|(Photo by Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)|
All eyes are on Pocono Raceway.
After a less-than-thrilling Coca-Cola 600, more pressure sits on Pocono’s shoulders. This weekend is bound to be full of excitement; the XFINITY Series is invading the mountains for the first time, and more Sprint Cup drivers are searching to break their own winless streaks. It is a three-day span of wonderment and questions – to which I’m about to contribute.
I’m talking about the aforementioned topics and more with this week’s Five Questions.
How will XFINITY fare at Pocono Raceway? For the first time in history, the NASCAR XFINITY Series will race at Pocono. This will bring all three national touring series to the mountainous area. Of course, everyone wants to know what to expect – and the answer is a shoulder shrug. We don’t know what will happen. I could say something about the banking or surface, but it’s pointless. The one thing I do want to communicate, however, is to be open-minded. It could be a snooze fest. It could be a demolition derby. There’s a clean slate, but this inaugural race isn’t "make or break" for the concept. I have no expectations for this race, and you shouldn’t, either.
What will Bowman do this week? As usual, the No. 88 JR Motorsports car will have a different driver behind the wheel. Alex Bowman returns to NASCAR competition – and people are excited. His third-place finish at Dover International Speedway impressed many within and around the sport, making him one to watch this weekend. How will he do at a larger track? No pressure, but it’s all on him; the equipment and team are on point, and he’s the uncontrollable variable. However, I’m confident in Bowman. The kid knows how to race smart and hard. He’ll have no problem managing the three turns at Pocono.
Can these drivers make it back to a familiar Victory Lane? We are officially halfway through the regular season, and the same group of drivers keeps showing off. An assortment of once-winning names aren’t in that group; drivers like Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. haven’t made it to Victory Lane this season. Two of these guys are not like the others. Kahne and Newman are former winners at Pocono Raceway but have lost that winning feeling. Former Pocono victor Newman is coming off a 10th-place result at Charlotte Motor Speedway, his third top 10 of the season. Could this be the turning point for the No. 31 team? It’s hard to say; that team has a bit to work with, but can they use it? They haven’t capitalized on their previous top finishes, so it’s hard to say if this time will be much different. On the other hand, predicting Kahne’s race is even foggier. The No. 5 team haven’t done much aside from two fourth-place finishes this year. And when they do bad, they do really bad. Kahne hasn’t found his groove, but he’s going to a place where he’s visited Victory Lane before. That should give him some confidence, which might be exactly what he needs. The other two – Logano and Earnhardt Jr. – are more likely to seal the deal this weekend in the mountains. The No. 22 isn’t knocking out wins like he did in 2015, but the organization is still stout. Teammate Brad Keselowski is already locked into the Chase, and that should light a fire soon enough. Earnhardt Jr. is in a good spot; although he has no wins yet, there’s a lot of good stuff going on in the No. 88 camp. Each member of this quartet has lifted a Sprint Cup trophy at Pocono. Some have a better chance than others to relive that moment.
Will suspended crew chiefs make a negative impact on their drivers’ weekend? Hump Day was a bad one for Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger’s crew chiefs; all three were served P3 penalties and suspended. Brian Pattie – who heads Biffle’s team – was penalized for an unapproved body design. He is suspended until June 15, sitting him in timeout for two races. Tony Gibson and Randall Burnett were suspended for not having all five lugnuts secured. They control the No. 41 and 47 teams, respectively. How will this affect these three? For The Biff, it’s a terrible development. The No. 16 nearly claimed its first top 10 of the season at Charlotte Motor Speedway, finishing 11th instead. Any momentum from that result is long gone. It will be difficult to rebound, but he’s won at Pocono before – so it could be a good weekend. It However, it will be a long two weeks for that crew. For Busch, it’s also a hard blow; he’s collected 11 top 10s in the first 13 races this year, and now he’s without Gibson. Allmendinger’s off to a rough start already, so this won’t help. Whenever you lose a crew chief, it’s like losing an arm and a leg. All these drivers will be at a disadvantage – but it’s all about who can manage it better. With his strong start in 2016, Kurt Busch will handle the absence the best.
Is this the start of Truex’s hot streak? Well, it finally happened. Martin Truex Jr. shook the monkey off his back and won at Charlotte last weekend. Everyone – and I mean everyone – was thrilled to see him and Sherry Pollex celebrate under a champagne shower. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. After all the happiness wears off, though, teams are going to realize what this means. The floodgates are now open, and the No. 78 team is going to go gung-ho. Toyota is reigning at the moment, and winning the Coca-Cola 600 only adds fuel to the fire. Not to mention that this race last year is when Truex broke his last winless streak. He’s going to another track that he’s conquered. This is the start of some Truex domination, if you ask me. We’ll see if I’m right, but I did pick him to win on Sunday night. Just saying.