Sleeper Weekend in Pocono
The Pocono 400 Presented by #NASCAR may end with surprises on Sunday because of two factors: this race is 100 miles shorter than a normal Pocono race, and the track has been repaved. The latter has caused cars to actually get faster as a fuel run goes on and track position will probably be extremely important throughout the day. The announcers on SPEED even thought that this race might turn into a road course-type event, with teams working backwards in terms of fuel strategy and everyone on different schedules. So, will we see some new faces up front Sunday, or will it be the same old guys leading the field around the Tricky Triangle? You can vote on that by clicking here.
Many drivers had a very busy schedule this week, as many–in addition to testing and practicing–took part in Tony Stewart’s Prelude to the Dream at Eldora Speedway. I was there, and if you’d like to see the pictures I took, here you go: Part 1 — Part 2. If you’ve never been there, I’d add it to your bucket list. As I said before, with the new repave the teams had a bunch of time on the track at Pocono, specifically on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. All of that data can be found in one click: my Average Practice Speeds post from Friday. Joey Logano won the pole for the race on Sunday–his second straight at the track–and the full starting lineup can be found by clicking here.
My Probable Yahoo! Roster: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., David Reutimann
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Final Top Fifteen Ranking For The Pocono 400:
11. Paul Menard – Starts 3rd – Yahoo! B Group
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
There’s a reason this guy made it on my Yahoo! roster this weekend. Menard was on my radar for Pocono as soon as the checkered flag waved in Dover. He has now has solid teen finishes in every race since Texas back in April, and this team looks poised to grab a top 10 here soon. Will it be this weekend? Paul laid down the 4th-fastest lap in Happy Hour and followed that up with a solid 3rd-place qualifying. In addition to his consistency over the last two months of Sprint Cup action, Menard’s recent performance at Pocono isn’t too bad either: he has the 10th-best average finish of anyone in the series over the last two years here and has finished between 10th and 16th in all four races. I’m expecting a teens finish out the #27 on Sunday but I honestly think he could surprise some people with a top 10. Some teams are using their Indianapolis cars/setups this weekend in Pocono because of the new grip, and remember who won the Brickyard last season (albeit by a fuel mileage gamble). He mentioned that the car was really tight in race trim during qualifying, so hopefully the team can fix that before the race on Sunday.
12. Ryan Newman – Starts 18th – Yahoo! B Group
**Risk Factor: High Risk**
This has been a pretty good track for The Rocketman over the years, but he hasn’t qualified this bad since 2008 so I wouldn’t be too excited picking him on Sunday. Also, this organization has struggled as a whole lately, as you probably know, and if you look strictly at qualifying on Saturday, you would say that they’re still down. However, it’s hard to look past Newman’s seven-straight finishes of 14th or better at Pocono, and he was decent on the average speed chart. He has finished 15th and 14th in the last two Sprint Cup races and I expect Newman to end up around there on Sunday as well. If you’re in an allocation league, though, I think there are too many other tracks that The Rocketman would be a much better pick at to take him this weekend.
13. Mark Martin – Starts 6th – Yahoo! A Group
**Risk Factor: Low Risk**
At 13th, Martin is a very low risk pick, just don’t expect much more. One thing I’m sick of this season is Mark Martin qualifying up front and then not being able to keep up with the track and finishing 16th or so. In case you didn’t watch practice, the announcers mentioned that this race will be very hard on the engines, and we all know how that has worked with the #55 Toyota thus far this season. Another thing that I saw this morning that should worry those that pick Martin this weekend was this tweet: “Little drama this morning for [crew chief Rodney Childers]. The set of tires we had picked for qualifying had a cut RF. Had to choose from race run sets to qualify on.” This would be the race for that to happen, though, with tires having a lot less impact on speeds than normal. Once again, Martin looked great in practice and on the average speed chart, but that happens every week so I’ll let you be the judge as to how much you look into that. Martin’s last three starts at Pocono have ended with finishes of 13th, 18th, and 7th. I don’t see him getting much better than a teens finish on Sunday.
14. Tony Stewart – Starts 22nd– Yahoo! A Group
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
I was beginning to think that this would be the week that Smoke got out of this slump he’s in, but then he qualified 22nd and I’m not as confident. However, over the years, I’ve learned one thing about Tony Stewart regarding the average speed chart: whenever he shows up decently high on it, the competition needs to watch out. Let’s not forget that this is the time of year that he generally starts heating up. Stewart is a two-time winner at The Tricky Triangle (most recently in 2009) and has recorded eighteen top 10s over the course of twenty-six career starts (69.2% of the time—third-best in the series). He struggled here a bit last season (21st and 11th) but before that, Stewart put together ten top 10s over the span of eleven Pocono races from 2005 to 2010. Smoke was 3rd in Happy Hour ten-lap average behind Johnson and Kahne. He coould get a solid top 10 on Sunday, but he’s generally a better pick here when he qualifies in the top 10. If you want to go against the grain on Sunday, take the #14, but I don’t see him finishing much better than top 15 unless they implement some good strategy.
15. Brad Keselowski – Starts 31st – Yahoo! A Group
**Risk Factor: High Risk**
I had BK penciled in as a possible top 10…and then qualifying happened. I don’t know what happened to the Blue Deuce on Saturday afternoon, but when Michael McDowell and Mike Bliss qualify better than you, something is wrong. However, I still think Keselowski has a shot at a good run. For whatever reason, Bad Brad flew completely under the radar this weekend, even before practice. That’s even more surprising considering he is the most recent winner at Pocono. Don’t forget that it was this race last season that started Keselowski’s super hot streak that got him into the Chase. The Blue Deuce was pretty much middle of the road on the average speed chart, but that shouldn’t be surprising at all if you study those charts every week. He was 6th in ten-lap average during Happy Hour and laid down the 8th-fastest single lap in that session as well. Also, believe it or not, Keselowski hasn’t finished worse than 15th in Sprint Cup Series action since Texas in April—and he was running solidly in the top 10 that day before having a fuel pump issue. I think many people overlook BK because he’s in the A group in Yahoo! Auto Racing, but he’s proving week-in and week-out that he belongs there. His qualifying effort, though, makes it hard for me to tell you to pick him on Sunday.
Those To Avoid For The Pocono 400:
Martin Truex, Jr. – One thing I’ve learned about Truex this season is that unless he qualifies up front, the #56 really won’t be that great of a pick on Sunday. Considering he qualified 23rd, I wouldn’t expect much out of Truex on Sunday. Also, when you add in the fact that his crew chief is gone, there’s really no reason to take the risk this weekend. One thing to take note of, though, is that Martin has finished 12th or better in each of the last three Pocono races. I just don’t see that happening on Sunday, though.
Aric Almirola – Especially in allocation leagues, it’s time to lay off of Almirola. I consider him to be at his best on the short tracks and the fact that he starts 29th is nothing to be excited about. He may have a crew chief that knows this track and this team has been running real well as of late, but there’s really no point in taking Almirola on Sunday unless you want a finish around 20th. If the #43 ends up anywhere near the top 15 at the end of the Pocono 400, it will probably be due to a fuel gamble or something. Maybe at the next stop at The Tricky Triangle…