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Tunnel Turn, Johnson's roll, NASCAR on TNT on tap at Pocono


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 new feature in Pocono’s “Tunnel Turn,” ARCA action, Jimmie Johnson’s win streak, a winless Matt Kenseth and TNT’s return highlight the storylines leading up to the Pocono 400.

Corner curbing at Pocono’s Turn 2 removed
Did Pocono Raceway just bring a feature from the desert — namely, the dogleg corner at Phoenix International Raceway — to its already unique layout?

That’s how one Sprint Cup crew chief sees Pocono’s overhaul of the track’s Turn 2, the infamous “Tunnel Turn.” Gone is the traditional curbing on the inside of the high-speed left-hander, replaced by a wide, flat apron.

“I think that the new paved area in Turn 2 may add a new element to (track preparation) and possibly make it like the dogleg we have at Phoenix,” says Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota.

That dogleg has become a source of controversy in NASCAR since Phoenix’s redesign in 2012. Drivers can now sweep low through the corner, off the banking and through a Mario Kart-like shortcut. The advantage is often minimal but the wide-open space has created some crashes entering Phoenix’s Turn 3.

An identical move won’t be available at Pocono — the apron is not nearly as wide and the corner is much faster — but it will change how drivers utilize Turn 2. In the past, racing two-wide through the Tunnel Turn was always a treacherous plan because the corner’s exit was so narrow.

Now, without the curbing and widened space, the corner — long considered one of NASCAR’s most treacherous — may become more of a passing zone.

Ahead of Pocono Cup debut, Larson makes ARCA start  
The value of racing in support series races during Sprint Cup weekends has long had drivers at both ends of the debate. Some love the idea of getting track time for a better understanding of tire wear and track changes during race conditions. Others find much of the information learned in a lower series not directly attributable to Sprint Cup success.

Pocono may be the exception to that rule — especially for rookies. For that reason, Kyle Larson will be the lone Sprint Cup driver making a start in Saturday’s ARCA Racing Series event on the 2.5-mile track. The ARCA race will serve as a warm-up for Larson as he makes his Cup debut on the track Sunday.

The unique layout simply has no comparable track in the U.S. and it stands as one of three tracks where Sprint Cup drivers actually shift gears during each lap. Larson will pilot the No. 4 Chevrolet owned by Steve Turner in the 200-mile ARCA race.

Seven current Sprint Cup drivers — Ryan Newman, Casey Mears, Travis Kvapil, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier and Joey Logano — have ARCA series wins at Pocono.

Anybody but Jimmie?  
Two weeks ago, Jimmie Johnson looked like NASCAR’s top underperformer of 2014 largely because he had yet to win a race in 11 starts. Such is the sledding for a driver with double the amount of wins of any other competitor in the last decade racing in NASCAR’s newest championship structure. Wins are now treated as the most sacrosanct barometer of success in the Cup regular season — a measure that creates a type of blindness to other on-track successes.

Now with consecutive victories in the last two weekends, Johnson has laughed away the concerns about his season and likely set fire to NASCAR fans’ latest slogan of “Anybody but (insert recent dominating driver here).”

And wouldn’t you know? Smart money this weekend at Pocono Raceway has Johnson as the favorite based on how fantastic his No. 48 was at Pocono last summer in two races. Johnson scored the checkered flag in one of them — a commanding performance last June that saw his Chevy out front for 80 percent of the race. He never dropped lower than seventh in the race’s running order even during green flag pit stops.

Johnson was just as good in the August race until he blew a tire and smacked the Turn 1 wall while leading. Despite the damage, Johnson still managed to finish on the lead lap in 13th.

Points leader Kenseth continues under the radar
Next up on the list of drivers who seem to be slightly off in 2014 —for the entirely not egregious sin of failing to win in the season’s first 13 tries — is Matt Kenseth. Of course, Kenseth arrives at Pocono Raceway as the Sprint Cup points leader. It’s hardly a concerning predicament.

Consider that Kenseth, 42, has seven top-7 finishes in his last nine races. Consider that his No. 20 only has one finish worse than 10th in that stretch — a 37th-place result thanks to a crash in the Cup season wild card that is Talladega Superspeedway. Consider, again, that he has scored more points to date in 2014 than any other driver.

It’s all a nice set up for a driver who seems to do his best driving away from the spotlight, whether that be with traditionally mediocre qualifying abilities that allow him to move forward in races without acclaim or how he scored a modest three wins in 2012 even as he had one foot out of the door in his final season with Roush Fenway Racing.

Expect Kenseth to play in Sunday’s proceedings in a similar fashion. He’s not a central storyline and two crashes a year ago at Pocono held him back from potential up-front finishes. But Kenseth has grown more favorable of the three-corner track since a repave in 2012. Maybe his first win at the track is coming soon.

TNT returns for final NASCAR broadcast series
With FOX’s 2014 section of broadcasting Sprint Cup Series races over after Dover, cable network TNT moves in this weekend to handle a six-race stretch that will also be its last for at least the next decade. TNT opted to not pursue future NASCAR broadcasting rights during negotiations last year that ended with FOX and NBC signing long-term deals with the sanctioning body.

As a result, TNT plans to go reflective during the six-race span by showing highlights from 32 years of NASCAR coverage produced by the network during pre-race shows. The Pocono pre-race show will include segments like Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing Charles Barkley in a go-kart race and a behind-the-scenes feature from Josh Wise’s internet-fueled run to the Sprint All-Star Race in May.

A year ago, TNT’s stretch of broadcasting was marked by a heavy rotation of commercials during races that elicited severe fan criticism on social networks.

Adam Alexander returns as lap-by-lap announcer in the booth, flanked by analysts Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach. Larry McReynolds returns to his pit road post, as well.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.