By CHRISTOPHER SORBEY
1. Jimmie Johnon — NASCAR’s revamped aero package has fortified our favorite six-time champion’s chances of winning a record-tying seventh championship, thanks to his MacGyver-esque ability to turn an average race car into a lean, mean, winning machine. Got to love the power of modern day ingenuity, friends.
J.J. has recorded three victories (2004, 2013) in 26-career starts at Pocono.
2. Kevin Harvick — Two things we can take away from Kevin Harvick’s perpetual knack for frequently finishing races narrowly behind Jimmie Johnson is, one of these weekends, he will get the better of the six-time champion or he’ll become so deeply traumatized by the silver and blue that he can’t stop dreaming about Lowe’s Home Improvement.
The “Closer” has never won a race in 28-career starts at Pocono.
3. Martin Truex Jr. — Marty had to be slugging back the Pepto following three-consecutive weeks of heartbreak. There’s no doubt a win is in the cards for Truex Jr. at some point this season, but that certainly can’t make him feel any better at the moment. Patience is a cruel virtue.
Truex Jr.’s best career finish at Pocono was third on two separate occasions (2007, 2012).
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — We often scrutinize “June Bug” for being NASCAR’s most marketable driver. Yes, the guy sells a lot, I mean a lot, of T-shirts and beer mugs. That makes it rather easy for us to overlook Dale Jr.’s savvy driving skills. Those mad driving skills were on display last weekend at Dover. Never have I seen anyone work so hard for a 14th-place finish.
Dale Jr. brought the broom to Pococno last season, as he swept both races.
5. Joey Logano — Don’t be alarmed by Joey’s recent power outage. He’s due for a major bounce back, and don’t be surprised if Pocono is the place Logano finds retribution. Already in the Chase, it’s about time JoLo gambled a little. Perhaps, consulting Team Penske comrade Brad Keselowski wouldn’t be a horrible idea, since he’s crafting the art of taking reckless chances in recent weeks.
Logano won the June Pocono race back in 2012.
6. Kasey Kahne — No matter how amazing Kasey Kahne is (fresh off a convincing top-five finish at Dover), he can never break free from the shadow of his powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports teammates. I guess it’s nearly impossible to overshadow a six-time series champion, the most popular driver on the planet and a beloved future Hall of Famer. Keep your chin up, Kasey.
Kahne has recorded two victories (2008, 2013) in 22-career starts at Pocono.
7. Jamie McMurray — The Pocono Mountains haven’t been particularly kind to Jamie Mac in recent years, but he comes into this weekend’s race riding a streak of two-consecutive top-10 finishes at the “Tricky Triangle.” Could this be the weekend Jamie Mac finally makes his Chase dreams a reality?
8. Brad Keselowski — Dale Jr. outmuscled B.K. on the final lap of last June’s race at Pocono. Depending on whom you ask, Danica Patrick had a hand in costing Brad his second Pocono win in three years. If Brad can win this weekend’s trip around the “Tricky Triangle,” two wins in four years isn’t half bad at all.
9. Jeff Gordon — Through the years, Pocono has hosted some of Jeff Gordon’s career-defining moments, including his dramatic victory that propelled him into the Chase in July 2012. Gordon’s loyal fans are surely crossing their fingers in the hopes of history repeating itself at Pocono and sending their driver back into the Chase one last time.
Gordon has collected six victories (1996, ’97, ’98, 2007, ’11, ’13) in 44-career starts at Pocono.
10. Aric Almirola — At first glance, you might be surprised to see the fresh prince of Tampa inside the top-10 in points, but look closely enough, and it’s no surprise at all because this guy is well on his way to becoming a proverbial contender. It’s mighty hard not to be impressed by a guy whose manufactured only one finish outside the top-20 through the first 13 races of the season. Need I say more?
11. Paul Menard — The modern day “Iceman” continues to remain competitive in his quest to qualify for his first-ever Chase appearance. Only trouble is, he can’t let it all slip away with a couple of poor races down the stretch. If Paul’s previous performances at Pocono are any indication, he’s due for a slight setback this weekend.
12. Matt Kenseth — Talk about a momentum buzz-kill. Matt Kenseth failed to seize a winning opportunity at one of his best tracks (Dover) last weekend. Now, he’s headed to, perhaps, his least favorite track: Pocono. This could get ugly, folks.
13. Denny Hamlin — There was a time when a trip up to the Pocono Mountains equaled victory for Denny Hamlin. Well, things certainly have changed since 2010, because in the last nine Pocono races, Denny has managed only three top-five finishes. Pocono could use a little vintage Hamlin, don’t you think?
14. Carl Edwards — Denny Hamlin’s not the only JGR driver who once excelled at Pocono. Cousin Carl claimed two victories at the “Tricky Triangle” early on in his Sprint Cup Series career. And like his teammate Hamlin, he’s been absolutely abysmal since his last Pocono win. Two top-five finishes in the last 12 Pocono races. Ouch!
15. Ryan Newman — Speaking of guys who once conquered the “Tricky Triangle” a long time ago. I bet you forgot the “Rocket Man” won a race at Pocono back in 2003. Unlike Cousin Carl and Denny Hamlin, Newman has enjoyed moderate success at Pocono since his last victory. Heading into Sunday’s race, Newman has recored five-consecutive top-five finishes at Pocono.
16. Kurt Busch — The two-time Pocono winner comes into this weekend’s action licking his wounds a little. Since winning at Richmond in April, Busch has come down to earth, and the process has failed to convert on three potential winning opportunities in as many weeks.
17. Clint Bowyer — Finding consistencies has been an uphill battle for Clint Bowyer and company in 2015, but the way they competed at Dover tells us they are willing to pull out all the stops to make this year’s edition of the Chase.
18. Kyle Larson — Good ‘ol Kyle Larson assured everyone he wouldn’t fall victim to the dreaded sophomore jinx. Continue rolling off top-five finishing, my dear lad, and you won’t have to worry about any such misfortunes. Larson’s first trip to Pocono last season translated into a solid top-five finish last June, followed by a pole in July.
19. Danica Patrick — The princess of speed probably isn’t too thrilled about rolling into Pocono this weekend, because her previous four trips to the “Tricky Triangle” have been an absollute trainwreck. However, don’t be too quick to write her off; she has proven us wrong in the past, you know.
20. Kyle Busch — Rowdy can still make the Chase. Yes, it’s possible, but after last Sunday’s debacle at Dover, his chances have gone from yeah, he’s got this to, honestly, this is starting to look tremendously improbable, even if it’s Busch we’re talking about, here.