By CHRISTOPHER SORBEY
For the second and final time this season, the Tricky Triangle will host the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tour on Sunday afternoon, and with six races remaining until the Chase cut off, this race could be crucial in terms of guaranteeing a driver on the bubble a spot in the coveted 16-driver playoffs. On the other hand, for those drivers who have already locked up their spots in the Chase, Pocono’s the perfect place for shift in momentum.
The question on everyone’s mind heading into this weekend’s race at Pocono is can anybody put a stop to Kyle Busch’s recent power surge?
Busch, winner of the last four out of five races, has been on some kind of roll since winning his first race of the season in June at Sonoma. A refocused Busch has led the way for the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organization over the past month, and in the process has lit a fire under all three of his JGR teammates. Collectively, JGR has put all of four of their cars in position to win races in the month of July; however the duo of Busch and Adam Stevens has packed one heck of a punch that appears nearly impossible to beat.
With a win on Sunday, Busch would almost guarantee a spot in the Chase, despite missing the first three months of action. If that wasn’t impressive enough, a win at Pocono would put Busch among some pretty elite company in NASCAR history as one of only nine drivers(Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt,Darrell Waltrip, Harry Gant, Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon) to win four consecutive races. Before Busch can etch his name in the record books once again, he’ll have to deal with a track that’s been rather unkind to him over the years. Posting an average finish of 18.3 in 21-career starts at the Tricky Triangle would lead you to believe that Busch’s chances of capturing a fourth-consecutive victory are nil, but think again.
When things are going well, Busch tends to rally around that positive energy and let’s not forget, he does have two runner-up finishes at Pocono, with the last coming in August 2011. Whether Busch can pull off another victory in dramatic fashion remains to be seen, but he certainly will be the driver to watch on Sunday.
Another driver who’s had a magnificent season and will be one to watch on Sunday is defending Pocono winner Martin Truex Jr. Although Truex and Furniture Row Racing have exceeded expectations this season, they seem to have cooled down in recent weeks after recording a victory and 15 top-10 finishes through the first 20 races of the season. Truex hopes to gain an abundance of momentum heading into the Chase following his first top-five finish in over a month last Sunday at Indy. Pocono is an ideal place for Truex to heat up as he attempts to become the eighth driver to sweep both Pocono races; the last was Truex’s buddy Dale Jr. last season.
While Joe Gibbs Racing flourishes during the dog days of summer, former Pocono favorites Hendrick Motorsports come into the weekend at the Tricky Triangle limping. Prior to Truex’s victory in June, Hendrick Motorsports had won five-consecutive races at Pocono with four different drivers. Surprisingly, all four Hendrick drivers struggled at Indy, so there’s a sense of urgency for a Pocono rebound. Two of Hendrick’s drivers are locked into the Chase while Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne are hoping history can repeat itself on the Tricky Triangle.
Gordon once used Pocono to propel himself into the Chase back in 2012, and Kahne knows how to come up big in the clutch when it counts. Gordon, a six-time Pocono winner, will make his final start at the track on Sunday, and what better way to remember one of his favorite tracks by claiming a seventh Pocono win? Kahne will be seeking his third Pocono win, and like his teammate Gordon, needs a win if he hopes to compete for the Sprint Cup title this fall.
Hendrick Motorsports’ most recent Pocono winner hopes to rebound from a disappointing day at Indy last Sunday by winning his third Pocono race in the last four on the Tricky Triangle. Meanwhile, former three-time Pocono winner Jimmie Johnson is looking for any sign of life from his team, coming off two less than stellar performances, posting finishes of 22nd 15th, respectively, in the past two weeks.
Not to be completely overshadowed by Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske has been quietly pouring it on over the last month. Former Pocono winner Joey Logano is sporting six top-five finishes in the last seven races. Keep your eyes on Logano on Sunday. He comes into this weekend’s with two-consecutive top-five finishes at the Tricky Triangle. If anyone can slow down Busch it’s Logano.
Let’s not forget about Joey’s teammate, Brad Keselowski. Not only is BK a former Pocono winner, he was inches away from winning his second Pocono race last June before eventually losing the lead to Dale Jr. on the final corner. Even though 2015 hasn’t been a complete disaster Keselowski, he certainly hasn’t looked like the BK of old, but he enters Sunday’s action riding a modest streak of three-consecutive top-10 finishes, including a runner up finish to Busch at New Hampshire.
Chip Ganassi Racing is on the verge of putting at least one of its driver into the Chase for the first time. That driver is Jamie McMurray. McMurray seemingly has been on the cusp of making the 16-driver playoffs since NASCAR adjusted the rules back in 2011, but for some reason or another, his efforts fall flat when it counts. Although McMurray isn’t a lock for the Chase just yet, his current point totals would be enough for him to qualify, despite remaining winless through the first twenty races of the season.
Based on his recent numbers at Pocono (three-consecutive top-10 finishes), it’s fair to consider McMurray as a legitimate dark horse to win Sunday at Pocono, while his Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson has recorded a top-five and two top-10 finishes in three-career starts. And unlike his teammate, Larson definitely needs a win if he hopes to make the Chase in his second full season of Sprint Cup racing. Don’t count Larson out as a candidate for an upset victory.
File this one under the believe it or not category. In 29-career starts at Pocono, Kevin Harvick has never won a race. The defending series champ has posted an average finish of 13.2 in those 29-career starts. Harvick’s winless streak at Pocono could come to an end this weekend as the defending series champ has posted back to back runner-up finishes on the Tricky Triangle.
Undoubtedly, Busch’s current hot streak is one of the most incredible stories in recent memory, and don’t expect a conclusion to this trend beyond Pocono. Even though Busch has never tasted victory at the Tricky Triangle, he’s my pick to win on Sunday. Momentum goes a long way in the sport of stock car racing and when a driver the caliber of a Kyle Busch gets hot, the combination of momentum mixed with the right amount of talent is lethal. I suspect Busch will get a tough challenge from defending series champion Harvick and the Team Penske duo; however the push won’t be enough to derail the Busch express.
Projected top 10:
1. Kyle Busch
2. Kevin Harvick
3. Joey Logano
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr
5. Martin Truex Jr
6. Jamie McMurray
7. Jimmie Johnson
8. Kurt Busch
9. Austin Dillon
10. Denny Hamlin