500 miles at Pocono officially kicks off the second half of NASCAR’s regular season, and for Kyle Busch and Richard Childress, the green flag can’t come fast enough. Their fight has dominated the headlines this week, from Jimmy Spencer to that Jimmy you saw yapping with the bartender last night forming an opinion on the subject. But beyond their little scuffle, there’s been plenty of news to follow this weekend at a time where winless teams are willing to start thinking outside the box in order to jumpstart seasons stuck in neutral.
Which one of those wheelmen will stand out come Sunday, and why? Let’s take a look at one to start this weekend preview:
*Burning Question #1: Is this the weekend Denny Hamlin gets a win?*
It wasn’t long ago people were quick to write off Denny Hamlin after a pour start to the season. After seven races he was 20th in points with just one top 10 to speak of and while he was expected to turn things around, the chances of him as a championship contender seemed slim. Fast forward to the present and suddenly Hamlin is showing glimpses of what made him as the top contender to Jimmie Johnson coming into the season. Over his past five races he has four top 10s, two top 5s and one runner-up finish. After a third-place showing one week ago at Kansas, he is now eleventh in points and going to his favorite track – Pocono. Hamlin’s dominance at Pocono is on par with even the best of track records at any track for any driver.
In ten starts at the famed triangle he has four wins, seven top 5s and eight top 10s, and thus is a favorite again this weekend. Hamlin doesn’t need to win this weekend to solidify the fact that he is a Chase contender, but he does need a win to take the pressure off of a winless streak to start 2011 in a year when wins determine the Chase’s wildcard winners. Ultimately I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hamlin unload out of the box this weekend and immediately show himself as the guy to beat this weekend. The target’s on his back: let’s see if he can win under pressure.
*Burning Question #2: How far is Dale Earnhardt. Jr from a win, and does it matter?*
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the ultimate tease for his fans recently. In the midst of a rejuvenated season, Earnhardt has knocked on the door of victory lane each of the past two races, but still sits winless despite three top 5s in 13 starts this season. The winless streak is one of the more overblown stories in NASCAR and his fans – although one can understand them wanting a win – are reading too much into it. Rewind to not that long ago and Junior Nation simply wanted their driver to contend. Well, he is contending now. Week in and week out for that matter. All Earnhardt has to do is keep putting himself in position and the wins will take care of themselves. He’s a better driver than one would expect of a driver with a winless streak in the 100s and he drives for the best team in the series. It’ll come.
*Burning Question #3: Can Sam Hornish Jr. cash in on the “Tricky Triangle”?*
After running a partial Nationwide Series schedule earlier this season, Sam Hornish Jr. will attempt to make his return to the Sprint Cup Series this weekend, driving the No. 38 for Front Row Motorsports in relief of Travis Kvapil, who will be contesting the Truck race in Texas.
Anyone that remembers the former IndyCar champion’s debut Cup race at the track back in 2008 will full well remember a day of spins, bent sheet metal and tearing up every bit of infield grass he could put his Dodge onto, but from there on out after that rookie season, Hornish’s open-wheel background, and corresponding experience on road courses, resulted in solid finishes every time the Cup Series returned to Pocono; he finished 10th, fourth, 11th and 11th in his last four starts there. Couple that with what have been strong showings in his limited Nationwide Series starts and the inherent motivation that comes with not having a full-time ride, and Hornish just might be a darkhorse for a top 20 run.
Assuming of course, he can get FRM’s second car up to speed and fast. While teammate David Gilliland is sitting about as high in the standings as any FRM entry has in team history with the No. 34, a combination of early season wrecks, poor handling cars and mechanical woes have left the No. 38 team outside the top 35 in owner points and in a defined state of regression from the 2010 season. Will Hornish prove to be a breath of fresh air that helps the team find something? Or will a load of time out of the seat make even qualifying for this race a challenge?
More than likely, a little of both. Expect Hornish to make the race and to run as a backmarker like Kvapil has all season long. But he’ll definitely finish better than in 2008.
*Burning Question #4: Will we see Busch / Childress II this week?*
The entire Kyle Busch and Richard Childress feud has been talked about in great length this week. Almost so much so that fans wish it could go away, but then again this type of drama is what fans have been asking for. You want to stop reading about it, or thinking about it, but you can’t. We’ve seen a ton of driver feuds (and a driver/owner feud) in recent weeks, but NASCAR and its probation policies have kept Round II from happening in each case. And that will happen again here. Childress will be on his best behavior and Busch (who is still on probation for the Harvick incident) can’t afford any more confrontations. Childress (and Harvick) genuinely dislike Busch, but the public altercations are over, folks.
*Burning Question Bonus: Which Nationwide-only driver is next to find Victory Lane?*
For years now the Nationwide Series has been dominated by Sprint Cup regulars and rightfully so with more experience and better equipment. But in the past three Nationwide races, two standalone Nationwide drivers have made it to victory lane, the most recent of which being Justin Allgaier at Chicago. So who’s next? All you have to do is look down the standings to see which Nationwide-only driver as the best chance to claim a win this season. Former Cup drivers Reed Sorenson and Elliott Sadler are primed for a win and have the experience to beat out any Sprint Cup driver any weekend. Sorenson drives for the Nationwide Series’ top team Turner Motorsports – a team with three of the top six in points – and the team of which Sadler drives for (Kevin Harvick Inc.) has its share of Nationwide wins already. Both Sadler and Sorenson have the experience and equipment to win on any week. Perhaps as soon as Michigan next week.
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