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Pocono Raceway was built to be unique.
In homage to three popular open wheel tracks, turn one emulates the now defunct Trenton Speedway, turn two is patterned after Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and turn three replicates the Milwaukee Mile as closely as possible for a triangular-shaped track. The degree of banking gets progressively flatter, from 14 degrees in turn one, to eight degrees in two, and finally six degrees in three. The straightaways are also progressively shorter, which creates a corkscrew effect that intensifies as laps are completed.
As one may assume, the distinctive design of the track makes this a difficult place for rookies, and only a handful of active drivers scored top-10s in their inaugural attempt.
They made the most of it, however, with Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin winning in their first outing, Jimmie Johnson finishing third, Kyle Busch finishing fourth, while Marcos Ambrose and Tony Stewart earned sixth-place finishes the first time they competed at Pocono.
An experienced driver will win this week’s Party in the Poconos 400, but there will be some pleasant surprises in the top 10 as well.
Denny Hamlin not only won in his inaugural attempt at Pocono, but he swept Victory Lane in 2006 after winning the pole for both races. He is also the most recent driver to win back-to-back events on this track with victories in summer 2009 and spring 2010. In terms of average finishes, this is his seventh-best track and nearly all of the courses on which he runs better are also minimally banked. Hamlin has already proven how well he can drive while recuperating from injury, and after last week’s disappointment he needs to make up ground in the points. He also needs to win races to qualify for a wild-card spot in the Chase, and that is precisely what he will do this week.
Jeff Gordon has had difficulty in achieving any kind of momentum and as soon as fantasy players begin to trust him, something bad happens. Starting him this week will require some faith. He had a top-five capable car at Charlotte Motor Speedway two weeks ago, and if not for a bad call in the pits during the Coca-Cola 600 he would enter the weekend with three consecutive top-fives. The good thing about Pocono is that it takes nearly a minute at full speed to circle the track, so it is nearly impossible to lose a lap if one has their car handling correctly. Last year, Gordon scored six consecutive results of seventh or better on flat tracks and one of these was a victory in the Pennsylvania 400. This year, his worst effort on a relatively flat track was an 11th at Richmond International Raceway.
No matter how one looks at the stats, Clint Bowyer has momentum on his side. He enters the weekend with back-to-back top-10s at Charlotte and Dover International Speedway plus an 11th at Darlington Raceway. His most recent eight attempts on flat tracks have produced five top-fives and seven top-10s, and he swept the top 10 at Pocono last year. He is cheaper than Johnson or Brad Keselowski and will earn just as many points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, so he is an easy pick for this week’s roster.
Tony Stewart seemingly came out of nowhere last week to win the FedEx 400 and he also made a late charge in the Coke 600 to finish seventh. If he had shown more dominance in the middle stages of either race, he would be a favorite this week because he has been spectacular on flat tracks in recent seasons. Since buying into the No. 14 team in 2009, he has three victories, 15 top-fives, 23 top-10s, and has finished worse than 17th only 10 times in 38 races. One of his victories came at Pocono and he swept the top five there in 2012 as well as 2010. Winning back-to-back races might be a stretch for this organization at the moment, but he will almost certainly keep his top-10 streak alive.
Danica Patrick is a true dark horse this week. Pocono is occasionally kind to rookies, and while only a handful have scored top-10s, quite a few have top-15s and that could be her high water mark. Patrick is making her first start on the triangle this week, but she does have some experience on flat tracks. Last fall, she finished respectably in 17th at Phoenix International Raceway and that result would have been better if not for a last-lap crash. She finished 12th at Martinsville Speedway this spring. Pocono is the type of track on which she can find a groove and stay out of trouble and that fits nicely into her wheelhouse.
After scoring five consecutive top-five finishes from Las Vegas Motor Speedway through Texas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch has been playing hide and seek with momentum. He finished 38th at Kansas Speedway and that started a downward spiral that has only been briefly interrupted by top-10s at Darlington and Dover. Accidents and blown engines account for three results in the high 30s in the last six races and that has taken a toll on this emotional driver. One might be inclined to overlook his bad luck if not for the fact that he finished 30th and 33rd in last year’s pair of Pocono races.
Greg Biffle is an example of how difficult it can be to pick a winner for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. With an average finish of 17.5 in 20 events, Pocono is not one of his better tracks, but he scored a victory there in 2010 after failing to crack the top 10 in his eight previous attempts. In the four races that have followed, he added only one more top-10 and his average has dropped to 18.5, which will not make him a very good value on Sunday.