runs.
Both drivers will be the ones to watch again, albeit for different reasons. After winning 16 of 36 races last season, neither title contender has visited victory lane yet in 2021. Despite being the point leader, Hamlin has stumbled through late spring; he hasn't had a top-5 finish since Darlington Raceway on Mother's Day weekend.
For Harvick, the year's been even worse, on track for career lows in top-5 finishes (five) and laps led (39) during his eight years with Stewart-Haas Racing. However, SHR showed signs of a turnaround last weekend at Nashville Superspeedway; Aric Almirola won the pole and ran a season-best fourth with Harvick finishing right behind him. Can both men keep the good times rolling in the Pocono mountains?
Pole sitter Kyle Larson will make that difficult, going for his fourth straight points-paying NASCAR victory (and fifth overall). No one's done that since former Hendrick Motorsports driver and seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson in 2007. Teammate William Byron starts alongside as HMS continues its recent hot streak atop the sport.
Related: Starting Lineup at Pocono Raceway
The question is whether the racing at Pocono can heat up along with them. As the number of tracks seeking a spot on the NASCAR calendar expands, this place needs a flashback to some 1980s glory for a little long-term schedule security.
Pocono Organics CBD 325
Date: Saturday, June 26
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Pocono Raceway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kyle Larson
Since Larson claims this spot every week, let's just take a closer look at the career-best records he's already broken in 2021. Keep in mind there are still 19 races remaining this season.
Wins: 4+ (5 if you include the All-Star Race, edging his 2017 total)
Times Starting First: 4 (including this weekend)
Laps Led: 1,426
Average Finish: 10.2
Playoff Points: 32
The question, of course, is whether Larson can close the deal in those playoffs. But with a 14-point edge on any other driver in the field, keeping the No. 5 team out of this year's Championship 4 will be a difficult task.
Who's at the Back: Quin Houff
Houff didn't even complete a lap on Sunday before something broke on his Starcom Racing Chevrolet, sending a tire flying after his hard hit to the outside wall. It was Houff's third DNF in the last four races with a No. 00 program that's taken a step backward in 2021. His average finish of 32.8 is lower than last season and he remains without a top 20 through 17 races.
What's the end goal here for a program floundering in the back? With the charter market soaring for 2022, keep an eye on Starcom and whether they'd be willing to sell for the right price.
Jeff Gordon announced this week he's leaving the FOX Sports NASCAR booth as an analyst to become Vice Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon, 49, is now considered the heir apparent to take over HMS, where he's part-owner and won four Cup championships as a driver from 1992-2016. No replacement was announced at FOX, who just added Clint Bowyer as an analyst to pair alongside Gordon in 2021.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram passed away Friday at the age of 84. The two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion was a force in the early days of that division, racking up 31 career wins from 1982-87. Ingram retired in 1991 after collecting seven top-five points finishes in nine full-time seasons running NXS.
SRX inaugural winner Doug Coby is hoping a one-race deal with GMS Racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series can lead to more opportunities. Coby, 41, is a six-time champion of the sport's Whelen Modified Series but had never been contacted by any team in the sport's top three divisions until his win at Stafford Motor Speedway over former Cup greats Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart earlier this month.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Fans who attended the race at Nashville Superspeedway this past weekend, the first time a Cup Series event was sold out at full capacity since the 2020 Daytona 500.
Average number of points scored by Kyle Larson the last three weeks. He's won nine of 10 stages and led 82 percent of laps run during that stretch.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Could this week be the one where you trust Kevin Harvick? Coming off a top-5 finish at Nashville, Harvick heads to a track in Pocono where he posted a breakthrough last season. After winning for the first time at the Tricky Triangle, Harvick wound up second in the latter portion of last June's doubleheader. With seven top-5 finishes in the last nine Pocono races, the recent momentum for his SHR program comes at the perfect time.
The last time Kyle Larson came to Pocono, it was 2019 with Chip Ganassi Racing. In those events, he led 35 laps in June, then gained 18 positions in the July event to finish fifth. That's a decent track record long before the magic he's made in just half-a-season with Hendrick Motorsports. It's hard to bet against Larson at this point until the win streak ends.
All eyes are going to be on Ryan Blaney this week after an ugly wreck at Nashville put a magnifying glass on a difficult season (two top-five finishes, two DNFs through 17 starts). But Pocono, where Blaney earned his first Cup win in 2017, has been good to him since switching to Roger Penske's No. 12. Five top-12 finishes in his last six starts give hope he'll move up quickly through the field from 27th.
Austin Dillon has built up a solid cushion in the NASCAR Cup Series playoff race. That should continue at a Pocono track where he's run top 20 in five of the last six events with Richard Childress Racing. My only concern is position differential; a 12th-place starting spot limits his potential to produce. (Teammate Tyler Reddick, starting 16th, is another sneaky pick).
It's crazy to put Aric Almirola in this category as a former championship contender. But that's where we are after a horror story of a 2021 season leaves him outside the top 25 in driver points. Will a top-5 finish at Nashville be a turning point for the rest of the year? The No. 10 Ford driver ran top 5 at both Pocono races last year, leading 65 laps. The speed should be there for him to be a force once again.
Another driver with a solid run at Nashville, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., is looking to turn around his track record at Pocono. An average finish of 22.3 and no top-10 finishes in 16 starts has him at a bargain price on FanDuel and DraftKings. Yet a closer look at his stats shows some promising recent history as runs of 17th and 15th have him hoping for more entering this weekend.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson has 9/4 odds to win his fourth straight points-paying Cup event according to vegasinsider.com Friday afternoon. Denny Hamlin is next at 7/1 odds, followed by Kyle Busch at 8/1.
Looking for a longshot? Aric Almirola is sitting there at 50/1.
What I Think
I'm going with Harvick to break through and score his first win of the year, breaking Larson's win streak. You can't keep a driver that good out of victory lane forever. In the second race, I'm going with Larson although it wouldn't surprise me if someone (Almirola?) pulled an upset.
— 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.