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Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pocono 400

Bob MargolisContributor IIJune 4, 2014

Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pocono 400

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    Pocono Raceway is the site of round 14 of 36 of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Located in the Pocono Mountains of East Central Pennsylvania, the 2.5-mile race track is a driver favorite because of its unique layout.

    The track also presents a challenge to crew chiefs to find a setup that gives their drivers a comfort zone in an array of turns: a sharp, high-banked corner (Turn 1), an ultra-fast dogleg (Turn 2) and an even sharper, almost flat final turn that drivers must exit from in nearly perfect form to set themselves up for the longest straightaway in NASCAR.

    The layout of the track, nicknamed “The Tricky Triangle,” is so different that drivers compare it to a cross between a road course and an oval because of the unique challenges each corner presents.

    "It's a third more work per lap is what it amounts to,” said Ryan Newman, who won here from the pole in 2003. “I wouldn't say it's anything crazy or anything we can't handle. It's possible to set your car up for all three turns. It's doable to make the car perfect. It's not easy, but all it takes is good communication between you, the crew chief and the engineers.

    “It’s kind of like a big road course really, you just turn left,” said his Richard Childress Racing teammate Paul Menard.

    “Each corner has its challenges, and each one tends to present a different set of circumstances with each lap you make,” said Tony Stewart, who won here in 2003 and 2009.

    Jimmie Johnson is the defending race winner, his third at Pocono. Jeff Gordon holds the record among active drivers with six wins. Denny Hamlin has four.

    Pocono always draws a tremendous crowd, drawing fans from New York City. A crowd of nearly 90,000 is expected on Sunday, and the weather forecast looks perfect for all three days.

By the Numbers: Pocono Raceway

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    The Tunnel Turn at Pocono Raceway.
    The Tunnel Turn at Pocono Raceway.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Pocono 400

    The place: Pocono Raceway

    The date: Sunday, June 8

    The time: 1 p.m. (ET)

    TV: TNT (first of six races), 12 p.m. (ET)

    Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN), Sirius XM Ch. 90

    Distance: 400 miles (160 laps)

    There have been 72 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Pocono Raceway, one race from 1974 through 1981, and two per year since. This marks the 40th anniversary of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at Pocono.

    2012 marked the first season the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Pocono were scheduled for 400 miles. Prior to 2012, all NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races were 500 miles at Pocono Raceway.

    Overall, 315 drivers have competed in at least one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway, and 221 in more than one.

    Ricky Rudd leads the series in starts at Pocono with 55. Gordon leads all active drivers with 42 starts.

    Buddy Baker won the inaugural pole at Pocono in 1974 with a speed of 144.122 mph. 

    Thirty-nine drivers have poles at Pocono, led by Bill Elliott and Ken Schrader with five each; Johnson and Hamlin lead all active drivers with three.

    Five drivers have won consecutive poles at Pocono. Elliott holds the record for most consecutive poles at Pocono with threefall 1984 and both races in 1985.

    Two active drivers have posted consecutive poles at Pocono: Hamlin (2006 sweep) and Joey Logano (fall 2011 and spring 2012).

    Youngest Pocono pole winner: Logano (08/07/2011: 21 years, two months, 14 days)

    Oldest Pocono pole winner: David Pearson (06/10/1984: 49 years, five months, 19 days)

    Qualifying record: Hamlin, 181.415 mph (06/06/2014)

    Last race won from pole: Johnson (06/09/2013)

    All-time winner: Gordon (six)

    Long Pond, Penn. weather 

Key Storylines

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    Jimmie Johnson with crew chief Chad Knaus.
    Jimmie Johnson with crew chief Chad Knaus.Will Schneekloth/Getty Images

    Three in a Row by Johnson?

    It was only a month ago when the biggest news story in NASCAR was “when would Jimmie Johnson win his first race of the 2014 season?” Today, the story is “how many in a row will he and crew chief Chad Knaus win?”

    Johnson has three wins at Pocono and holds the record for average finish (8.83). It’s not a difficult call to pick the No. 48 team as the favorite to win Sunday’s Pocono 400.

    And Knaus calls Pocono “his favorite track.”

     

    Is This Kahne’s Race?

    Last June, Kasey Kahne took the green flag to start the 160-lap race from the seventh starting position and almost immediately realized something was wrong. A vibration rattled his No. 5 Chevrolet, forcing the Hendrick Motorsports driver to head to the garage after one lap to repair what was diagnosed as a problematic U-joint.

    Once the problem was fixed, Kahne came back to the track and scored more fastest laps than anyone in the race (51)despite finishing in 36th place.

    A couple of months later, he won at Pocono. It was sweet redemption. Kahne now finds himself in the midst of a 28-race winless streak dating back to that win in August.

    In 20 starts at Pocono, Kahne has two poles, two wins, five top-fives and seven top-10s. He sits on the outside looking in regarding a spot in the Chase.

    A win would lock him in. Is this his race to lose?

     

    Track Change Signals Shift in Driving Strategy

    Although the track was repaved in 2011, it was done to smooth out the bumps and remove Pocono’s notorious seams, but it kept the three different corners much the same as before.

    Over the winter, track officials did make changes to Turn 2, known as the “Tunnel Turn” since it is directly over the entry tunnel at the rear of the property. They removed the curbing from the inside of the track, making it a paved shoulder instead. This change is expected to produce some dramatic passing opportunities, as some drivers will test their skills in making a pass using the newly paved area as a kind of buffer zone.

    “I don’t think the track has changedit’s just the curb I believe has been removed from Turn 2 and the access road is now like a normal apron,” said Jeff Gordon. “I think visually it’s going to take some getting used to. We used that curb as a real focal point and now that it’s gone, what you used to get through that corner will be different.”

     

    First-Timers

    Eight drivers will attempt to make their first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at Pocono, including Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings leader Kyle Larson.

    The Chip Ganassi Racing driver will have at least some in-race experience prior to Sunday; he’s entered in the ARCA race scheduled for Saturday.

    Also on the “first-timers” list is Justin Allgaier, who drives for H. Scott Motorsports.

    Allgaier has six starts at Pocono in an ARCA car, where he has one win (2008), two top-fives and four top-10s while leading a total of 52 laps.

    Allgaier also is marking another milestone this weekend; he’ll be making his 200th career NASCAR national series start Sunday.

Drivers to Watch

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    Bob Jordan/Associated Press

    Joey Logano

    Logano returns to Pocono as a former winner. He beat his childhood idol Mark Martin for the win at Pocono back in 2012. Logano won the pole and led a race-high 49 of the 160 laps en route to the victory. It was his second-career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.

     

    Jeff Gordon

    The all-time win leader at Pocono, Gordon lost a heartbreaker to teammate Kahne in the second Pocono race last summer, finishing second. With one win under his belt in 2014, Gordon has eyes on a second, and Pocono is easily the place where he can do it.

     

    Jimmie Johnson

    Three in a row? This team is capable of doing it. Enough said.

     

    Brad Keselowski

    Brad Keselowski has one victory at The Tricky Triangle. He led 19 laps on the way to his lone win on the 2.5-mile track during the second race in 2011. The 2012 Cup series champion has eight starts at Pocono, and he has completed every lap of competition in those eight races (1,382 of 1,382). He also has two top-five and three top-10 finishes at Pocono. In addition, the No. 2 Team Penske Ford has earned two poles and eight front-row starts this season.

     

    Kasey Kahne

    Kahne captured the pole in his very first Sprint Cup race at Pocono, and ever since, he’s made it clear that it’s his kind of place. With two wins, five top-fives and seven top-10s, the Hendrick Motorsports driver probably has this weekend’s race date circled on his calendar as his best chance to win and get his invite to the Chase.

     

    Denny Hamlin

    Friday's pole winner has been looking for consistency this season. With only four top-10 finishes, Hamlin does not have two top-10s in a row. Last weekend at Dover, he finished fifth. Pocono could make it two in a row. All the four-time Pocono winner needs to do is deliver 395 solid miles, and then drive five more like his hair is on fire.

Quick Picks

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Kurt Busch

    NASCAR’s newest IndyCar driver has some pretty remarkable stats at Pocono. Two wins, 10 top-fives and 14 top-10s in 25 starts is nothing short of sensational. His 2007 win with Team Penske was one of the more dominating performances in recent NASCAR history. Busch led nearly every lap from green flag to checkers. If he has a good car, look out.

     

    Tony Stewart

    If Smoke is so determined to have the media stop asking him about how his recovery is going, then all he has to do is win one of these Sprint Cup races. It’s that simple.

     

    Carl Edwards

    One of his two wins at Pocono came in his debut at The Tricky Triangle in June of 2005. The second was in August of 2008. While those around him continue to talk about his departure from Roush Fenway Racing, Edwards is the kind of driver who isn't about to roll over. He'd still like to win a race or two for Jack Roush before moving on.

     

    Kyle Larson

    Every weekend this rookie phenom impresses us with something new. He comes to Pocono with no experience on the three-cornered track. He'll race in the ARCA race on Saturday so that he can learn how to finesse his Cup car on Sunday.

     

    Kevin Harvick

    Pocono is not one of Happy Harvick's better race tracks. But with the kind of season this team is having, there's no counting him out at any track. His best finish here as a Richard Childress Racing driver is fourth, three times. That was then, this is now.

     

    Ryan Newman

    Still trying to get that first win with his new organization, Newman is a two-time pole winner at Pocono. He also has one win and nine top-fives. Jeff Burton always did well in the CAT car at Pocono. There's a reputation to keep here. And a sponsor, as well.

Dark-Horse Pick

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Yes, he's this week's dark-horse pick, Junior Nation.

    But before you set the comments section on fire, consider this:

    Pocono isn't among his best tracks, but one pole and seven top-fives have to mean something toward winning when you consider that Junior is having one of the best years of his career.

    His teammates (Johnson and Gordon) wrote the book on how to win at Pocono, so it makes sense that Junior's crew chief Steve Letarte is bound to find the right combination to make Junior comfortable powering into Turn 1 at over 200 mph. Then, that same setup will give him the right grip and feel to make it out of Turn 3 so that he can rocket down the front straight and do it all over again.

    Taking all of that into consideration, maybe we won't have to wait until July to see Earnhardt win on a 2.5-mile track again.

Historical Perspective: Pocono Raceway

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    Dr. Joe Mattioli
    Dr. Joe MattioliCarolyn Kaster/Associated Press

    The story behind Pocono Raceway is a wonderful family story. How a doctor from eastern Pennsylvania built a race track that ended up being one of the last remaining independently owned NASCAR tracks is a long and very entertaining story.

    The track has an abridged version, written by the family, that appears on the track website. Doc Mattioli was a true original, whose vision of how a race track should be run continues to steer the current management of the track.

    Opened in 1968 as a three-quarter-mile track, Pocono Raceway held the first race on the 2.5-mile track in 1971.

    The first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race was in 1974won by Richard Petty driving a Dodge, (08/04/1974).

    Six drivers have posted consecutive wins at Pocono Raceway, including three consecutive by Bobby Allison (1982 sweep and spring 1983) and Tim Richmond (1986 sweep and spring 1987).

Qualifying Report: Pocono 400

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Denny Hamlin won the pole for the Pocono 400, breaking the track qualifying record in the process. Hamlin’s lap of 181.415 mph, 49.610 seconds broke the old record of 180.854 mph, 49.819 seconds held by Jimmie Johnson. Johnson’s record didn’t last long—it was set in August 2013 in qualifying for the second race at Pocono with the Gen 6 cars.

    Hamlin’s track record was the ninth new track qualifying record this season and the second by Hamlin (Bristol).

    It’s good to get a track record and have that number one pit stall -- that will pay dividends on Sunday,” said Hamlin in a post-qualifying interview. “I have the best pit crew on pit road. Hopefully this lends itself to a great win on Sunday.”

    It was Hamlin’s third pole in just 17 races at Pocono.

    Kurt Busch starts second, his fifth top-10 start of 2014.

    “The outside pole is great and it’s good for all day long on your starting position, your race sequence and your pit box selection,” said Busch in his post-qualifying media session. “Our crew chief will get a nice pit box selection and that will help us with ease and congestion on pit road.”

    Brad Keselowski starts third. Austin Dillon is the highest starting rookie (11th).

    Of note: Points leader Matt Kenseth (26th); Jimmie Johnson (20th); Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8th); Kevin Harvick (4th); and Danica Patrick (16th).

And the Winner Is:

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Jeff Gordon

    This week’s pick was an easy choice.

    While it would make a great story for Johnson to score three in a row or for Stewart to win his first of the season or for rookie Larson to win his, the nod this week has to go to Gordon. He watched a win last August get away from him in the closing laps.

    Race winner Kahne was able to drive his Chevrolet SS deep into Turn 1 with just a handful of laps remaining to take the advantage—a move that may still be on Gordon’s mind, especially the first time Gordon takes his 2014 mount into that same turn.

    The win for Gordon is still out there, and this weekend, he will finally claim it.

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

    Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis

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