Nextel Cup Racing Preview

NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers head to Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania this weekend for the running of the Pennsylvania 500. This 2.5 mile triangular superspeedway includes three long straightaways and three unique turns, each patterned after different tracks. Turn one has 14 degrees of banking and was inspired by the now defunct Trenton Speedway at the former state fairgrounds in Trenton, New Jersey. Turn two, also known as the ?Tunnel Turn?, has 8 degrees of banking and resembles the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Turn three is a sweeping 6-degree turn comparable to the Milwaukee Mile in Wisconsin. As a cross between a road course and an oval, it?s often referred to as a roval.

As I see it, the following drivers have the best chance of pulling out a top finish this Sunday. I have compiled my ranking by analyzing drivers? success at this track and similar tracks such as Indy, then throwing ol? momentum into the mix by factoring in the last month of racing.

1) Jeff Gordon
2) Denny Hamlin
3) Jimmie Johnson
4) Kurt Busch
5) Tony Stewart
6) Mark Martin
7) Kyle Busch
8) Carl Edwards
9) Kevin Harvick
10) Matt Kenseth
11) Brian Vickers
12) Ryan Newman
13) Martin Truex Jr.
14) Clint Bowyer
15) Jeff Burton
16) Juan Pablo Montoya
17) Greg Biffle
18) Bobby Labonte
19) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
20) Casey Mears

If the recent Pocono sequence is more than just a coincidence, figure a driver from the Hendrick Motorsports stable to win this Sunday?s Pennsylvania 500. An organization has swept the Pocono Raceway races every year since 2004. That year, Hendrick Motorsports won with Jimmie Johnson sweeping both the Pocono events. In 2005, Roush Fenway Racing accomplished the feat, with wins by Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch. Last season, Joe Gibbs Racing grabbed two Pocono wins, both by Denny Hamlin. Jeff Gordon won this year?s Pocono 500, which would put the pressure on him, Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears and Kyle Busch to carry on the tradition.

Gordon could become the seventh driver to pull off the Pocono season sweep. The first driver to do so was Bobby Allison in 1982. This was followed by Bill Elliott in 1985, Tim Richmond in 1986, Bobby Labonte 1999, Jimmie Johnson in 2004, and finally Denny Hamlin last season. Hamlin was the only one to do it as a rookie in the NASCAR?s top division.

Had Gordon not used pit strategy during the rain-shortened June race, Denny Hamlin may have made it three-for-three at Pocono. In 2006?s two Pocono races, Hamlin started and finished at the front, capturing both the pole and the checkered flag. Last June, he led a race-high 49 laps en route to a sixth-place finish. The #11 team returns with chassis JGR121, the same car that dominated the last three races there. Hamlin: ?What makes Pocono so unique is you?ve got three corners that are completely different, no other track we visit during the season requires you to prepare like this. One is a very wide sweeping corner but it?s got a little bit of banking to it. So, you need to have a car that basically will stay up in the banking. The second corner, the tunnel turn, is very flat and it?s very fast. That?s really where you can gain a lot of time on guys. And you know ? it drives a lot like a road course kind of corner. And the other corner is like a short track ? almost like Phoenix in turns three and four – it?s very flat and very wide and it comes out sweeping to the long straight away. It?s a lot like a mixture of different race tracks, a track that rewards a guy who is very smooth on corner entry and I think that?s where it kind of plays into my strengths.?

Stewart is coming off two impressive victories at Chicago and Indianapolis that moved him up into fifth in the standings. Now, he?ll look to do what he?s never done before ? win three in a row. The #20 team will debut chassis 179 this weekend, a car that has had plenty of wind tunnel time but zero time on the racetrack. It should prove of little matter, since the car Stewart used to win the past two races also had zero track time when it debuted at Chicagoland, and #179 is a clone of that car. Stewart on why he excels in the summer: ?It just seems like a normal year. This time of year, it seems like we get hot. We?ve even tried to sit down and figure out what we?re missing in the spring ? why we can?t do then what we?re typically able to do now. It just seems like when the tracks gets hot and slippery that it suits my driving style and the setups Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) puts on the car.?

Stewart on comparing Indy to Pocono: ?It?s harder to pass at the Brickyard than it is at Pocono. There?s a fair amount of room going into one at Pocono, and you can run two-wide there and you can go two-wide in three at the beginning of a run. But it?s pretty tough to run two-wide through the corners at Indy. Still, a good run at Indy shows your flat track program is pretty good. But at the same time, it?s no guarantee that you?re going to run well at Pocono. Pocono is quite a bit bumpier than Indy is, so a good run at Indy won?t guarantee you anything for Pocono. But it certainly won?t hurt you, and the aero stuff that we do at Indy will be used at Pocono. So yeah, you can learn some stuff to take to Pocono.?

Another driver to watch should be Kurt Busch. Busch has enjoyed tremendous Pocono finishes in recent years. Though he finished 16th in June, he nabbed a win in 2005 and two runner-up finishes in 2006. He could charge into the top 12 with another good finish Sunday.


Keys To Victory
? Having the right chassis setup is crucial. The three corners at Pocono are so different. Drivers need to know how to get the most out of their cars through each corner.
? There should be the opportunity for a great deal of green-flag racing, so crew chiefs must manage the team?s pit strategy and make sure fuel mileage and tire situations are what they need to be during the course of the race, in particular, the last laps.

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet)
? Four wins, 14 top fives, 20 top 10s; two poles
? Average finish of 10.4
? Driver Rating of 93.9, ninth-best
? Average Running Position of 12.2, ninth-best
? 324 Green Flag Passes, seventh-most
? 600 Laps in the Top 15, eighth-most
? 161 Quality Passes, seventh-most

Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet)
? Two wins, three top 10s
? Average finish of 2.7
? Series-best Average Running Position of 4.9
? Series-best Driver Rating of 137.5
? Series-high 164 Fastest Laps Run
? Fastest Green Flag Speed
? 92% of his laps were in the top 15 ? highest percentage of any driver

Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe?s Chevrolet)
? Two wins, three top fives, six top 10s
? Average finish of 11.2
? Average Running Position of 13.6, 10th-most
? Driver Rating of 90.8, 11th-best
? Fifth-fastest Green Flag Speed
? 597 Laps in the Top 15, ninth-most

Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Light Dodge)
? One win, six top fives
? Average finish of 15.7
? Average Running Position of 8.7, second-best
? Driver Rating of 109.9, second-best
? 108 Fastest Laps Run, second-most
? Second-fastest Green Flag Speed
? 720 Laps in the Top 15, second-most
? Second-fastest Speed in Traffic ? speed when there is another car within one car length under green

Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet)
? One win, five top fives, 12 top 10s; one pole
? Average finish of 12.8
? Average Running Position of 10.9, fifth-best
? Driver Rating of 102.8, fourth-best
? 35 Fastest Laps Run, tied for fifth-most
? Fourth-fastest Green Flag Speed
? 702 Laps in the Top 15, fifth-most
? Series-high 201 Quality Passes

Mark Martin (No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet)
? 19 top fives, 28 top 10s; three poles
? 10.8 average finish
? Average Running Position of 11.8, eighth-best
? Driver Rating of 95.4, eighth-best
? Series-best Closer ? 29 positions improved over the last 10% of races
? 27 Fastest Laps Run, eighth-most
? 665 Laps in the Top 15, sixth-most

Carl Edwards (No. 99 Office Depot Ford)
? One win, two top fives
? Average finish of 16.6
? Driver Rating of 91.7, 10th-best
? 52 Fastest Laps Run, fourth-most

Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet)
? One top five, four top 10s
? Average finish of 16.3 in 13 races
? Average Running Position of 11.3, sixth-best
? Driver Rating of 98.4, sixth-best
? Eighth-fastest Green Flag Speed
? 709 Laps in the Top 15, fourth-most
? 191 Quality Passes (passes of cars in the top 15 under green), third-most

Martin Truex Jr. (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet)
? One top five, two top 10s
? Average finish of 12.3
? Average Running Position of 11.4, seventh-best
? Driver Rating of 96.3, seventh-best
? 22 Fastest Laps Run, 11th-most
? Third-fastest Green Flag Speed
? 115 Quality Passes in three races, third-best average

Pocono Active Streaks
? Brian Vickers has started in the top 10 in all seven of his Pocono races.
? Kyle Busch has started in the top 10 in three consecutive races.
? Kurt Busch has started in the top 10 in five of the last six races and finished in the top five in three of the last four races.
? Denny Hamlin has started in the top five and finished in the top 10 in three consecutive races.
? Tony Stewart has finished in the top 10 in four consecutive races.

Other Pocono Highlights
? There have been 59 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races at Pocono Raceway since the first race there in 1974. There were single races the first eight years and two each year since 1982.
? Richard Petty won the first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race.
? There have been 27 different race-winners, led by Bill Elliott with five victories.
? Opened in 1968 as a .75-mile track, Pocono Raceway held its first race on the 2.2-mile oval in 1971.
? There have been eight car owner season sweeps, including each of the past three seasons (two of the car owner sweeps were with different drivers).
? Twelve of 58 Pocono races have been won by the Bud Pole winner, including both races in 2006 by Denny Hamlin.
? The June 2005 race was won from 29th by Carl Edwards ? the deepest in the field that a race winner ever started.
? Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers and J.J. Yeley have finished on the lead lap in all of their races.

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