Make no mistake: Kurt Busch has a resonant history at Pocono Raceway. After winning at the track last June, the elder Busch brother now has three wins in 30 starts, along with 13 top 5s, 17 top 10s and an average finish of 14.7. Those stats place him in the upper echelon among active drivers; in fact, in terms of full-time drivers in the Cup Series, he only lags behind Denny Hamlin in all-time wins (he has four) at the speedway. Only Jimmie Johnson can match his statistical output, with three Pocono wins in 29 starts.
One thing Busch hasn’t been able to accomplish at the Pennsylvania track, however, is the two-peat. The sweep. Whatever you wanna call it.
When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its second and final stop of the year in the Pocono Mountains this weekend, Busch will look to repeat at the Tricky Triangle, in the process landing his second win of the 2016 season — which would, of course, solidify him as an entrant into the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup, since as it stands, one win may not (but, let’s be real, will likely be) enough.
But how hard is that to accomplish, especially with Jeff Gordon, NASCAR’s winningest driver of all time at the track with six wins, showing up for one last hurrah in the No. 88 while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. recovers from concussion-type symptoms for a second race in a row?
It’s tough to say based solely on 2016, because the series is only just now getting into the portion of the season where the circuit is actually visiting tracks for a second time; only Daytona International Speedway has been contested twice this year, and each race saw a different winner: Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.
But in previous years? Let’s put it this way: Busch should probably be counting his lucky stars at tracks other than Pocono.
In the five seasons prior to 2016 (2011-2015), a driver has swept both race weekends in the Cup Series a total of four times, all of those coming between 2013 and 2015. In 2015, Johnson reigned supreme at Texas Motor Speedway both races, while in 2014, Kevin Harvick and Earnhardt swept Phoenix International Raceway and Pocono, respectively. The previous year saw Johnson take both events at Daytona.
What’s slightly interesting about this arrangement — low numbers of two-weekend sweeps or even none at all, in the case of 2011 and 2012 — is that in the mid- to late-2000s, the story was very different. Beginning in 2002, at least two tracks a year were conquered by the same driver both times around, beginning that year when Earnhardt took both Talladega Superspeedway events and Johnson was triumphant each time at Dover International Speedway.
That number even swelled to four sweeps in a year three times. In 2003, four different drivers won both races at a respective track: Johnson (New Hampshire Motor Speedway), Ryan Newman (Dover), Gordon (Martinsville) and Busch (Bristol Motor Speedway). The next year, Johnson swept both races at Darlington Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Pocono, while Busch again added a one-two punch, this time at New Hampshire. The last time it happened was 2007, and it was a similar situation as 2004, with Johnson sweeping three of them — Atlanta Motor Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and Martinsville — while Gordon added two victories at Talladega.
Call that the golden era of such a statistic at least in the last two or three decades, and with good reason. After all, 2002 marked the second season when the Cup schedule had ballooned to its currently allotment of 36 races in a season after steadily increasing from a low of 28 races in 1985.
Although at the same time, bear this in mind. That 1985 season of 28 races? Sure, less races overall, but actually more chances for a driver to double up. Those 28 events were divided evenly among 14 tracks, meaning all 14 were visited twice in a season. Compare that to 2001, the first season of 36 races — 23 different tracks, but only 13 were visited twice. That arrangement persists in 2016, with 13 twice-visited tracks and 10 once-visited for a 36-race schedule.
There’s really no strong correlation to speak of that can account for the reasons why the 2000s were such a bountiful time for drivers looking to sweep both race weekends. The discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots remains largely the same in 2016 as it was in 2006, after all. The one thing that could be pointed to is the influx of different winners throughout the entire seasons in 2011 and 2013 — 18 and 17, respectively, which is rivaled only by 2001’s 19-driver win list since the schedule went to 36 races.
But it’s not always a simple translation; after all, in 2003 — a year, as mentioned, with four different track sweeps — there were also 17 different race winners overall. If anything, you’d expect the seasons with more racers locking up a given speedway’s full schedule to have less overall winners throughout the year, but as seen in 2015, with just one track sweep — Johnson at Texas — and 12 different winners all year, tied for the lowest amount since 2001.
Already in 2016, 12 different drivers have taken the checkered flag, out of 20 total races contested. Over the final 16 events, 13 will be run on tracks that the series has already visited this season. There are still plenty of shots for drivers to double up, Busch included.
If the last five years are any indication, that won’t happen — and a high rate of winners so far this season discounts it, too. But hey, Busch swept both New Hampshire races in 2004, so it wouldn’t be the first time.
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