Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Pocono

Bob MargolisContributor IIJune 2, 2014

Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Pocono

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    Jimmie Johnson wins at Dover
    Jimmie Johnson wins at DoverTim Parks/HHP for Chevrolet

    It may have taken Jimmie Johnson and Co. a little bit of time to get their ducks in a row, but now, fans and competitors alike should get accustomed to seeing this (see photo) more often.

    The No. 48 team has picked a good time to get on a roll, as Johnson is a three-time winner at the next stop on the Sprint Cup schedule—Pocono’s 2.5-mile Tricky Triangle.

    Silly season rumors usually start to get a lot more intense around this time of year, and there are some major players whose names are being associated with teams they are not currently working for.

    Tony Stewart is still not at his full strength, and it’s hard to tell what bothers him more—that or the media that keeps asking him how he feels.

    Pain has become an unwelcome part of Jeff Gordon’s race weekends, as the four-time champion is dealing with a serious health issue of his own.

    Thanks to Johnson, the list of non-winners remains static this week, with some big names still in search of their first victory of 2014 in the Cup Series. And the Brickyard is just around the corner (it’s really at the end of July, but it will be here before you know it). Many teams will use Pocono to test their setups for one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events.

    This and more as we take a look at the key storylines for the week ahead of Pocono.

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

Dynamic Duo Targets Pocono

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    Jimmie Johnson (l) and Chad Knaus
    Jimmie Johnson (l) and Chad KnausAssociated Press

    The dynamic duo is on a roll.

    After dominating the Dover race Sunday—Johnson led 272 of the 400 laps—the No. 48 team is rapidly erasing all memory of the “soft” start to the season that seemed to be on everyone’s mind just a couple of weeks ago.

    The effective display of speed, execution and precision that is the trademark of this Chad Knaus-led squad should send a shiver down his competitors' backs.

    “I always think they're one of the favorites no matter where we go, and obviously all the Hendrick and Stewart-Haas cars have been showing a ton of speed all year long (and) been in position to win a lot of races,” Matt Kenseth said. “We've got to figure out how to get ahead of them.”

    Next up is Pocono, where Johnson has three wins, 10 top-fives and 16 top-10s in only 24 races.

    “Pocono is such a fun track from a crew chief standpoint because you have to work so many different angles,” Knaus said after his team’s win Sunday. “We're really looking to getting there next weekend and just seeing if we can get another solid finish."

Silly Season in Full Swing

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    Carl Edwards
    Carl EdwardsUSA TODAY Sports

    Both Carl Edwards and his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Greg Biffle, have been the subject of silly season talk since Daytona.

    And for good reason.

    A dozen races into 2014 and both drivers are looking at another ho-hum season. While Edwards did win at Bristol in March, he has just three top-fives. Biffle has just two-top fives and four top-10s. Talladega, where he finished second, was his only bright spot.

    The latest rumors, as reported by Pete Pistone at Motor Racing Network, have Edwards headed to Joe Gibbs Racing and Biffle off to Michael Waltrip Racing.

    Sometimes rumors are put out there simply to be used as a negotiating tool. That may account for the recent ratcheting up of the silly season talk in the media.

    It’s often best to wait until all the interference dies down and there’s an actual announcement made.

Stewart: 'Still Not at 100 Percent and Taking It One Day at a Time'

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    Jeff Curry/Getty Images

    Dover is a physically demanding race, even for someone half Tony Stewart's age. And at 43 years old, Smoke should be in the midst of his peak driving years.

    But the three-time champion team owner continues to be frustrated by the slow recovery from serious injuries he suffered last year. And while he wishes everyone would stop asking and writing about it, the issue remains front and center.

    “I thought we would be healed 100 percent by now,” Stewart admitted in a pre-race media availability last weekend in Dover. “When you haven’t gone through something like this you don’t know what to think and don’t know how to feel about it.  You don’t know what to judge for recovery times and this and that because you’ve just never been through it.  If it ever happens again I will have a better idea of how to answer that.  You just take it a day at a time still.”

    Pocono Raceway, with its long straightaways, only one sharp turn and basically a flat track, should pose less of a problem this coming weekend.

    Stewart is taking it one day at a time.

Gordon Also Bothered by Physical Injury

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon has been distracted by back pain over the course of the past several races. The discomfort comes from back spasms that are a result of his years behind the wheel. The 42-year-old says there are specific positions that he sits in while in a race car that aggravate the condition. But there are others that do not.

    He told the media in Dover that he’d undergone treatment for back pain in the form of an epidural injection prior to the Charlotte race.

    “I don’t know all the different stuff that was in there that made the pain go away and helped more of the inflammation, is I think what they were trying to accomplish,” Gordon told the media. “So, that’s the first time I’ve ever had to do that on a race weekend. I’ve done that before on a different part of my back that didn’t really do much for me. This one luckily did.”

    For anyone that has suffered with back pain, it is a serious distraction from your daily routine. That Gordon has been able to get in and out of his race car, and race for a thousand miles over the past two weekends, is remarkable.

    For Gordon, Pocono will be a welcome change from the stresses placed upon his back on a high-banked oval.

    “It’s not unlike any other profession whether you are a golfer or a tennis player,” Gordon added. “That continuous motion and pushing those muscles and parts of your body; and I do have some degenerative disc (which are) again, very common for a lot of people. But when you put that into racing, it just makes it a little bit tougher. It’s just something I continue to learn and push through. It’s no big deal.”

    Gordon has one win (Kansas) five top-fives and nine top-10s. He sits second in points, just two behind leader Matt Kenseth.

Kenseth Still Searching for That Elusive First Win

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    Jason Ratcliff (l) and Matt Kenseth
    Jason Ratcliff (l) and Matt KensethChris Graythen/Getty Images

    Frustration is beginning to show on the face of former Cup champion Matt Kenseth. In between questions in the post-race media availability, he was obviously not a happy camper.

    At Dover, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver led laps (17) and was a potential race winner, but he spun his tires on the final restart and was unable to challenge Brad Keselowski and Johnson, the eventual race winner.

    “I'm just dumb. The 48 spun them, and I spun them a little bit, and I was kind of in his door and I tried grabbing third early thinking that would get it to stop spinning and it didn't, and I just needed to do a better job,” Kenseth explained after the race. “I needed to let off the gas and let the rear tires quit screaming so I could get rolling.”

    With his poor restart, Kenseth was also hit from behind by Clint Bowyer, causing damage to both of their Toyotas. He was still able to finish third.

    Kenseth has had a stellar season in 2014, with one pole, five top-fives and 10 top-10s. All that’s missing is a win and the automatic invitation to the Chase that comes along with it. It was the combination of crew chief Jason Ratcliff and Kenseth that produced a series-high seven wins in 2013. The ride height rule change has adversely impacted several Sprint Cup teams, and this group may be one of those that is feeling its effects.

List of Non-Winners Has Familiar Names on It

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    Kasey Kahne
    Kasey KahneSarah Glenn/Getty Images

    On the outside looking in.

    It’s not the view that Kasey Kahne (above) wants to have. After all, he’s now the only Hendrick Motorsports driver without a win in 2014. And while there’s no question about his equipment, which is not only equal to his teammates but is also equal to that of race winners Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, there is the question of “what’s wrong with this picture?”

    Brian Vickers, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle—all drivers capable of delivering a win, yet all remain on the outside looking in.

    Vickers had engine problems early at Dover. Newman had transmission issues that put him more than a dozen laps down to the race leaders. Stewart finished seventh, but in the late stages of the race, his car was not good on restarts, which all but doomed his chances at a win.

    Bowyer hit Kenseth on the final restart, causing damage that placed the Michael Waltrip Racing driver in fourth at the checkers. And Biffle, who is rumored to be shopping around for a new ride, was wrecked early but had his trusty Roush Fenway Racing crew fix his Fusion so that he could keep his streak of running at the end of races (now up to 85) going strong.

    This group of drivers has two or more potential race winners among them. Which two will it be? The best guess now would be Kenseth and Bowyer.

Glow of Indy Fades as Busch Comes Back Down to Reality

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The 2014 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year got a taste of NASCAR reality Sunday when his competitive run at Dover was spoiled by a loose front wheel at the midway point of the FedEx 400.

    It was a reticent Busch who commented after the race. He finished 18th.

    “It’s unfortunate we had a loose wheel that dropped us a couple laps down,” Busch said. “The Haas Automation Chevrolet was pretty good today, and I thought we could have been in position to run up front until the end. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out that way for us today."

    In the past, Busch would have excoriated his team over the radio for all to hear. His woes would be blamed on everyone but himself.

    But these days, the blowtorch personality has been tamed, and Busch handles his disappointments along with the best of them. Pocono is a track where Busch feels right at home. He has two wins and 10 top-fives. The Tricky Triangle could be the setting for his second victory of 2014

    “It’s frustrating, but we are working to get better each week. It’s just hard when you run pretty well all day and don’t get the finish. We’ll take what we learned today and keep working at it.”

    With his Chase invite securely in his back pocket courtesy of his win at Martinsville, Busch almost sounds like an IndyCar driver.

    Almost.

     

     

Team Penske Thinking Chase; Makes Changes to Keselowski's Pit Crew

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Miscues and mistakes on pit road have hurt several of Brad Keselowski’s efforts this season, and the driver has been vocal about the situation.

    “Yeah, we're just not where we want to be,” the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford remarked during the Dover post-race media availability. “We haven't been where we want to be for probably the last year and a half, and it's keeping us from winning races. You know, I think that's the bottom line. We're making adjustments and we're going to continue to make adjustments until we get it right. 

    “I feel really good about the last one we made, and the guy who stepped in did an excellent job in his position, but we still weren't where we needed to be in others. We have to keep working.”

    According to the always reliable Lee Spencer at Motorsports.com, those changes were made this past weekend.

Pocono a Prelude to the Brickyard

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    Pocono Raceway’s long straightaways and its nearly flat racing surface make it ideal for simulating the long straightaways and nearly flat racing surface of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    Its front straightaway, at 3,740 feet in length, is the longest in NASCAR. The backstretch is 3,055 feet, is also the longest in NASCAR.

    Many teams will use Pocono to test their Brickyard chassis setups, though, at Pocono, drivers will shift gears at designated spots along the 2.5-mile triangle shaped track. If a driver's car is good at Pocono, it’s a good indication that it will be good at the Brickyard, where NASCAR will race on July 27.

    The defending race winner at Pocono is (drum roll please)...Jimmie Johnson.

     

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