Mash The Gas: Pocono Preview

Kyle Busch ran away from the field for most of the Brickyard 400. [John Wiedemann Photo]

Will it be the Kyle Busch show again this weekend as the series heads to Pocono Raceway. [John Wiedemann Photo]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The flat track trend continues for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series as the drivers head to the Pocono Raceway for the Pennsylvania 400 Sunday afternoon.

Pocono is the most unique track on the circuit in that its shape is similar to a triangle with three distinct turns connected by long straightaways. Each turn has its own set of characteristics making it nearly impossible to set up a car to handle well all around the speedway. Turn One is based on the now defunct Trenton Speedway and Turn Two, “the tunnel turn” is configured similar to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway while Turn Three is shaped similar to turns at the Milwaukee Mile.

Pocono’s long straights and flat turns are also similar to Indianapolis a week ago and drivers who performed well in the Brickyard 400 should also have good days at Pocono. Fuel strategy also comes into play more at the Pocono Raceway as there is little banking to use to coast and save fuel.

There are just six races left until the Chase begins and with just five spots up for grabs, those drivers on the cut-off bubble can’t afford to have a poor result.

Here are some drivers to watch in the Pennsylvania 400 on Sunday from Pocono…

Kyle Busch (Dan Margetta)
The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have been the superior cars of late and last weekend at Indianapolis, Kyle Busch was Superman as he won everything in sight including his second consecutive Brickyard 400. You would think that should make him the favorite this week at Pocono but the Pocono Raceway is one of only two tracks he has yet to win at. Busch has already crossed Martinsville and Kansas off that list this year and with Kansas being eliminated, Pocono has become his new “Kryptonite” as his record here has been extremely inconsistent. Busch does have two second place finishes here and he looked darn near unstoppable at Indy. The fact he hasn’t won here should give Kyle Busch some extra incentive this weekend as well and I feel he will be just as fast as he was last week. I feel Kyle Busch is the guy to beat again this week and is a strong candidate for the victory. He should have the fastest car but the question will be if he can overcome the uncontrollable things like fuel strategy and his traditional Pocono bad luck to find victory lane for the second week in a row.

Joey Logano (John Wiedemann)
Joey Logano has one win at Pocono (2012) and one win this season (at Michigan), and I’m sure he would like to add to that total. Last weekend at Indianapolis, Logano was in the mix but nobody could do anything with Kyle Busch and in a late restart battle with Matt Kenseth for second, Logano couldn’t gain the position. It will be interesting to see this weekend if the Ford horsepower of Team Penske can do anything with the Joe Gibbs Racing horsepower. If not, look for a top five finish from Logano, otherwise a fuel strategy might be the way to go to sneak in a victory. Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski tried a different fuel strategy at Indy but cautions ruined their plans and they settled back in with the field. I’m betting that by the end of the season there will be a team that can challenge JGR. If so, that team will have to show itself pretty soon. Watch and see if it is Team Penske.

Matt Kenseth (DM)
Matt Kenseth spent the end of last week’s Brickyard 400 looking at Kyle Busch’s rear bumper and he comes into Pocono as the defending champion of this race. Kenseth had difficulty with the Pocono track until he joined the Joe Gibbs team and last year’s win was his first at the Tricky Triangle. He does have four top five finishes and thirteen top ten results at Pocono including a string of three top ten finishes in a row. Kenseth also has the Toyota horsepower under the hood and should be up front again this week at Pocono. He’s also pretty craft when it comes to dealing with fuel and race strategy and he could capitalize on that to ease ahead of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates who should be up front with him. After a rocky start to the season, Matt Kenseth is locked into the Chase and should be one of the drivers to watch on Sunday in the Pennsylvania 400.

Jimmie Johnson (JW)
Somewhat lost in the Kyle Busch domination was the fact that Jimmie Johnson went down a lap, got it back and then stormed forward to a third place finish in all the restarts at the end of the race. I expected more out of Johnson earlier in the race and really it was the pit penalty that put him a lap down as Kyle Busch ate up the field. The charge at the end was a little more “Johnson like”. Johnson has three wins at Pocono and seems to have a good setup for the flat type tracks. Maybe not as good as Kyle, but still very good. Hendrick Motorsports needs a turn around and I think that began last weekend and will continue into Pocono. After a great test at Indianapolis and solid finishes at Indianapolis, look for more top ten finishes with Johnson leading the team.

Jeff Gordon (DM)
Jeff Gordon returns to fill-in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for another week at Pocono where he has won six times and owns 20 top five finishes and 32 top ten finishes. Gordon finished a respectable 13th last week at Indy and now with some experience to knock the rust off should be good at Pocono. Following Indy, Jeff Gordon said he needed to work on restarts and they will be critical at Pocono as a good launch good mean multiple positions down the long front stretch. Gordon was third in this race a year ago and his average finishing position at Pocono is a very good 9.5 over 46 starts. The Hendrick Motorsports teams have seen a bit of a resurgence in the past few weeks and Pocono will be a good test to see if that improvement is sustained. Jeff Gordon should be in the mix on Sunday at Pocono and could pull off the victory if things go his way.

Austin Dillon (JW)
With a solid top ten finish at Indianapolis, Austin Dillon moved closer to making the Chase as the top driver for Richard Childress Racing. Quietly, Dillon moved up one position and now is just five points behind Chase Elliott who has the top spot for drivers without a win this season. Currently there are only five spots available for drivers yet to find victory lane in 2016 and Dillon is 58 points ahead of the seventeenth place driver. But those positions can go away if there are first time winners in the next six races. Dillon is in a good spot, but needs more top tens to hold it. I’m thinking this weekend will be another top ten.

Chase Elliott (DM)
When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series came to Pocono a little over a month ago, Chase Elliott led the most laps and finished a very strong fourth. It was the best performance of the season for the rookie and the possibility of a win this season looked promising. Since then, however, Elliott and the #24 have leveled off a bit and they come to Pocono after an uneventful 15th place finish at Indianapolis last weekend. A return to Pocono where Elliott ran so well earlier this season could provide the spark this team needs to get back on their game. Elliott is still in Chase contention and with this being the first race at a track he has already been to once this year, the focus will be on either obtaining the win that slipped away here in June or leaving with the highest points possible. Elliott proved he can get around the “Tricky Triangle” in June so he should be confident heading into this weekend. If Chase Elliott can duplicate his Pocono performance from June and this time close the deal, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory could come on Sunday.

Kyle Larson (JW)
Another Kyle had a great race at Indianapolis even if it wasn’t as spectacular as the one with the last name of Busch. Kyle Larson finished fifth at Indy and jumped into the bubble spot on the Chase grid. Larson is ten points ahead of seventeenth place driver on the grid, Kasey Kahne. Since the second race of the season at Atlanta, Larson has been missing from the top sixteen. A 10.75 average finish in the eight points paying races since his victory in the Sprint Showdown at Charlotte have allowed Larson to climb the charts. The climbing isn’t over and Larson has a good chance to continue upward this weekend as he returns to Pocono where he finished 11th in June. In five races at Pocono, Larson has a 9.4 average finish with fifth place as his best run. Look for more of that this weekend as Larson tries to improve his position and make the Chase.

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