Mash The Gas: 400 Pocono Preview

For the third weekend in a row, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits a “flat track” as the Pocono Raceway hosts the 400 Sunday afternoon. Much like Indianapolis, the latest stop on the tour, Pocono features long straightaways connected to relatively flat corners and drivers that ran well at Indy should see the same good fortune this week at Pocono. While the handling characteristics are similar to Indy, Pocono is truly unique in that the circuit is triangle shaped with only three turns, each one with different transitions than the other.

The green flag is scheduled to fly and start the 400 at 1:19 EDT on Sunday August 4th at the Pocono Raceway. 160 laps make up the 400 mile distance on the 2.5 mile tri-oval. The race is the 21st points paying event of the 2013 season.

Here are the drivers we think you should be watching at Pocono.

Jimmie Johnson
Dan Margetta: The last time Jimmie Johnson came to Pocono was after he lost a sure victory late at Dover and he proceeded to decimate the field at the “Tricky Triangle.” Sound familiar? Johnson rolls into Pocono this week after losing the victory on a late pit miscue at Indy and the #48 team traditionally backs up mistakes by making a strong statement the following week. No doubt about it, Johnson is the heavy favorite this week with the only sidebar being his huge point lead (nearly two full races) may lead the team to do some experimenting in preparation for the championship Chase.

Kyle Busch
John Wiedemann: Kyle Busch ran well at the recent string of flat tracks and posted top ten finishes at each race. Finishing sixth at the Pocono race just weeks ago, there were thoughts that the Joe Gibbs Racing team’s Toyota engines were still de-tuned and short on horsepower. If the engine issues have all been worked out and they are back to full strength, it could be a long day for the rest of the field. Toyota didn’t show much strength at Indy where Chevrolet dominated, so it will be interesting to see how much power comes out from under the hood of Kyle’s car.

Ryan Newman
DM: Before we just hand the checkered flag to Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman may have something to say about it. Newman and his #39 Stewart-Haas crew were the one team that could compete with the #48 bunch last week and they used pit strategy to swipe the Brickyard victory. In a remarkable turnaround, this team is bringing the Indy winning chassis to race at Pocono, where it finished fifth earlier in the year. Another win for Newman would put him in the Chase, possibly knocking out his car owner by the way, and two in a row is definitely not out of the question. With a Chase spot on the line and currently auditioning for a top ride next year, Newman has plenty of incentive to get back to victory lane.

Kurt Busch
JW: Kurt Busch is my pick to win this week, for no other reason than I would like to see it happen and have him jump back into the Chase picture. Oh, there are other reasons that it may happen, like the fact that he has been fast everywhere recently. Kurt finished seventh at the earlier Pocono race and he led 102 laps at New Hampshire before getting walled. Indianapolis was a different story. Besides being fast in practice and qualifying well, Sunday’s race did not live up to expectations. I expect a bounce back week at Pocono. Kurt could visit victory lane for the third time at Pocono.

Tony Stewart
DM: The only other driver besides Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman to have top five finishes at both Pocono and Indy this year is Tony Stewart who finished fourth at both venues. Stewart has two Pocono wins to his credit and it’s about time for his yearly surge up the standings. Currently 11th, if Stewart can race back into the top ten, it would put teammate Ryan Newman into a wildcard Chase position. That’s the scenario most desirable to car owner Tony Stewart who would like to avoid racing his soon to be released stable mate for the final Chase slot.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
JW: Besides quiet quality finishes the last couple weeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr is still looking for wins to collect bonus points when the Chase comes around. Michigan International Speedway is coming up in two more weeks but a victory at Pocono is not out of the question. Junior finished third at the last race at Pocono and could have obtained some of those speed secrets that teammate Jimmie Johnson used to dominate that event. With six top five and ten top ten finishes, Earnhardt knows how to get it done at Pocono and with six wins available prior to the Chase he needs to grab what he can. I expect a top five finish and maybe a shot at the win.

Juan Pablo Montoya
DM: Juan Pablo Montoya is my longshot pick this week which may seem strange after he ran well at Indy, finishing ninth. However, he’s listed at 50-1 odds in Las Vegas for Pocono despite having a car that throughout last weekend seemed to be one of the fastest in the garage. His Pocono record isn’t spectacular as he hasn’t had a top ten finish there since 2011 and his best finish was second back in 2009. But the Ganassi teams seem to be on an upswing and based on the Indy performance, he’s worth a look this weekend at Pocono.

Denny Hamlin
JW: Look in the media and many are calling for Denny Hamlin to step out of the car and get the surgery, that he needs for his back, done now. But, it is hard for a driver to give up his seat. Even a driver the caliber of Hamlin will wonder if the next guy hopping into the car might do a better job and take away the ride. In fact, that is pretty much the scenario of how Hamlin got the #11, he flat out drove better than anyone else who sat in the seat back in 2005. Since the accident at California it has been a frustrating season for Hamlin. Even a track like Pocono, where Hamlin has four wins, has lost its magic for him. Throw in Toyota’s engine issues and 2013 is a lost year. Should he get out and take care of his health issues? Probably, but I sure can’t argue if he wants to finish the year.

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