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Fantasy Preview: No one's perfect at Pocono; Johnson closest

June 06, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Pocono Raceway was designed by committee. Its scalene-triangular shape means that no two corners and no two straightaways are the same, which makes compromise the order of the weekend for teams.

Pocono wanted to pay tribute to three tracks that were very popular at the time of construction: Turn 1, with its 14 degrees of banking, is similar to Trenton (N.J.) Speedway; Turn 2 is banked at eight degrees and mimics Indianapolis Motor Speedway; and Turn 3 is the flattest at six degrees and patterned after The Milwaukee Mile.

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The frontstretch is the longest of the three straights and since it leads into the corner with the steepest banking, it is where the most speed is generated. That also means the heaviest braking is employed entering the corner. As cars progress around the track, the straights get shorter and the corners are flatter so that there is a corkscrew effect. If drivers can be good in only one turn, they usually pick the third corner because that leads to the finish line.

No one has figured out a way to be perfect in every corner, and as soon as someone does he will pull away from the field -- but he won't lap them. At 2.5 miles in length, this track is as big as Daytona and rivals Talladega, but the tight, flat corners slow drivers considerably. A lap around Pocono takes almost a minute to complete; this past fall's pole-sitter, Joey Logano, posted a lap of 172.055 mph (52.3 seconds). Those long lap times play into a driver's strategies. Last week, Jeff Gordon had a possible victory stripped from him after pitting for a loose wheel. Drivers can pit under green at Pocono and stay on the lead lap, which would have kept Gordon from taking the wave around that left him mired in traffic.

Team strategies at Pocono are similar to that of a road course. Since there is little risk of getting lapped, they will try to time their pit stops so that the final one comes on the edge of a fuel run. If a caution waves and drags the remainder of the field into the pits at the right time, they can remain on course and pick up track position. The fact that this strategy is often effective can be attributed to long green-flag runs. The corners are tight with a narrow groove, but the straightaways are wide and long. That allows the field to get strung out after a lap or two and minimizes casual contact that causes accidents. A caution flag at Pocono is just as likely to be attributable to debris or wildlife.

Flat waters run deep

While Pocono is unique, that doesn't mean fantasy owners won't be able to deepen the data pool. Drivers who are good on flat tracks in particular often excel on this 2.5-miler, which means their records at Phoenix and New Hampshire should be considered.

The best comparative track is Indianapolis, however. As a rectangle, it also is unique in shape and Turns 2 and 4 have different setup requirements as do 1 and 3. At 2.5 miles in length with extended straightaways, they can be tough on engines and hard on brakes. The optimum way to enter Turn 1 on both tracks has been described as "drive until you see angels and then turn left." It is not for the weak of heart and getting to the apex provides only momentary relief.

Like most of the flat tracks, Pocono is a rhythm course and some drivers find the setup quicker than others. It is a good race to handicap by the numbers. The real trick this week will be in identifying those rare dark horses who only occasionally pop into the top 10; they can be extremely valuable as a differentiator from a competitor's lineup, but a fantasy owner can go broke quickly by playing long shots in the NASCAR Fantasy Live salary-cap game.

The Favorites

There is almost nothing that would have kept Jimmie Johnson from being one of this week's favorites. If he did not have current momentum on his side, his Pocono record would have placed him at the top of the heap. If both of those were lacking, the No. 48 team still would be one of the top contenders because Hendrick Motorsports has run strong at this track since it first fielded a car for Geoffry Bodine. Hendrick has won on this track 11 times with four different drivers: Gordon has the lion's share with five, Tim Richmond added two, and Terry Labonte won in 1995, but Johnson swept Victory Lane in 2004. Those are his only two wins, but in the 14 races since that dominant season, he has finished worse than 13th only once. Better still, three of his past four attempts ended in top-five finishes, including a pair of fourths last year.

* Head2Head: Johnson's chances at Pocono

Things could get very interesting at the front of the field because the next two favorites don't much care for one another. There is plenty of room to race at Pocono, but after last year's dustup in Darlington, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick managed to make a little tire smoke fly on the Tricky Triangle. It's notable that even though they gave no quarter, they both managed to record solid runs. Busch swept the top-five in both races last year, which is reinforced by a second-place finish in the 2010 edition of this race. Like Johnson, Busch had 2012 momentum on his side entering last week's race. He was riding a streak of four consecutive top-fives before an engine failure shortened his day and he's going to be hungry to return to the front of the pack.

Harvick is a bit of a "Johnny come lately" at Pocono. In his first eight starts there, he logged only one top-10. Engine and transmissions take a beating on this track, and in those four years, he managed to tear up one of each and finished in the 30s both times. He earned his first top-five in his 12th Pocono start, but he was unable to run consistently strong until the past two seasons. Harvick swept the top five in 2010 and added another fifth in last year's edition of this race. He slipped to 14th in August, but even then he finished on the lead lap, which was the 14th consecutive time that he managed that feat. The upside of starting the No. 29 is huge and the downside is virtually non-existent, so he makes a good third pick for fantasy rosters if he can be afforded.

Pocono


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Gordon's bad luck held at Dover. He had one of the dominant cars all afternoon and might have won if not for a loose wheel. Even after making an unscheduled pit stop, he almost certainly would have led the field to the checkers if not for a debris caution that denied him the opportunity. To blame that result on luck is actually inaccurate because it was caused by a mistake in the pits. Those things occasionally occur to every driver, but when they keep happening, it's impossible to call the team a favorite. Gordon has a great record on this track -- he even won last year's spring race -- but that is not enough to elevate him to one of the top spots. However, Pocono is a track where mistakes are not always critical, where green-flag runs are uninterrupted for long periods, and where a driver can plan and implement strategies. That fits Gordon's style of racing, and it's impossible to ignore him this week.

In 12 Pocono starts, Martin Truex Jr. has completed all but one lap of competition. His career-best finish of third came in a rain-shortened event in 2007, but he's been noteworthy nearly every time the series has returned to this track since. That is especially true in the past two years and he enters the weekend with a three-race streak of top-15s. Two of those efforts also were top-10s, which makes him a good value in his salary-cap range. Truex also seems to have regained his current momentum. After posting back-to-back 20-something finishes at Richmond and Talladega, he's finished 12th or better in his past three races, which gives the No. 56 10 top-15s in the first 13 races of 2012.

Underdogs

Brad Keselowski will be on a lot of radar screens this week after he won last year's August race at Pocono. Unfortunately, that victory came on the heels of three 20-something finishes in his first three starts and the scales are not quite tipped in his favor. In the race he won, he languished mid-pack for much of the day and managed to find the right setup only at the end, which means a quarter turn in the wrong direction could have sent him home with four consecutive results in the 20s.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jeff Gordon8.04 17.Greg Biffle17.20 32.Landon Cassill33.86
3.Denny Hamlin9.77 18.AJ Allmendinger18.07 33.David Gilliland34.30
4.Kyle Busch10.12 19.Brad Keselowski18.98 34.David Stremme34.89
5.Tony Stewart11.13 20.Martin Truex Jr.19.13  35.Travis Kvapil35.05
6.Kevin Harvick12.43 21.Joey Logano20.33 36.Mike Bliss35.94
7.Clint Bowyer12.66 22.Jamie McMurray21.27 37.Dave Blaney36.76
8.Ryan Newman12.73 23.David Reutimann21.39 38.J.J. Yeley37.38
9.Juan Montoya13.01 24.Marcos Ambrose24.10 39.Scott Riggs38.30
10.Carl Edwards13.28 25.Aric Almirola24.56 40.Michael McDowell38.39
11.Mark Martin13.44 26.David Ragan26.93 41.Josh Wise38.98
12.Kurt Busch14.14 27.Paul Menard27.27 42.Joe Nemechek39.39
13.Jeff Burton14.18 28.Regan Smith28.70 43.Mike Skinner39.80
14.Matt Kenseth16.42 29.Casey Mears29.34 44.Stephen Leicht40.22
15.Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.43 30.Bobby Labonte30.27 

Joey Logano is a marquee driver who needs another strong finish. Fantasy owners should wish him well, but watch from the sidelines because he has not yet cracked the top 10 at Pocono. He came close on two occasions with an 11th in this race last year and a 13th in 2010, but the remainder of his efforts ended in the 20s -- and with a career average finish of nearly 21st, this is his seventh-worst track. The silver lining is this: If Logano can score back-to-back top-10s following his eighth-place finish at Dover, that will go a long way toward convincing Joe Gibbs Racing that his contract should be renewed. And that will take a lot of pressure off his shoulders.