NASCAR leaves the bustling city of Indianapolis and heads to the lush green mountains of Pennsylvania. The settings could not be more different. There is a reason why Pocono is so vibrant and green, however; the average rainfall during the month of August is four inches, which is about a half inch more than the average for the remainder of the United States.
Pocono got off to a good start in reaching that average on Saturday as rain canceled both practices. Fortunately, Friday’s sessions were uninterrupted and fantasy players have data from one practice and qualification to help set their lineups.
The No. 48 team has developed a reputation for pushing the limits of NASCAR’s rule book, whether it's true it pays off for them in a big way. Two weeks ago, they struggled to get through inspection and narrowly beat the five-minute clock to get their qualification lap in the books. Jimmie Johnson blistered the track, but NASCAR erased the time when his car was found to be too low after the run.
This week, Johnson also had trouble getting through inspection and he was rushed into the car in order to qualify for the GoBowling.com 400. Apparently it does not pay to over-think matters where Johnson is concerned because he grabbed the pole with a new track record. He will start up front and lead laps immediately, which makes him a good value. Johnson scored the most points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game in June’s race and is on track to do so again.
The No. 17 provided the excitement for the weekend. Rookies sometimes learn to find the edge by overstepping it, and that happened to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Friday’s practice session. Downshifting into Turn 2 for the first time this weekend, he got loose and tagged the wall, so the car spent much of the session in the garage.
Stenhouse returned to the track and posted the 18th-fastest lap. He followed that with a time in qualification that places him 17th on the grid, nearly matching his June effort. Unfortunately, he dropped in the running order during the Party in the Poconos 400 presented by Wal-Mart and finished only 26th, so Stenhouse might be one of the drivers to avoid this week.
Only one driver ran 10 or more laps in Friday’s practice session, so it is impossible to infer how David Ragan will run in race conditions. For the record, his 10-lap average was 168.440 mph, which was about four miles per hour slower than his fastest circuit in practice.
That also means drivers must be judged by their track records with an acknowledgment given to where they will start on Sunday. Hendrick Motorsports has a strong record at Pocono Raceway. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third there in the spring, but he stumbled in qualification this week and rolls off the grid 25th.
He has plenty of room to record a positive place differential, but Earnhardt felt a vibration in his engine late in the day. The team hoped it would have the Saturday sessions to search for the cause. If the team cannot prove there is a problem, NASCAR will not allow an engine change, and that is cause for concern for fantasy owners.