Track Smack: Can Dale Jr. break through at Pocono?
June 05, 2014, David Caraviello, Holly Cain and Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
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Editor's Note: Track Smack is a weekly feature that will showcase a panel of NASCAR.com experts providing their analysis from the previous week, while also looking ahead. In this edition, NASCAR.com's David Caraviello, Holly Cain, and Kenny Bruce examine whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. will get his first win at Pocono, which two-win driver has the best chance to be the top seed in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and is there a favorite for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title?
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth are the two full-time Sprint Cup Series drivers with the most starts at Pocono without a victory there. Does either one of them break through this weekend?
David Caraviello: I'm predicting a tie! OK, maybe not. But I like Dale Jr. here -- I remember just a few years ago, he had an absolute beast of a car at Pocono but had to give up the lead late to take fuel. Earnhardt seems to run about as consistently well there as he does anywhere. Of course, Matt Kenseth is knocking out top-10s every week, so it's hard to overlook him in this situation as well.
Holly Cain: I think Kenseth sees it as being a more urgent situation, with him still searching for that first win. With the exception of Kentucky, where Matt's the defending winner, June presents some tough tracks for him.
Kenny Bruce: I don't think either breaks through, which likely means one of them will probably win. Not a great track for either through the years. But Earnhardt Jr. finished in the top 10 in five of his last six starts there, including top-fives in the two races last year. On the downside, he only led a combined two laps in his last two there. Kenseth, based on finishes in his last two races (third and third at Charlotte and Dover) is knocking on the door.
Caraviello: I mean, if you look at which driver is closest to winning right now, you'd have to say Kenseth given how well he's run the past couple of weeks. But his last three Pocono finishes have been 22nd, 25th, and 23rd there. And as Kenny mentioned, Dale Jr. has been really consistently good at the Triangle as of late. I mean, one finish worse than ninth in his last six starts says a lot.
Cain: Here's something from left field -- Kasey Kahne sneaks in and gets the victory at Pocono. He runs well there and is the lone Hendrick car looking to win. I think we see a first-time winner.
Caraviello: Holly, I'm not worried about Kenseth. They're running really well even though they haven't won. We talked last week about how Kevin Harvick's inconsistencies might put him at risk of being eliminated early in the Chase -- Kenseth would seem on the opposite end of the spectrum, even though he hasn't won. His dips just aren't as low, and that might serve him well in the postseason.
Bruce: Got to agree with DC on this one, mainly because I'm not sold on the belief that you win one race and you can "gamble." How's that working out for folks? Kenseth and the Joe Gibbs Racing team have stuck to their guns, and it's paying off with consistency.
Cain: I hear you David -- steady, steady Kenseth. And he's the only one in the top 10 without a win, so he's in a great position in points if necessary.
Caraviello: I mean, you take one bad finish at Talladega out of the equation, and Matt's been money all year long. He's the points leader, for goodness sake, whatever that means anymore.
Cain: As it shakes out, being the points leader does mean something. Especially if these guys like Jimmie Johnson, Harvick and Joey Logano continue to win multiple races.
Caraviello: I know Matt voiced some concerns over his car's speed a few weeks ago at Charlotte, but Kenny's right -- he's still consistently strong enough that they don't need to try anything crazy. Some other guys are in different situations, of course, but this is vintage Kenseth -- hanging around, hanging around, hanging around, and somehow being there at the end.
Cain: And, it's just about that time when Tony Stewart gets hot.
Caraviello: Given the breakneck fortunes of Stewart-Haas Racing to this point, Holly, I'll believe it when I see it. But I'd still take Junior this weekend -- Pocono has quietly become one of his better tracks, even if he hasn't won there.
2. Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Joey Logano are now tied for the lead in victories with two each. Which has the best chance of becoming the top seed in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup?
Bruce: The easy choice is Johnson, given his recent run of back-to-back wins. He seems to have the hot hand right now.
Cain: Absolutely no doubt: Mr. Johnson.
Caraviello: Wow. Absolutely no doubt? Yes, Jimmie is the six-time and defending champion. Harvick's probably had the best program all year, even if the standings don't necessarily reflect it. But I'm very tempted to go with Logano here, because of these three, I think he's the most likely to perhaps sweep both Pocono races.
Bruce: Harvick keeps putting himself in position to win races only to have something bite the team before the checkered flag falls. Meanwhile, Logano’s been steady, but not as dominant as the other two, I don’t think. And he doesn't have the history of stacking up wins during the season. But I'd still give the nod to Harvick. How many more times can something go wrong?
Cain: I think this summer, and the two road courses, shake things up a bit in terms of Chase qualifiers. It may not take more than three wins to get that top seed.
Caraviello: It seems like this is a recurring Track Smack theme, but if that No. 4 team can get everything buttoned down … that's a big if, I know, but if it happens, Harvick could be untouchable. I think he's more comfortable than even Jimmie in this edition of Sprint Cup car. Stuff just has to stop breaking.
Bruce: I don't think anyone can reach "untouchable" status anymore. It's just too close up top. I think we base a lot of that on what teams have typically done. But this year has been anything but typical.
Cain: Things are probably still a little too unpredictable for Harvick. But it's interesting that he's already led more laps in four months of season than he did all of last year.
Caraviello: As Holly mentioned, this summer stretch is going to determine a lot of this, with two road courses and Daytona still in the mix. But with two Michigan races looming ... well, we all know Jimmie's track record at that place. Logano's won at Pocono, won at Michigan, and Team Penske is as good on intermediates as anyone. Harvick could win or finish 20th any week. So just don't know if this is the Johnson slam dunk some might think it is.
Bruce: I think a factor in all this is how much help or information is there for these three teams to glean from their teammates. The Hendrick group has been stout, with the exception of one team. Team Penske is spotty, but hardly struggling. SHR? Outside of Harvick? Stewart is beginning to make noise -- but other than that?
Caraviello: Jimmie's the natural pick. He's the proven commodity. But he's had years in his career where he's gone long stretches in the summer without winning, only to flip the switch in the Chase, where all his best tracks are. He's still going to be the favorite in the playoff, probably no matter what happens the rest of the regular season. But now? It's maybe a closer horse race than we think.
3. The top four drivers in the Camping World Truck Series standings -- Timothy Peters, Matt Crafton, Johnny Sauter and German Quiroga -- are separated by six points as the circuit visits Texas this weekend. Is there a title favorite in that bunch?
Cain: Jimmie Johnson.
Caraviello: Hilarious, Miss Cain. Tip your bartenders and waitresses, she's here all week. OK, it's gotta be Crafton, right? I mean, savvy veteran, steady driver, of the group at the top he's the best at taking care of equipment and getting good finishes -- which can be a premium in a series with a lot of young and aggressive drivers who can tend to bend a little sheet metal from time to time. The others are certainly capable, but for the moment, you go with the guy who's been there before.
Bruce: Crafton is the only one with a win among the four, and he's second in points. His title run last year was impressive, knocking down top-10 after top-10 to seal the deal. But if it becomes a slugfest? Sauter's got speed and only one finish outside sixth this year. Quiroga has yet to finish outside the top 10. Peters hasn't led a lap in his last three starts, and yet he's your points leader. So is there a favorite? Maybe not. But I'd certainly go with experience. Sorry, German.
Caraviello: And plus, even though we're nearly into summer, this series has only held five races. I'm not sure that's enough to really allow us to determine anything at this point. Maybe when we get to Iowa in mid-July, we'll all have a better idea of where things stand. Even so, I'd be willing to bet Crafton is still in the mix at that point.
Cain: I agree, Matt Crafton is certainly the man to beat. Would be pretty cool for him to make NASCAR history as the series' first back-to-back champ. I don't think people expected it to take this long.
Caraviello: Indeed, Holly, it's really hard to believe Ron Hornaday Jr. or Jack Sprague never won consecutive titles in the earlier days of the series. And a word about German Quiroga: The man is doing a heck of a job. As mentioned with Crafton, half the battle in the Trucks is talking care of equipment and getting good finishes each race, and Quiroga is the only driver in this series with top-10s in every race. The three-time Mexico Series champion needed only a steady ride to show what he was capable of. As someone who wrote about him when he was trying to break through in the U.S., I'm really happy to see it. Guy is a success story.
Cain: I really feel like things are just getting dicey in the trucks as far as the championship picture goes. Who knows, someone could emerge from even further back in points. Could we see a Bubba Wallace resurgence?
Caraviello: Yeah, we're talking about four guys within six points -- but the top seven are within 19 points. And Ryan Blaney might be the most dangerous of the bunch, lurking down there in seventh place. But again -- we're just five races in, which is a big reason there's not much separation at the top right now. And when that inevitably happens, I'll still take Crafton to be there. And then maybe we can schedule a big match race with Jimmie Johnson!
Bruce: I'm waiting for the big summer push by Norm Benning!
Caraviello: He never lifted!
Bruce: Still hasn't!