The Frontstretch: Fantasy Picks 'N' Pans: Can Edwards, Hamlin Repeat Past Pocono Success? by Bryan Davis Keith and Mike Neff -- Thursday June 5, 2008

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Fantasy Picks 'N' Pans: Can Edwards, Hamlin Repeat Past Pocono Success?

Bryan Davis Keith and Mike Neff · Thursday June 5, 2008

 

There truly is no track like Pocono Raceway. The longest straightaway in Sprint Cup, three distinct turns, and a triangular shape distinguish the Pennsylvania facility as one of the most unique in all of motorsports. At 500 miles, Pocono is truly a test of man and machine. The track’s wildly different characteristics require drivers to compromise handling in one turn for the sake of the other two, and require an inordinate amount of focus in navigating the track. Meanwhile, its long straightaways and high sustained speeds throughout put even the best of Cup motors through their paces.

But fear not, fantasy gamers. Pocono success tends to be sustained for a driver rather than sporadic, making picks for this weekend a science rather than a crapshoot. And the Frontstretch is going to provide you with insight and picks that are as powerful and durable as a Toyota motor.

What do the Poconos have in store for the Sprint Cup Series — and for your team? Can Jeff and Jimmie return to their winning ways? Will Kyle Busch crown his tripleheader weekend with yet another win? Can Kasey Kahne rediscover the magic he found at Lowe’s Motor Speedway? Only this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans will tell you which ones you should have on your roster — and who needs to pull a disappearing act on your bench.

Bryan’s Race Rewind:

One year ago at Pocono, Jeff Gordon’s red hot season got some help from a cool Pennsylvania rain. Gordon, who struggled early in the race with his brakes, cycled to the lead under green flag pit stops and held off a much faster Ryan Newman (the polesitter) just long enough for rain to put an end to the Pocono 500 after 106 laps. The caution flag flew just before Newman’s No. 12 got underneath Gordon’s No. 24 in the Tunnel Turn, handing Gordon his fourth win of the 2007 season and allowing him to pad his point lead. Behind the top two, DEI’s Martin Truex Jr. backed up his win at Dover the week before by finishing third, followed by Casey Mears and Tony Stewart to round out the Top 5. Denny Hamlin, who swept Pocono in 2006, led much of the early portions of the race, but had his run back to the front derailed by the sudden rainstorm.

Mike’s Keys to the Race:

Pocono is one of the trickiest tracks on the circuit, with three distinct corners and the longest straightaway on the schedule. The teams have to work at making their car handle best through turn three, or they’ll get killed going down the frontstretch. Add into the mix a new installation of asphalt in the high groove of that very turn, and teams are faced with an even trickier set of circumstances this weekend. Don’t forget that the gear rule has eliminated shifting at Pocono, so engine reliability can also be a concern at this track.

Looking at last week’s testing results, it appears as though Penske Racing has maintained their strong form at Pocono; look for them to pull a pleasant surprise after struggling much of the year. Along those same lines, it appears the Hendrick teams are getting more into the form they had last season — look for them to flex a little muscle come Sunday. But don’t ever count out the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, either. Horsepower certainly comes into play at Pocono, and — as they’ve shown all season long — that three-car operation appears to have more of that than anyone else on the circuit.

Mike’s Picks:

Crank ‘Em Up:

Carl Edwards started the year in a league of his own, but has been joined and even passed by Kyle Busch ever since. However, Edwards is still plenty fast, and he’s continued to prove it, emerging as the biggest threat to Busch by far during the series’ last couple of races. He’s also a big fan of this 2.5-mile oval, winning the first time he ever ran a Cup race at Pocono back in 2005. While Edwards has not had the strongest finishes there since then, the No. 99 team is hot enough this season to put him in the top slot on your fantasy roster this weekend.

Jeff Gordon has the second highest finishing average at Pocono since 1998 at 9.9, with two wins and a Top 5 finish in each of the last three races. Hendrick Motorsports put three cars in the Top 10 and all four cars in the Top 12 in last July’s race, too, and that gives them confidence they’ll be right at the top of the charts this Sunday. While Gordon’s team has been struggling with the new car design this year, they are getting closer to Victory Lane each weekend, and their finishes in the last three races (all Top 5 finishes) are certainly giving them some recent momentum as of late.

Sit ‘Em Down:

Jamie McMurray has two Top 10 finishes at Pocono in his career, but has not been higher than 20th in his last three trips to the track. He is also hearing a lot of public discussion about his tenure at Roush being cut short due to his lack of performance. McMurray did run well last weekend, but Pocono is not Dover, and the vagaries of the track have been a tall order for him during his career. His average finish of 22.7 does not foretell a good finish for him this weekend.

David Gilliland is in his sophomore season in Cup, and has run far better this year than last. However, Pocono is a very tricky track, and getting through 500 miles without losing concentration or making a mistake is a tough thing for even the best of them. Last year, Gilliland proved that theory; he ran 34th and 39th in two races at Pocono, and his poor finish last weekend can’t have him feeling overly confident heading into this Sunday’s race. While Yates Racing has been doing some great things this season without sponsorship, they will have a hard time getting Gilliland to overcome his past struggles this weekend.

Roll the Dice:

Kurt Busch has won two races and finished second twice in his last five races at Pocono, while his other race in that stretch was a 16th place finish. His average finish at Pocono is also a fairly strong 14.7. But on top of all of those impressive stats, Busch turned in the fastest lap during the most recent open test at Pocono last week. While this year has not been very impressive for Busch, he has a very good shot at coming home with a strong finish this weekend.

Bryan’s Picks:

Crank ‘Em Up:

In his first full-time season on the Cup circuit, Denny Hamlin staked the Pocono Raceway as his house; and no one has taken that title away from him since. In four career Cup starts at the 2.5-mile triangle, Hamlin has won twice (along with two poles), never finished outside the Top 10, and led over a third of all laps run. In fact, Hamlin likely would have had a third win in 2007 had rain not ended the June Pocono race early. With teams again left with little freedom regarding gear this weekend, and shifting out of the question, horsepower will be paramount — and JGR’s Toyota motors are easily the best of the bunch in Sprint Cup. With all the tools he needs to succeed, Hamlin will be near or at the front from practice Friday to the checkers on Sunday; so regardless of the price or how many starts Hamlin has had for fantasy teams this season, gamers would be foolish not to start him this weekend.

Tony Stewart will also enjoy the immense horsepower of JGR’s motors, and brings an impressive Pocono resume to the bargaining table. In 18 starts, Stewart boasts a win and 13 Top 10 finishes; but what’s even more impressive is how he’s run recently at this track. Stewart is riding a string of five consecutive Top 10 finishes at Pocono coming into this event, and like his teammate Hamlin, he’ll be looking to make up for what became a disastrous weekend at Dover. Stewart’s No. 20 team showed at Charlotte that their intermediate program is up to snuff, and he’ll be a threat for the win come Sunday. Take it from me: JGR is fantasy bank this weekend.

Mike Helton informs both Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne he’ll be leaving them on his fantasy bench this Sunday at Pocono.

Sit ‘Em Down:

Greg Biffle is one of the hottest drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit right now, but it remains to be seen whether momentum will be enough to get him a good finish at Pocono. Biffle has finished in the Top 10 only twice in his 10 starts at the track, and has an average finish of 25.7 in his last three races here. While Biffle’s hot streak may tempt fantasy gamers to give him the start, one needs look back to 2005, Biffle’s last red hot season; he averaged just a 23.5 finish at Pocono that year.

Kasey Kahne fell hard back to Earth at Dover this past weekend, and Pocono Raceway isn’t the place for him to get back in the groove. Though Kahne’s qualifying record here rivals even that of Ryan Newman, the finishes just aren’t there to justify picking him up. Kahne has only two Top 10 finishes in his eight previous starts, and has failed to crack the Top 20 in his last three races at Pocono (he finished 22nd and 27th last year). Out of three total cars, only one Gillett Evernham Motorsports entry posted even a Top 20 at Pocono last year (Scott Riggs was 18th in June), leaving a big question mark next to both Kahne and his equipment as to whether they’ll get the job done this June. Clearly, it’s one week to let him ride the pine.

Roll the Dice:

Can anyone guess who my favorite driver is yet? Seriously though, Ryan Newman’s record at Pocono justifies a start this weekend should your fantasy roster be able to handle it. Newman won at Pocono in 2003, and had stellar performances at the track in 2007, winning a pole while coming up with an average finish of 4.5. Had the rain in June come 30 seconds later, Newman would have even won this race one year ago. The Indiana native has finished outside the Top 15 only once at Pocono when not experiencing mechanical / crash-related troubles, and with the No. 12 team on the cusp of the Top 12, he’s a gamble that’s certainly worth making.

Trash Talk:

Bryan: Well Mike, after how Dover went I’m about as confident as I’ve ever been as a fantasy expert. But on to this week. Carl Edwards is a safe bet; but why should Jeff Gordon be racing for gamers on Sunday?
Mike: While Gordon’s year has been subpar by his standards, he is still sixth in points, and that team is a very solid finisher at Pocono. Gordon also has back-to-back-to-back Top 5s for the first time all season long. I also think he and Johnson are both beginning to get back toward their form from last year. Why do you think our readers should put all of their eggs in the JGR basket?
Bryan: Horsepower, Mike, horsepower. those Toyota motors are going to have a field day…plus, after how Dover went JGR’s going to be foaming at the mouth to rebound. 1-2-3 JGR isn’t far-fetched at all.
Mike: Well, I hope for your sake they aren’t using any of their experimental parts from the All-Star race, or you could end up with a 41-42-43 finish. Are you thinking Biffle is going to continue his roll of bad luck at the triangle this weekend?
Bryan: I definitely am…even in 05, when Biffle was running the best of his career, he couldn’t figure out Pocono consistently. He’s been hot of late, but hot on tracks he’s run well at in the past, and that doesn’t hold true for the triangle. By the way, I’d have thought after David Ragan finished Top 15 last weekend, you’d have given some more credit to the improvement to Ford’s Young Guns… why no love for David Gilliland?
Mike: Gilliland has had some sporadic success this year, but Pocono is a very tricky place to get around, and 500 miles offers drivers a lot of opportunities to screw up. I just feel like he is going to run similar to his efforts there last year, and those were not impressive. I can’t blame you for your Roll the Dice pick, though. Newman and Penske have always run well at Pocono.
Bryan: Nor can I blame you for picking Busch…if Penske Racing has been anything constant for fantasy gamers this season, it’s been a gamble.
Mike: And that’s why we’re rolling the dice. We’ll just have to see how it pans out.

Scorecard

The following are the guidelines that Bryan and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current Top 25 of the driver standings, and Roll the Dice drivers cannot be in the Top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.

Season Averages:

Bryan:

Crank – 4.5
Sit – 39.5
Roll – 14

Mike:

Crank – 5
Sit – 17.5
Roll – 23

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