With the Chase for the Sprint Cup approaching, the best stock car drivers in the world will look to clinch their spot in NASCAR's version of the playoffs by winning Sunday's race at Pocono.
Pocono Raceway will play host to the GoBowling.com 400, which could be one of the season's most important events. All it takes is one victory to enter championship contention, but conquering the 2.5-mile Tricky Triangle won't be easy.
Some drivers have Pocono figured out, but many struggle to register consistently good finishes. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how strategies impact the outlook of the race.
Here is everything you need to know in preparation for the second and final Pocono race of the 2014 Sprint Cup season.
Where: Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania
When: Sunday, Aug. 3 at 1 p.m. ET
Live Steam: WatchESPN
Radio: Motor Racing Network
|Pocono GoBowling.com 400 Qualifying Order|
|9||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88|
|19||Martin Truex Jr.||78|
|23||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||17|
Drivers to Watch
Rookie Kyle Larson is enjoying a strong first season at the Sprint Cup level, as he currently sits 12th in the standings. Larson is right on the bubble in terms of making the Chase right now, but a single victory would remove all doubt for the No. 42 team.
Larson doesn't have a ton of history at any Sprint Cup track, but he has already proved that he knows how to navigate the Tricky Triangle. He finished fifth at Pocono earlier in the season, and he will start Sunday's race from the pole position.
The 22-year-old star was extremely excited after winning the pole and seems very happy with the car that he will take into battle Sunday:
Larson has been remarkably consistent this year, with four top-fives and nine top-10 results. That would seem to suggest that he will at least put himself within striking distance of the lead for much of the GoBowling.com 400. He will have to deal with many drivers who have a ton of experience and wins to their credit at Pocono, but he hasn't shown any signs of being intimidated.
This may be Larson's one chance to make the Chase, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive he is when push comes to shove.
There are quite a few legitimate championship contenders in NASCAR this year, but it can certainly be argued that 42-year-old Jeff Gordon is the favorite. Not only is he first in the points standings, but he also has two notches in the win column, including one last week at Indianapolis.
Gordon is in search of his fifth Sprint Cup title, and he has the goods to deliver it. That victory at the Brickyard had to give him all the confidence in the world with the Chase on the horizon, as should the fact that he entered elite company by taking the checkered flag, per ESPN Stats & Info:
With one more win, Gordon will tie Brad Keselowski and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the most this season. That would put Gordon atop the standings when the Chase starts, so there is definitely incentive for him and his team to go for it.
According to Jenna Fryer of The Associated Press (h/t Houston Chronicle), No. 24 crew chief Alan Gustafson wants Gordon and his team to maintain their top form heading toward the Chase.
"Obviously right now you don't want to wear the guys out," Gustafson said. "You want to get everybody rejuvenated. But we have to continue to push on our cars and make as many technological advances as we can, improve the car as much as we can, go into the Chase with good cars and execute."
Gordon has won six times at Pocono, which is more than any other active driver. He has pretty much everything working in his favor right now, so he has to be considered the driver to beat this weekend.
With four wins and nine top-five finishes at Pocono in 14 races, it is safe to say that Denny Hamlin is comfortable on the Triangle. His spot in the Chase is already pretty well secured, as he has won a race, but winning another would make him just the eighth driver this season with multiple victories.
Hamlin should be among the top contenders, but he has some adversity to overcome. After failing a post-race inspection last week at Indianapolis, his crew chief, Darian Grubb, was slapped with a suspension by NASCAR, according to Nate Ryan of USA Today:
That means Hamlin and the No. 11 team will be without their regular crew chief this week and for the foreseeable future. Hamlin is a veteran who has experienced a great deal of success at this level, though, which means he should be fine regardless.
The true test will come in the form of strategy and pit stops. If Hamlin's team can hold it together in that regard, then he has as good of a chance as anyone to win.
Larson, Gordon and Hamlin may be the primary contenders in this race, but they are far from alone. Among those who could spoil the party is Johnson, who has won three times at Pocono and boasts the best average finish there among drivers who have more than one start.
Also, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne have all won twice at Pocono. Both Busch and Edwards are entrenched in the Chase currently, but Stewart and Kahne need wins, so they figure to be aggressive in an effort to save their respective seasons.
Joey Logano's runs at Pocono have been a mixed bag, but he does have a Pocono victory, and he qualified second, just .008 seconds behind Larson.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Pocono earlier in the season and will start in the top 10, so he will almost certainly be a factor as well.
There are so many things to consider in this race that it is extremely difficult to pick a winner. With that said, Gordon has the hot hand right now, so look for him to pick up his second consecutive win and establish himself as the best driver in NASCAR this season.
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