(Photo: John K. Harrelson / NKP)

Who’s Hot & Who’s Not in NASCAR: Pocono Edition

Martin Truex Jr. defeated Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick on Sunday (June 3) to take the checkered flag in the Pocono 400, this week’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. In other news, the sky is still blue and the Golden State Warriors are still unstoppable.

Strong qualifiers Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray all faded as the race went on and no one could get anywhere close to the top cars all day (Truex won the opening stage by seven seconds, then the race despite a bad pit stop after stage one). Of course, this was Pocono, so routs are somewhat to be expected. But still, the leaders were in a league of their own.

A flurry of late cautions sent teams on a variety of pit strategies. It just wasn’t enough to top the dominant cars. If you were out front, you pretty much stayed out front (eight drivers in the final top 10 scored points in both stages).

Completing the top five was Brad Keselowski, continuing Team Penske’s unbroken top-10 streak this season.

Crossing the line in sixth through 10th were Blaney, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson (who led his first laps in 2018), Joey Logano and Chase Elliott.

BOWLES: TRUEX OVERCOMES ADVERSITY FOR POCONO VICTORY

HOT

How dominant are Harvick, Busch and Truex? They’ve combined for 11 of the 14 wins this season and 19 of the past 24 going back to the start of the 2017 playoffs. In 2018, the trio has combined for 15 stage wins (out of 29), 28 top fives and 31 top 10s. And what’s more, this triumvirate has led nearly half of the laps run this season (2,105 of 4,103).

NOT

Kasey Kahne‘s No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Chevy had a transmission problem. That means it wasn’t his fault that he completed only 120 of 160 laps for a season-low 35th-place result. But he’s still averaging his worst finish (24th) since 2010 with Richard Petty Motorsports. Kahne’s best result this season is just 17th, accomplished at Texas, Talladega and Dover. My, how the mighty have fallen.

This time last season, Michael McDowell was averaging a slightly better result (23.7) and had a best finish of 13th for LFR. Right now, Kahne is in 28th place in the standings out of 31 full-time drivers, sandwiched between McDowell and Ty Dillon.

HOT

Aric Almirola finished seventh, second among the Stewart-Haas Racing stable, his best-ever result at Pocono. It was his sixth top-10 performance of the season. Since Talladega, the No. 10 has finished no worse than 13th, an impressive stretch in their first year together. Almirola is averaging a 12th-place result this season, matching his position in the standings.

NOT

Erik Jones brought out a caution late, saddling him with a a 29th-place finish. The wreck drops him to 15th place in the playoff standings, only 12 points ahead of the cutoff. Strange things are afoot in the No. 20 Circle K/DeWalt/Reser’s camp. In the past five races, Jones has an average result of 22.4, which isn’t heinous. But for a Joe Gibbs Racing car? That’s definitely underperforming. His previous Pocono finishes at Furniture Row Racing were third and eighth, making Sunday’s race even more frustrating.

HOT

Larson has been the most consistently speedy of the Chevrolets, as the Chip Ganassi driver has led a manufacturer-high 355 laps. This race was his third runner-up finish, sixth top-five and ninth top-10 run of the season. Larson sits comfortably within the playoffs in 10th, earning a cushion of more than 100 points over Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

NOT

It seemed like Alex Bowman‘s inconsistent season was going to get a boost heading into the summer stretch. The No. 88 hovered around the back end of the top 10 most of Sunday’s race. That’s until an accident with Denny Hamlin, one which crippled his Camaro for the day. Bowman finished 27th, the last car on the lead lap.  His fourth 20-something result of the season drops him out of playoff position, nine points behind Stenhouse for the final spot.

Paint Scheme of the Week

Flames on cars usually look like something out of a Need for Speed game. But, if you’re sponsored by Louisiana Hot Sauce, as Chris Buescher‘s No. 37 was this week, it kind of works. Plus, he drove to a solid 17th-place finish, giving JTG-Daugherty Racing three top-20 results in the past four weeks.

Maybe it’s like Jerry Rice’s saying: “If you look good, you play good.”

Predictions

Michigan International Speedway is Kyle Larson‘s playground, and he ought to be one to watch next weekend. Or Erik Jones might be able to grab his first victory – his finishes at MIS across all three national series are third, third, fourth, fifth and 13th.

Of course, the usual names should be in play – Gibbs, Penske, Stewart-Haas, Ganassi – but maybe one of the cars outside of Kyle Busch, Truex and Harvick could pull out a win. That isn’t exactly likely, as they dominated fellow 2-mile racetrack Auto Club Speedway, but you never know.

This race will be broadcast on Fox, the final non-cable event before the annual switch to coverage from NBC. Ratings should be decent as a result.

The FireKeepers Casino 400 will be Sunday, June 10, at 2 p.m. ET.

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Wesley has been with Fronstretch since October 2017. He loves well-told stories in whatever format he finds them. Aside from NASCAR, he enjoys reading, country music and OKC Thunder basketball. He has a BA in Liberal Arts/English and currently lives in eastern Oklahoma, where he works as a freelance writer/editor.

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