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Pocono Raceway holds court this weekend to a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff race that’s… a little dormant. Seven drivers have already clinched their spot by virtue of at least one victory; another eight are at least 95 points above the cutline. Only the final spot, currently held by Alex Bowman, appears to be in play over the final six regular season races.
Can the Tricky Triangle shake things up in a year where parity’s been at a premium? The three-turn track that drives somewhat like a road course has had its share of surprise winners. Fourteen different drivers have won the last 17 Pocono races, among them Chris Buescher, Ryan Blaney, and Kasey Kahne. Just three people: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Martin Truex Jr. have won twice during that stretch.
Gordon and Earnhardt are sitting in the broadcast booth these days. Truex won the Pocono race in June but sweeping both races at a track is a tall order. Could that mean we’re due for a bit of an upset, another new winner tilting the scales in this postseason chase?
Many observers assume Watkins Glen, the winding road course NASCAR heads to next week, is the lone wild card left on the schedule. But Pocono is a race tough on equipment and occasionally one in which a fuel mileage finish can occasionally sneak up and surprise. That’s what happened when Buescher captured a shocking rain-shortened win in this race two years ago, a rookie paired then with underfunded Front Row Motorsports.
The problem this year is the list outside playoff position isn’t exactly Hall of Fame caliber. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the first one on the outside looking in; he’s never won on a track without a restrictor plate. Next is Paul Menard, who runs the No. 21 for the Wood Brothers that reached Victory Lane last year here with Blaney. But Menard’s won just once himself, at Indianapolis way back in 2011.
Maybe Ryan Newman has a shot? He was a season-best sixth last weekend at New Hampshire and has a win at Pocono (way back in 2003). Daniel Suarez is a winless driver going through a sophomore slump but he ran top 10 at this race last summer. There’s also a shining star in Matt Kenseth, a former series champion, lurking back in the field. But the No. 6 Ford he’s running hasn’t flashed top-10 speed.
On paper, it’s not a list that appears ready and willing to knock down the Fab Foursome of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer. Remember, the last time anyone else reached Victory Lane on a track without a restrictor plate it was Kenseth driving the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Phoenix last November.
So maybe the Pocono upset is more subtle, a win by a driver already solidly in playoff position. Kyle Larson was second here in June, driving for a manufacturer that’s long overdue. Chevrolet hasn’t reached Victory Lane since the season-opening Daytona 500. Aric Almirola was third in New Hampshire and would have won without a late-race caution. Teammate Kurt Busch has led 139 laps over the last two weeks as Stewart-Haas Racing flexes their muscle.
In short, Pocono offers hope for a different group to rise to the front. Can one of the sport’s most unique racetracks deliver diversity in a ho-hum summer stretch?
45th Gander Outdoors 400
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Pocono Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Harvick’s New Hampshire win was an important step for a driver who’d taken a eensy-weensy step back in recent weeks. It’s been Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch taking charge of the Big Three as of late, winning five of the last seven races prior to last Sunday.
But some pit crew shuffles within Stewart-Haas Racing appeared to invigorate Harvick’s group. They put their driver in position to win and a bump-and-run on Busch took care of the rest. Now armed with six victories, more than any other driver Harvick tops the field again with 32 playoff points.