Thursday, August 2, 2012

5 Questions ... Before the Pennsylvania 400



This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will make their second visit this year to the “Tricky Triangle” for Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400. The Camping World Truck Series will make their first appearance of the year for the Pocono Mountains 125 – the only difference, and a very important difference at that, is the fact that the Sprint Cup Series previously raced on the repaved surface in June while the Truck Series will experience the new surface for the first time. In June the Sprint Cup Series proved to be very eventful as speeds reached an all-time high with several drivers breaking the track record. With high speeds and a shortened race at just 400 miles compared to the typical 500 miles that the drivers were used to running at the track, these factors made for a very exciting day of racing. If the Truck Series’ first appearance at the newly paved track is anything like that of the Sprint Cup Series then the drivers and fans will likely be in for a few surprises.

Pocono Raceway and track president and CEO Brandon Igdalsky are holding a special promotion this weekend at the “Tricky Trangle” – Igdalsky has predicted that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400 and if he does, one lucky fan will walk away with $100,000. “My campaign strategy is simple. Pick a driver with a legitimate shot of winning the Pennsylvania 400 and give $100,000 to a race fan if he wins,” said Igdalsky.

As we all wait anxiously to see whether Dale Jr. can take home his second victory of the season, the question is: Does Earnhardt actually have a legitimate chance of winning Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400? Although Dale Jr.’s teammate Jimmie Johnson took home the win in last week’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was Earnhardt that stole the spotlight as his fourth-place finish in the race moved him into the No. 1 position in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings. This marks the first time since September 2004 that the driver has occupied the lead in the standings. Since breaking his four-year winless streak earlier this summer in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan, Dale Jr. has earned three more top-five finishes, which are included in his combined 15 top 10s and nine top-five finishes, including a second place in the Daytona 500. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports finished eighth in the series’ visit to Pocono in June. In 25 starts at the “Tricky Triangle,” Earnhardt has earned nine top-10 finishes and five top fives.

That leads me to my next question: If Dale Jr. doesn’t win, who will? The Sprint Cup Series made its first visit to the newly paved track in June and it quickly became apparent that this was not the same 2.5-mile tri-oval that the drivers were used to. While the track record was broken numerous times, Joey Logano ultimately went on to earn the pole with the fastest lap at 178.598 mph. In that same race, Logano also took home his second career victory and first at Pocono Raceway. Heading into this Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400, Logano is looking to become the first driver since Bill Elliott to win three consecutive Coors Light Poles at Pocono. Although Logano’s chances of winning are looking up, several other drivers will also be competing for their shot at a victory and a secure spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin will drive in both the Sprint Cup Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this weekend. Hamlin finished in the top five in the June race at Pocono and has four career wins at the track. Kyle Busch who finished second in this race last year and earned a top-five finish in the June race last year doesn’t have the greatest record at Pocono, but as the holder of the second “wild card” position, it’s likely that Busch is feeling the pressure to earn another win. Coming off of a second-place finish in the Brickyard 400, Busch just might have the momentum to pull it off. Kasey Kahne will make his 500th NASCAR start on Sunday – the driver has one victory in 17 starts at the tri-oval as well as five top 10s and three top fives. 

How will the Pennsylvania 400 impact the two “wild card” spots? Just six races remain before the Chase field is set after the September 8 race at Richmond International Raceway and with no changes made to the two “wild card” spots following the Brickyard, the newly-repaved “Tricky Triangle” just might shake things up. Kahne is the currently holder of the first spot, available to drivers ranked 11th through 20th in the rankings with most wins. Kyle Busch holds the second spot, currently 11th in points with one win. Logano and Ryan Newman each need another win to have a real shot at competing for a “wild card.” Newman has just one victory in 2012, as well as one win at Pocono. Carl Edwards, who is currently 12th in points, knows the importance of wins. Edwards lost the 2011 championship title to Tony Stewart based on a tiebreaker. Edwards finished 29th in last weekend’s race at Indy, 11th in the June race at Pocono and has two career victories at the track. Five-time Pocono winner Jeff Gordon finished 19th at Pocono in June and is currently ranked 15th in the standings. Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, Jamie McMurray, and Jeff Burton all remain contenders for a “wild card” spot, but none have a previous Pocono victory.

Enough about the Sprint Cup Series – what about the Camping World Truck Series? The series will make its third start at the “Tricky Triangle” this Saturday in the Pocono Mountains 125. Sprint Cup Series regulars Hamlin and Brad Keselowski will perform double-duty this weekend, driving in both Saturday’s and Sunday’s events. With that said, will a regular Truck Series competitor tackle the 2.5-mile track or will a “visitor” go home with the win? Series points leader Timothy Peters had a top-10 finish in both visits to the track. Three drivers inside the top five in the standings, including Peters have top-10 finishes at Pocono – Justin Lofton and James Buescher have also had success at the track. Matt Crafton moved from 21st to 6th after four top-five finishes this season and the driver finished third at Pocono in 2010. Despite what the numbers say, “visitors” Hamlin and Keselowski have an edge over the series’ regulars as they have previous experience on the repaved surface. Hamlin, who will drive the No. 18 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports, will have the wisdom of 30-time Camping World Truck Series race winner Busch. The driver has also found his own success in the series with a win at Martinsville last October and a near victory in last year’s finale at Homestead-Miami. Keselowski will field his own Brad Keselowski Racing No. 19 Dodge and is looking for his first win in the series. The driver who won the Sprint Cup Series race there last year with a foot injury, has made it his goal to become the 24th driver in NASCAR history to earn race wins in all three of the sport’s national series. Luckily for Hamlin and Keselowski, “visitors” have won in both previous visits to Pocono (Elliott Sadler in 2010 and Kevin Harvick last year), but neither will be racing in the series on Saturday. 

It has been just two months since the Sprint Cup Series has visited the “Tricky Triangle,” but a lot has changed in the standings since the June 10 race. For example, Stewart and Johnson were at the top of the rankings, but now the drivers sit eighth and fourth respectively. Following the spring race at Dover, Dale Jr. was ranked third in the standings heading into the June race at Pocono and now the driver is the current series points leader. Therefore, the question is: How are things looking for the Chase contenders in their second visit of the year to the repaved tri-oval?

Here is the current top-12 drivers according to the rankings following Indianapolis, including their total 2012 wins and previous Pocono performance (PPP).
  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Total Wins=1, PPP=8th 
  2. Matt Kenseth, Total Wins=1, PPP=7th 
  3. Greg Biffle, Total Wins=1, PPP=24th 
  4. Jimmie Johnson, Total Wins=3, PPP=4th 
  5. Denny Hamlin, Total Wins=2, PPP=5th 
  6. Kevin Harvick, Total Wins=0, PPP=14th 
  7. Martin Truex Jr., Total Wins=0, PPP=20th 
  8. Tony Stewart, Total Wins=3, PPP=3rd 
  9. Brad Keselowski, Total Wins=3, PPP=18th 
  10. Clint Bowyer, Total Wins=1, PPP=6th 
  11. Kyle Busch, Total Wins=1, PPP=30th 
  12. Carl Edwards, Total Wins=0, PPP=11th

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