Pocono Raceway is the most uniquely shaped track on the Sprint Cup schedule, giving teams quite the challenge when it comes to getting their car to race well. Boasting the longest straightaway in Sprint Cup and a triangular shape with three distinct turns, the Pennsylvania facility is truly a 500-mile test of man and machine. With such wildly different characteristics, the track requires drivers to compromise handling in one turn for the sake of the other two. The drivers must have an inordinate amount of focus while navigating the track, and the long straightaways and high sustained speeds put even the best of Cup motors through their paces.
What does this weekend in the Poconos hold for the Sprint Cup Series – and for your team? Was Kasey Kahne’s win earlier this year a fluke? Can Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon continue their strength from Indianapolis? Will Carl Edwards regain his past glory on the big triangle? More dependable than a Goodyear tire on a diamond-ground race surface, this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans will tell you which ones you should have on your roster – and who needs to stay in the chalet enjoying wine and cheese.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
Kurt Busch laid waste to the Sprint Cup field at Pocono one year ago, leading a record 175 of 200 laps to score a dominating win that catapulted his No. 2 team into Chase contention. Though Busch was the class of the field, Hendrick Motorsports posted stellar results, with all four of its teams finishing in the top 12. Hendrick led a Chevrolet charge, as eight bowtie drivers finished in the top 10 (the only non-Chevy drivers to do so were Penske Racing teammates Busch and Ryan Newman). The race was an event of little attrition, as 39 of the 43 cars that started the race were running at the finish.
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 equation has been made even more difficult by the addition of the new asphalt on the outside of turn 3. It is now even more important for teams to work at making their car handle best through turn 3, or they’ll get killed going down the front straight. Don’t forget that the gear rule has eliminated shifting at Pocono, so engine reliability can also be a concern. Looking at the results from the first race this season, it appears as though Hendrick and Roush are the strongest options for building your fantasy team. GEM has to be considered too since Kahne won the last race there and both of their cars were good at Indy. You can also not count out the Gibbs Toyotas because horsepower certainly comes into play at Pocono, and they have shown all season that they have more than the average race team.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Edwards adapted to Pocono like a duck to water when he first joined the Cup Series. His last few years have not been quite as good to him, but he was ninth in the first race this year, and he was the only car that looked like he had anything for Johnson this past weekend at Indianapolis. A lot of people have forgotten about his 100-point penalty from the Las Vegas race earlier this year. Were it not for that, he’d be sitting second in points and threatening to make Kyle Busch actually have to show up this weekend to maintain his points lead. Like Johnson, Edwards is looking like he’s hitting his stride just in time for the Chase, and Pocono could very well be his next victory this season.
Gordon was the second strongest car for a majority of the race at Indianapolis last weekend. While his year has been subpar by his lofty standards, Gordon is still sixth in points, and the whole Hendrick organization is looking like they are hitting on all eight cylinders as the Chase draws near. On top of all of that, Gordon is the second-leading driver in terms of average finish at the big triangle in the Pennsylvania mountains. While his teammate is probably a stronger bet to win the race this weekend, Gordon could very well be right on his bumper as they come to the checkered flag.
Sit ‘Em Down:
David Ragan is without a doubt the surprise of the season with his continued good showings and his position just outside of the drivers who are Chase eligible. Unfortunately, Pocono has not been on Ragan’s list of favored tracks since he made the move into Cup. He has raced at the track three times and his best finish is 24th, while his average finish is 27.7. Ragan was 14th at Indianapolis, and that could give some hope to his fans, but his history at Pocono simply doesn’t bode well for a strong showing this weekend.
Jamie McMurray has two finishes at Pocono in the top 10, a ninth and a 10th. His last five races, he’s had one race finish better than 20th and that was only 18th. The track in Pocono is a very tricky one to learn and drivers who struggle there tend to continually struggle there. Adding to that pressure is the constant rumor that McMurray’s on his way out at Roush and the stars are not lining up for Jamie Mac this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
Brian Vickers doesn’t have too many tracks on the circuit where he can claim a history of success, but Pocono is one of them. Vickers is fifth best in average finishes at the track, and he was second in the first race there this season. Now that he has been able to concentrate on racing instead of qualifying, he’s been a force this year and very well could make the Chase if he can avoid issues like last weekend at the Brickyard. Don’t be surprised to see Vickers vying for the win when the 500th mile is run this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up:
New car or old car, Denny Hamlin has flat owned the Pocono Raceway since he joined the Sprint Cup Series tour. In his five starts on the Pennsylvania triangle, Hamlin has two wins, five top 10s and an astounding average finish of 2.8. Hamlin finished a convincing third at Pocono in June, and is coming off a top-five run at Indianapolis, which, tire problems or not, is a flat track that shares similar characteristics to this weekend’s venue. Hamlin at Pocono is among the safest starts any fantasy team owner will make this year.
Anyone knows that momentum is a huge part of Sprint Cup racing, and right now big mo is with Johnson and the No. 48. After coming oh-so close to winning at Chicago, Johnson was the class of the field last week at Indianapolis. The No. 48 team is hitting their stride in the summer months, and they know they need wins to be in striking distance of Kyle Busch once the Chase starts. Johnson led 59 laps and finished sixth in June, and has two Pocono wins on his resume, along with a career average finish of 10.3. Kyle Busch had better start checking the rear-view… the No. 48 could well close the gap further at Pocono.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Believe it or not, Clint Bowyer’s 19th-place run at Indianapolis was his best run on an oval (minus the plate race at Daytona) since a 15th-place finish at Darlington in May. And it certainly wasn’t a convincing display by the No. 07 team. Bowyer and his crew have completely lost the handle on their season of late and now sit precariously close of falling out of Chase contention. Despite this danger, Bowyer and his team have still shown few signs of life, and Pocono may well not be the place for them to rebound (Bowyer finished 39th at the track in the spring). There are far too many competitive Chevrolets that will be safer starts this weekend to justify starting Bowyer.
Travis Kvapil has been an essential part of returning Yates Racing to competitiveness in 2008, but some of that luster has left the No. 28 team in recent weeks. Since Loudon, Kvapil has not cracked the top 30 in any of the four Cup races run, and last week at Indianapolis Kvapil’s team was out to lunch, finishing a very distant 36th. In five career starts at Pocono, Kvapil has cracked the top 20 only twice, and couldn’t do it earlier this season with his No. 28 team even when Yates Racing was enjoying more momentum than they are now. Fantasy owners looking to start Fords ought to stick with Roush Fenway this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
AJ Allmendinger is shutting his critics up quickly in 2008. Since being pulled out of his No. 84 ride earlier in the season to give Mike Skinner a stint in the car, Allmendinger has qualified for every race he has attempted despite being outside the Top 35, and has become a legitimate contender on the circuit’s larger tracks. Allmendinger scored a then career best 12th-place finish at Pocono in June, and since being paired with new crew chief Jimmy Elledge has finished 13th at Chicago and 10th at Indianapolis after running in the top five for much of the event. Allmendinger has a lot to pull from in teammate Vickers, a driver who knows his way around Pocono. He is on a hot streak that could very well have Allmendinger making a serious charge for his first win in a stock car. Team Red Bull now has two contenders in their stable.
Bryan: Well Mike, you chose the right week to take off; to call Sunday a disaster is being polite.
Mike: No kidding, brother. From a race and a fantasy persepctive, drivers who are generally strong at Indy were either caught up in accidents, bitten by bad tires or simply in the wrong place when they came out of the pits during the myriad of competition cautions. Fortunately, Goodyear didn’t have issues in the first race at Pocono, so hopefully we can get back to some actual racing again.
Bryan: One can only hope. I see you’re jumping on the Hendrick bandwagon this weekend, but with last week’s winning owner, not driver. Why’s this Gordon’s weekend?
Mike: With Gordon’s average finishing position at Pocono and the strength he showed at Indy last weekend when he was racing, I think he’ll have a very good chance to come home near the front. Hmmm… it’s truly impossible to pick against your two choices to crank considering their efforts last weekend. However, Bowyer isn’t looking like he is running that badly. Why are you down on him this week?
Bryan: Look at Bowyer’s results on longer ovals – 25th at Charlotte, 39th at Pocono, 26th at Michigan, 22nd at Chicago. That 19th at Indy was his first top 20 on a non-plate oval since May. Unless the No. 07 pulls a miracle at their Nashville test this week, they’ll be off the pace again this week, which isn’t what I see Ragan doing. He was very stout at Indy, why no love for Unadilla, Ga.’s finest?
Mike: You know, I tend to look a lot at a drivers at each track, and Pocono is one where that comes into play rather dramatically. Ragan has certainly been a huge surprise this year, but most of his success has been on intermediate tracks and plate tracks. For some reason, Pocono is not good to him, and I think that will continue this weekend. I see you’re on the Tom Bowles/Red Bull bandwagon with Allmendinger this weekend. What makes you think they can string together two good finishes in a row?
Bryan: Because they’ve done it – in AJ’s last two races he’s finished 13th and 10th – and that guy’s never finished top 15 in consecutive races before. Jimmy Elledge has got the No. 84 running competitively along with Vickers’s No. 83 team now, and as hungry as Vickers is, AJ is seeking win number one.
Mike: I bet we’re going to hear from our loyal fantasy readers about the fact that we have shown no love to the Gillett Evernham boys this weekend. Sadler ran well at Indy and Kahne won the first race at Pocono this year. We may regret the fact that neither one of us showed them any love.
Bryan: We may, or GEM may mimic what they did at Pocono in last year’s August race when none of them finished inside the top 20. I guess we’ll have to see how it pans out.
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 can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 16.1
Sit – 18.1
Roll – 25.4
Crank – 12.1
Sit – 22.8
Roll – 19.8