Jeff Wolfe · Thursday June 6, 2013
The Sprint Cup Series comes to Pocono this week with a lot of questions that must be considered when making picks. It’s not an easy track to begin with, considering a repave prior to 2012 had most NASCAR race teams starting their notes from scratch. But after Dover’s surprise finish, a lot of people are sitting here scratching their heads over what to do with a driver roster that’s looking increasingly unpredictable.
Can Tony Stewart continue his momentum after winning the Monster Mile, especially after testing at Pocono last month? Will any of the Toyota engines go boom on the 2.5-mile tri-oval, after the powerplants of Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex, Jr. did so Sunday while contending for victory? Will Jimmie Johnson be on a mission to win after getting black-flagged for jumping a late restart? And, last but not least, will I be able to keep a bit of an ignominious streak alive?
LOOKING FOR SOME ACES
Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, feel like they were treated unfairly after their black flag for jumping a late restart Sunday at Dover. Of course, Johnson and Knaus are in the minority with that opinion. It was almost comical to hear Knaus radio NASCAR doesn’t want them to win, especially at Dover since Johnson is tied for the most career wins at the track with seven.
But nonetheless, since they feel a bit cheated, the No. 48 team may be just a little more focused on trying to get a win this week. If you’re not on pick limits, Johnson may be a good bet; Knaus has always used emotion as a motivating factor. However, if you are on pick limits, I’d probably not play Johnson this weekend, only because you’ll need him later in the season. For the record, he does have two wins and 13 other top-10 results in 22 Pocono races; that gives him an average finish of 9.0. He’s the only active driver with a single-digit average finish at the track called the Tricky Triangle for its three distinct turns.
One driver whose track record you can’t ignore, one who will be going for wins the rest of the season is Denny Hamlin. After missing four races, due to a back injury suffered in a March accident with Joey Logano at California, Hamlin finds himself 26th in points. He’s got two goals to reach in order to make the Chase: get inside the top 20 and collect at least two wins. The good news for Hamlin fans is that he does have four victories in 14 starts, along with five other top-10 finishes at Pocono. He’s also led an impressive 663 laps here, the perfect place to right the ship after a Dover accident put a damper on his comeback. And yes, while I wrote earlier this week he’s got too many obstacles to overcome, to make the Chase I am picking him to reach Victory Lane this Sunday.
Pocono has been a good place for Tony Stewart, last week’s winner. Smoke was in a big-time slump to start the season, but a seventh at Charlotte, plus the Dover surprise has the team heading back in the right direction. Smoke has two wins and 18 other top-10 finishes in 28 races at Pocono; though I can’t pick him to win, I’d be surprised if he finishes outside the top 10.
MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
One Ford driver whose record stands out here is Carl Edwards. The driver of the No. 99 car has two wins and six other top-10 finishes in 16 races at Pocono. Edwards hasn’t been spectacular as of late, tailing off after an early season win, but he does have seven top-10 finishes and is generally considered a dependable driver in this category.
A name I kept coming back to when going over the list for this race is Kurt Busch. He does have two wins at Pocono and ten other top-10 performances in 23 races. The problem for Busch this season is that something always seems to go wrong for him that’s out of his control. From electrical issues, to mechanical ones, to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Busch has been accident-prone to the point it’s cost him at least one victory. This endorsement is no apology for his past mistakes; however, Busch is still one of the most talented drivers out there. The fact that the Pocono race is 400 miles now, instead of 500, may help him and his team as they compete against others with more resources.
Another underrated driver at Pocono has been Ryan Newman. The fact that Stewart-Haas Racing tested at Pocono late last month may help him, too, as well as Stewart and Danica Patrick. Newman has one win and nine other top-10 finishes at the track, making this one a good place to use him if you are on pick limits.
All right, this spot is the one you’ve probably been waiting for. I started mentioning two weeks ago the driver to avoid for each race. At Charlotte, I said to stay away from Kevin Harvick, so of course, he went out and won. Then, last week the guy to stay away from, without question, I said was Tony Stewart. So, we’re 2-for-2, or 0-for-2, however you want to look at it.
Having learned nothing from the last two weeks, I’m making Kyle Busch my driver to avoid. Busch has an average finish of 19.19 in 16 races at Pocono, failing to finish both races last year. He does have five top-10 results, but has never won… yet. At this rate, if the past continues to repeat itself, you may well see Mr. Busch breaking an unexpected streak Sunday afternoon at Pocono…
THE DARK HORSES
There are a few different options here this week. The first thing to look at on the entry list is who is driving the No. 51 car, and this week, it’s AJ Allmendinger. He does have one top-10 finish in nine races at Pocono; plus, the No. 51 car has been pretty decent most of the season, no matter who is driving it. Since the ‘Dinger is on a limited schedule, he’s generally a good pick here.
Another possibility might be David Ragan or David Gilliland. Pocono, of course, is not a restrictor-plate track, but the 3,740 foot frontstretch does favor cars that have a bit more horsepower, something Ragan and Gilliland both proved they had at Talladega. And yes, Ragan does have one top-10 finish at Pocono.
That brings us to two rookies, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Danica Patrick. Neither has started a Sprint Cup race at Pocono, so there’s no real history to go on here. However, I do like Patrick a bit this week due to the aforementioned testing that SHR did last month. Her experience on a big track like Indianapolis, from her IndyCar days may be a bit of a help here, too.
THE REAR-VIEW MIRROR
I picked Johnson to win last week and was looking good until the black flag, one which likely ruined a lot people’s picks for now and maybe a week in the future. Because when you pick Johnson, you really need him to win. And if you are on pick limits, that’s one Johnson race used up with not much to show for it; a 17th-place result was his worst at the track in nine years.
However, the top point scorer in last week’s two Frontstretch Fantasy leagues on Yahoo! last week did have Johnson. The Ford Malone Motorsports team amassed 311 points with Johnson, who finished 17th, Kyle Busch (fourth), Carl Edwards (14th) and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (13th).
The overall leader among the 63 teams in the two leagues, through the midpoint of the regular season is team cdakost with 3,408 points. Just behind is team Underbird, with 3,405, followed by SiLo Sounds Racing at 3,398 and RWO Motoring with 3,381.
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