NASCAR Sprint Cup: Complete Preview, Prediction for Axalta 400 at Pocono Raceway

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistJune 2, 2015

NASCAR Sprint Cup: Complete Preview, Prediction for Axalta 400 at Pocono Raceway

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. won both races at Pocono Raceway last season.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. won both races at Pocono Raceway last season.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Pocono Raceway will have a lot to celebrate Sunday, as it marks the 75th Sprint Cup race to be run there, the Axalta We Paint Winners 400.

    The so-called “Tricky Triangle” most certainly lives up to its name, with three different type turns on its 2.5-mile layout, which looks simple but can be a real gut-buster.

    Pocono is part superspeedway like Indianapolis and part road course like Sonoma or Watkins Glen.

    In fact, drivers race the track as if they’re performing on a road course.

    The right groove around the track is constantly changing, and if the weather brings about a hot day, it’s going to be a long and physically exhausting race for drivers.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. won both races at Pocono last year, the first time he’s visited Victory Lane at the central Pennsylvania track.

    Can Junior make it three in a row on Sunday? He has a car and team that are capable of doing so, indeed.

By the Numbers: Pocono Raceway

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    Jeff Gordon leads all drivers with six wins at Pocono Raceway.
    Jeff Gordon leads all drivers with six wins at Pocono Raceway.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Axalta We Paint Winners 400

    Place: Pocono Raceway

    Date: Sunday, June 7

    Time: 1 p.m. (ET)

    TV: Fox Sports 1, Noon (ET)

    Radio: Motor Racing Network

    Distance: 160 laps, 400 miles (2.5-mile tri-oval track)

    Defending winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Youngest winner: Joey Logano on June 10, 2012 (22 years, 0 months, 17 days)

    Oldest winner: Harry Gant on June 17, 1990 (50 years, five months, seven days)

    Youngest pole winner: Joey Logano on August 7, 2011 (21 years, two months, 14 days)

    Oldest pole winner: David Pearson on June 10, 1984 (49 years, five months, 19 days)

    Most wins: Jeff Gordon (six)

    Most poles: Bill Elliott and Ken Schrader (five each)

    Most race starts at Pocono: Ricky Rudd (55)

    Most laps led: 1,037 (Jeff Gordon)

    Best average start (active driver): Denny Hamlin (6.556)

    Best average finish (active driver): Jeff Gordon (9.864)

     

    TRACK NOTES

    • Total number of races at Pocono to date: 74
    • Total number of different pole winners in Pocono history: 40
    • Races won from pole: 15
    • Race record: Jeff Gordon—145.384 mph (June 12, 2011) 
    • Qualifying record: Kyle Larson—83.438 mph (August 3, 2014)
    • Number of race winners in Pocono history: 40
    • Most Top Fives: Mark Martin (20)
    • Most Top 10s: Mark Martin (34)

     

    All statistics provided by NASCAR Public Relations

Key Storylines

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    Martin Truex Jr. is still looking for his first win of 2015.
    Martin Truex Jr. is still looking for his first win of 2015.Derick Hamilton/Associated Press

    Jeff Gordon Goes for Seven

    Pocono Raceway has been one of Jeff Gordon’s more successful race tracks. He leads all drivers in the track’s history with six wins, his last coming in mid-summer 2012. But that’s not all. In 44 career starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval, Gordon has 19 top-fives and 31 top-10 finishes.

    Gordon is still seeking his first win of 2015, which is also his final season as a Sprint Cup driver. What better place for him to finally earn that first victory than at a track which has meant so much to him?

     

    Will Martin Truex Jr. Finally Cash In?

    In 13 starts, Martin Truex Jr. has had 12 top-10 finishes. I’ve called him a win waiting to happen, but he still hasn’t reached Victory Lane. I thought for sure he’d do so at Dover last week, site of his first career Sprint Cup win, but he once again came up short. Might Pocono be the charm for him?

     

    Is It Tony Time This Weekend?

    We all know Tony Stewart has had the worst start of his Sprint Cup career in 2015. But sooner or later, his luck is going to turn around. Could it be this weekend at Pocono? Stewart has a very good record at the 2.5-mile tri-oval.

    In 32 starts, he has two wins, 12 top-five and a stout 22 top-10 finishes. If there’s any place Stewart can break his rough start, it’s going to be either this weekend at Pocono or next weekend at Michigan, another of his favorite and more successful tracks.

     

    Will Jimmie Johnson’s Roll Continue?

    With a series-high four wins in the first 13 races, Jimmie Johnson has won nearly a third of the races thus far this season. If his pace continues, Johnson could potentially win between 10 and 12 races before the season is all said and done.

    And what better way to end the season than to cap it off with Johnson’s seventh championship. That would tie him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most championships by a single driver. Can Johnson, who has three wins at Pocono, make it four on Sunday?

     

    Can Junior Make It Three in a Row?

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. surprised a lot of people when he won last spring’s race at Pocono, a track he had never won at before. And then he surprised even more folks a month-and-a-half later when he won for the second time at Pocono. Obviously, Junior has learned how to tame the Tricky Triangle. Can he make it three in a row Sunday?

Drivers to Watch

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    Keep your eyes on Kurt Busch in Sunday's race.
    Keep your eyes on Kurt Busch in Sunday's race.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Joey Logano

    Joey Logano has been like a faucet at Pocono—he’s either been hot or cold. In 12 career starts there, he has one win (and two poles), but overall just two top-five and four top-10 finishes. While Logano has had a decent season to date, he hasn’t reached Victory Lane again since winning the season-opening Daytona 500.

    Given both Daytona International Speedway and Pocono are both 2.5 miles in length—albeit an oval vs. a triangular tri-oval—maybe Pocono is where Logano earns win No. 2 of 2015.

     

    Brad Keselowski

    Much like Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski has surprisingly only earned one win thus far in 2015. Keselowski just hasn’t seemed to have the aggressiveness that he had last season. Of course, much of his success in 2014 came in the second half of the season, so perhaps Bad Brad is merely pacing himself.

    With 13 races left until the final 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set, Keselowski could help his chances with a second win before then, as well as gain some valuable momentum in the process.

     

    Kurt Busch

    Pocono has been one of Kurt Busch’s most unsung tracks. In 27 starts there, he has two wins (but none since mid-summer 2007), 11 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes. In his last seven starts there, Busch has had some very strong runs: one runner-up finish, three third-place finishes, a seventh-place showing and a 13th-place finish.

    Busch could be a sleeper to win Sunday, but given his past performance at Pocono, it wouldn’t be a complete surprise.

     

    Kyle Busch

    Surprisingly, Kyle Busch has never won a Sprint Cup race at Pocono. The few other tracks he hasn’t won at are few: Homestead, Indianapolis, Kansas and Martinsville. Given how he’s looked like the old Kyle Busch at both Charlotte and Dover, it’s only a matter of time before the younger Busch brother breaks through for his first win of 2015.

     

    Sam Hornish Jr.

    While admittedly a potential ringer to win Sunday, Hornish has a decent overall record as a racer at Pocono. In Sprint Cup, he has one top five and two top 10s in eight career starts. Hornish has called Pocono one of his favorite race tracks in the Sprint Cup Series. Perhaps Sunday might be Hornish’s breakthrough race not only at Pocono but also in his overall Cup career. 

Favorites

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    Will Kevin Harvick finally solve Pocono Raceway for his first career Sprint Cup win there on Sunday?
    Will Kevin Harvick finally solve Pocono Raceway for his first career Sprint Cup win there on Sunday?Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Of his four wins in 2014, two were at Pocono Raceway for Dale Earnhardt Jr., both the late spring and mid-summer races. Junior has had a more moderate season in 2015 than he did in 2014 in his final campaign with now former crew chief Steve Letarte. But it would sure give Junior a big boost if he could rise to the occasion and win a third race in a row at Pocono on Sunday.

     

    Denny Hamlin

    How can you not include Denny Hamlin among the favorites at Pocono? After all, this has been one of his most successful tracks, with four wins and three poles, nine top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 18 career starts there. Hamlin already has one win thus far this season (Martinsville). There’s no more appropriate place for win No. 2 than Sunday at Pocono.

     

    Jimmie Johnson

    As the late Jerry Reed used to sing, “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot!” And Jimmie Johnson has certainly been hot in 2015, particularly coming off last Sunday’s win at Dover—a record-setting 10th win there for J.J. Given his past success at Pocono, Johnson is easily among the favorites to win Sunday and make it two visits to Victory Lane in a row.

     

    Kevin Harvick

    Hard as it may seem to believe, Kevin Harvick has never won at Pocono Raceway. Frankly, his success at the Tricky Triangle has been hit-or-miss. In 28 starts there, he has just six top-five and four other top-10 finishes. While Harvick continues to lead the Sprint Cup points standings, a win at Pocono would be another thing he could finally check off his bucket list.

     

    Martin Truex Jr.

    I’m going to ride this horse until it beats every other one to the start-finish line. Truex has been so close far too many times to not have won by now. Plus, he’s led the most laps in the last three races. Sooner or later his time has to come, and given that he failed to do so at Dover, I think a good case can be made for him to finally break through for that first win of 2015—and potentially the first win of many to come—on Sunday.

Dark-Horse Pick: Tony Stewart

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    As actor Christopher Walken likes to say, “I need more cowbell.”

    But in this case, I need more Smoke (Stewart’s nickname).

    To date in 2015, Stewart has just one top-10 finish (sixth at Bristol). That’s been it. No wins, no top fives and no poles.

    But I keep holding a torch for him to put things together sooner rather than later, and Pocono could be just the place for Stewart to finally do just that.

    As each race goes by, his chances of making the Chase grow longer and longer. He comes into Pocono in 28th place in the standings.

    If he can manage to earn at least one win between now and the September race at Richmond—plus keep himself in the top 30 in points—Stewart will qualify for the Chase for the first time since 2012 (yes, it has been that long).

    Given his performance thus far in 2015, Stewart is indeed a long shot, but I can’t think of a better long shot to turn things around than Stewart on Sunday at Pocono.

And the Winner Is: Denny Hamlin

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    I really wanted to pick either Martin Truex Jr. or Tony Stewart to win Sunday’s race at Pocono.

    But the more I looked at the stats and added my gut feeling to the equation, I came up with just two drivers that could win Sunday: Jeff Gordon or Denny Hamlin.

    Then further extrapolating Gordon’s record six wins at Pocono vs. Hamlin’s four wins, my gut feeling tells me it’s going to be a battle between those two to the finish line, but Hamlin will come out on top.

    Of course, if Gordon wins and Hamlin finishes second, it’s still a good finish for both drivers. You can’t lose in a situation like that.

     

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