As the excitement winds down from the second-biggest race of the year at Indianapolis, reality sets in for the Nextel Cup faithful – Sunday’s race at Pocono is the second of a 17-week stretch to finish off the regular season. With no off-weeks left to recharge and refocus, it’s crunch time for those in contention to make their final push to make the Chase – or, in your case, the pinnacle of your fantasy league.
The competition continues at one of NASCAR’s most unique racetracks – the triangular-shaped track in the Pennsylvania hills offers a refreshing change of pace from the cookie-cutter ovals that dot the landscape of the Nextel Cup schedule.
So, which drivers do you need on your roster to turn the weekend in the Poconos into a mountain of success? Read on to find out who’s primed for a breakout fantasy performance this weekend – and who else is in line for a bump in the road.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Denny Hamlin‘s impressive rookie season continued with a Pocono sweep, capturing the win in last year’s Pennsylvania 500. In many ways, the July race was a repeat of the series’ first trip to Pocono in June, with Hamlin winning both the pole and the race while Kurt Busch followed behind in second. Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five. But the biggest story of the day wasn’t found up at the front of the field. Early in the race, Tony Stewart made contact with Clint Bowyer on the frontstretch, collecting Carl Edwards in the resulting melee; and that’s where things got interesting.
Stewart was penalized a lap for rough driving and Edwards, who drove into Stewart on the track after making a stop in the pits, was also docked a lap by NASCAR. In the meantime, after getting involved in a wreck with Dave Blaney, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fell out of the top 10 in points when he racked up his second consecutive 43rd-place finish; ironically, he enters this race in a similar position, only 13 points from being knocked out of the 12th and final spot by Kurt Busch.
Tom’s Keys to the Race
Pocono’s unique shape makes it more like a road course than an oval – the unique triangular-shaped turns cause speeds to fluctuate so much that drivers once shifted from third to fourth gear over the course of their laps here. New gear ratios have made shifting a distant memory, but the way the track gets driven is still the same; drivers and crew chiefs must find the “perfect balance” in handling among the three tightly-shaped turns.
You’re never going to get things exactly right, but as long the car stays smooth through two of the three – especially turn 3, critical to building speed down the famous Long Pond Straightaway – you should be in solid shape to have a successful day at the speedway.
Keeping that theory in mind, those types of conditions lend themselves to drivers capable of handling adverse conditions: it’s why Gordon and Mark Martin do so well here.
Crank ‘Em Up
For the past year, when you think of Pocono, you think Hamlin. After only seeing Pocono on his video game, Hamlin came in last year as a rookie and swept both races. In June, he led a race high 49 laps, but rain cost him his chance at a perfect record at the track. Heading into this weekend’s race, Hamlin is in a bit of a slump… but clearly, there is no better place for him to turn the tide than Pocono. Look for him to do just that this weekend.
Other than poor finishes at Chicago and Sonoma, it’s been quite a summer for Martin Truex Jr. He kicked off the month of June with his first career win at Dover, and since then has scored six finishes of 13th or higher, putting him a solid 11th in the Chase standings. He doesn’t have the experience at Pocono that other drivers do, but as Hamlin has showed, that doesn’t matter. In three starts at the triangle-shaped track, Truex has two top-10 finishes, including a third here last month, making him a solid choice for this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down
Even though he’s making the rounds in the rumor mill lately, don’t let that get your hopes up for a good finish for David Stremme this weekend. While his teammates were scoring top fives at the Brickyard, Stremme couldn’t capitalize on his best start in two months and finished a distant 26th. That’s about what you can expect from him this Sunday at Pocono when you look at his past history at the track. With an average finish of 26th, there are plenty of better options out there to use instead.
Jamie McMurray missed out on a grand opportunity last weekend at Indy to boost his Chase hopes when Earnhardt Jr.’s motor blew. By that time, McMurray had already been involved in a wreck, and it left him unable to make up any ground. With no finish higher than 18th in the last three Pocono races, it doesn’t look good for him to make a run towards the Chase this weekend, either. The win at Daytona could have been a big momentum boost for the team, but right now they seem to be heading back towards their early season inconsistency.
Roll the Dice
Another driver that had a rough weekend at Indy was Ryan Newman. Sitting 13th in the standings before the race started, he was poised to make a push towards the top 12; but an ill-handling car, followed by a hard wreck, doused those chances. This weekend at Pocono, however, gives Newman a prime opportunity to easily make up the ground that he lost. The 2003 Pocono winner was second to Gordon by a hair here in June, and has a total of five top-five finishes in his 11 Pocono starts.
Crank ‘Em Up
Now here I am, a special guest, and Cami goes and picks the one guy she knows I think will dominate Sunday in Hamlin. How rude! But since we’re on the subject of failing to mind our manners, I think I’ll go with picking Stewart in Hamlin’s place. While what comes out of Tony’s mouth isn’t always PC (as we learned all over again at Indy), his Pocono results are rated PG – as in pretty darn good. The driver of the Home Depot Chevy has 12 career top 10s in 17 starts here, and is currently working a streak of four straight finishes of seventh or better.
With Stewart’s midsummer hot streak in full effect, he’ll be going for his third straight victory on Sunday – exactly the type of motivation you’ll want from the No. 1 starter on your team.
If you’re looking for a solid second wheelman on your roster, Busch is looking like a perfect fit for Pocono. Now just 13 points away from sneaking into the 12th and final spot in the Chase, Busch is in position to overtake Earnhardt Jr. this weekend; and with a track record that includes a win and two second-place finishes in his last four starts here, I wouldn’t bet against the Miller Lite Dodge.
Sit ‘Em Down
Mark my words – as long as the parts and pieces hold together, Earnhardt Jr. will make the Chase for the Nextel Cup. But for the immediate future, he’s got one more bad race to go through before the No. 8 turns it around – and you should note it on your fantasy team accordingly. Pocono has been a mess for Junior throughout his career – a vicious crash with teammate Steve Park in ’02, a litany of blown tires in ’05 and a wreck which left him 43rd last year are all lowlights that prove Junior is better left on the bench this week – but like I said, don’t sit him long, because he’s primed and ready for a late-season run starting at Watkins Glen.
When you’re looking for that ultimate sleeper to fill out your fantasy roster, I know several people will be tempted to pick up Reed Sorenson this week – a 12th-place run at Chicagoland followed by a fifth-place finish at Pocono have people thinking the No. 41 is on the upswing. But I just don’t think the good vibes will continue this weekend – the best Reed could muster in three career starts here is 24th, and no Ganassi Racing car has finished better than 20th here since 2005. That should tell you all you need to know; instead, the sleeper you should be Rolling the Dice with is…
Roll the Dice
Martin. Last weekend, Martin repeatedly claimed it was going to take a couple of weeks for the Ginn/DEI merger to work its magic; if that’s true, one could only imagine how good this team can be after a sixth-place run at Indianapolis. Martin already notched a seventh-place finish with the No. 01 car at Pocono this June; add to that the hunger of never winning at this unique facility, and Martin’s likely a top-five sleeper for Sunday – and a great addition as a third or fourth driver on the fantasy roster. Just don’t forget to drop him before Watkins Glen! Aric Almirola will be in the seat next week.
Cami: Welcome, “special guest.” I guess I should have filled you in on the rules more clearly. You can’t start talking smack in your picks… I don’t have a proper chance to defend myself. If you want the top pick of the week, you have to call it early. That’s how we roll around here.
Tom: Well, I figured as the guest panelist you’d give me the best pick of the litter! Now I’m going to have Mike yelling at me again about how I ruined his fantasy season.
Cami: I think you’ll have Mike yelling at you ’cause you benched Junior, but we can get to that later. At least you made up for it by picking Tony… but three in a row is a pretty tall order, even for Super Tony.
Tom: Well, even if I grab second and third, you know nothing less than a win is good enough for Mike. And let’s be honest, Hamlin looks to be the overwhelming favorite this weekend.
Cami: Yeah, you do owe Mike a win after last year’s debacle. Who did you pick that week? Joe Nemechek or something like that?
Tom: Actually, it was Kasey Kahne, and we all know how his season turned out this year. On second thought, why did you ask me to fill in again?
Cami: Duh, that’s pretty self-explanatory. I’m not looking for someone to come in here and kick my (well, you know). I can’t say it ’cause I don’t want to be docked 25 points.
Tom: That’s true. Well, as long as Tony avoids those bad words, he should be perfect for the fantasy teams this Sunday. But what about your sleeper pick? Think Newman’s ready to step it up again this Sunday?
Cami: He was good at Pocono back in June, and he rarely throws in a really horrible finish here. Plus, he needs to make up for the ground he lost at Indy. He’s smart enough to know those chances don’t come around often. Meanwhile, according to you, Junior is gonna tank again this weekend.
Tom: Well, it’s not just according to me, it’s according to the stats sheet. Have you seen the horror story that is Junior at Pocono? We’re talking no top-10 finishes here in three years. That’s the kind of thing that’ll make your stomach turn…even worse than drinking skunked Bud Light.
Cami: True, but he was 14th and 12th in two of the last three starts here. He can’t help Blaney took him out in this race last year. I would be surprised to see him put in two bad finishes in a row. I agree with your Sorenson pick, though; he is awful at Pocono.
Tom: Yeah, with Ganassi shutting down Montoya’s Busch operation and Stremme rumored to leave, I just don’t feel good vibes coming out of that organization this week. According to you, those vibes seem to be headed Truex’s way.
Cami: He’s had some pretty good vibes since he got that win at Dover. Plus, he has back-to-back top 10s at Pocono. I think he’ll keep that up and be the higher of the two DEI drivers in the Chase.
Tom: Well, the way things are going, they’ll be lucky to MAKE the Chase with Newman, McMurray, and Busch right on their rear bumpers. Too bad you think McMurray’s going to flame out.
Cami: Well according to your thinking, he’s a better sit ’em pick than Junior. Pocono isn’t the best track for him to make a comeback on. Plus, it was a little shout-out to Mike. You know, Jamie Mac is his “favorite” driver.
Tom: Well, what a nice present you gave him; I don’t agree, but we’ll all have to wait and see how things pan out.
Crank ‘Em Up: 13.6
Sit ‘Em Down: 23.1
Roll the Dice: 19.8
Mike: (Tom Fills In This Week)
Crank ‘Em Up: 12.7
Sit ‘Em Down: 22.9
Roll the Dice: 18.9
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