Complete Preview and Prediction for the 2014 Sprint Cup Series at Pocono 2

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIJuly 31, 2014

Complete Preview and Prediction for the 2014 Sprint Cup Series at Pocono 2

0 of 9

    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    What a week!

    Jeff Gordon wins his fifth Brickyard 400, on the 20th anniversary of his victory in the inaugural race, giving rise to some serious talk of him winning his fifth title this year. Chase driver Denny Hamlin’s crew chief gets clobbered with one of the most severe punishments in NASCAR history. Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets a new crew chief for 2015 (we already knew that, but now we know who).

    Time continues to run out for those teams not in the Chase.

    Fans are still wondering why team owner Jack Roush did what he did on the morning of the Brickyard 400—revealing that Carl Edwards would not be with his team any longer—and NASCAR head honcho Brian France tried to show the new Race Team Alliance (RTA) who’s boss (it didn’t work).

    All that, and the teams of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series get to experience another wonderful summer weekend in the Pocono Mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania.

    Sunday’s 400 at Pocono Raceway represents only the second time Cup teams will be making a return visit to a track this season (the other was Daytona). It means there will be a notebook of current information from which crew chiefs have to work. The teams that did well in June will do well again, while those that were a bit off the mark should be able to adjust.

    The June race was highly competitive and featured a surprising finish, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag. Brad Keselowski, who dominated the second half of the race leading 95 of 160 laps, fell victim to a piece of paper on the front of his Ford Fusion and finished second. Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and rookie Kyle Larson rounded out the top five. 

    First up, here's some important information about Sunday's race.

By the Numbers: Pocono Raceway and the 400

1 of 9

    Mike Groll/Associated Press 400

    The Place: Pocono Raceway

    The Date: Sunday, August 3

    The Time: Noon ET

    TV: ESPN, Countdown at noon; race coverage at 1 p.m. ET

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

    Weather for Long Pond, PA

    Distance: 400 miles (160 laps)

    Defending race winner: Kasey Kahne, 129.009 mph 

    Defending pole winner: Jimmie Johnson, 180.654 mph 

    Youngest Pocono winner: Joey Logano (06/10/201222 years, 0 months, 17 days)

    Oldest Pocono winner: Harry Gant (06/17/199050 years, 5 months, 7 days)

    Hendrick Motorsports has the most wins at Pocono in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with 16: Jeff Gordon (six), Tim Richmond (three), Jimmie Johnson (three), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (one), Kasey Kahne (one), Geoff Bodine (one) and Terry Labonte (one)including the last four consecutively.

    Eight different manufacturers have won in the NSCS at Pocono, led by Chevrolet with 29 victories and followed by Ford with 21.

    Fifteen of the 73 (20.5 percent) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Pocono have been won from the Coors Light pole. Jimmie Johnson won most recently (June 2013).

    Pole position is the best place to start at Pocono Raceway. It has produced more winners (15) than any other starting position.

    Twenty-four of the 73 (32.9 percent) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Pocono have been won from the front row, 15 from the pole and nine from second place.

    Fifty-one of the 73 (69.9 percent) NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Pocono have been won from a top-10 starting position.

    Five of the 73 (6.8 percent) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Pocono have been won from a starting position outside the top 20.

    The deepest in the field that a race winner has started at Pocono is 29th, by Carl Edwards in the spring of 2005.

    Information obtained from official media guides and/or other official NASCAR sources.

Key Storylines

2 of 9

    USA TODAY Sports

    Hamlin Gets Hammered, Loses Crew Chief Until Chase

    The headline says it all. A trick panel in the rear firewall of Hamlin’s Toyota Camry at last weekend’s Brickyard 400 allowed for the car to benefit from extra air flowing over the chassis, producing more downforce.

    Such modifications are against NASCAR’s rules, and as such, the team, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb were severely penalized with a loss of points, a hefty fine for Grubb and the crew chief being suspended for the next six weeks.

    To be honest, crew chiefs are paid large salaries to find ways in which to bend rules inside the tiny engineering box on the Gen 6 race car. It is no surprise that someone as clever as Grubb, or someone on his staff, came up with such an ingenious way to produce extra downforce.

    Grubb’s suspension could have been longer and far more damaging. Instead, it is for the remaining races of the regular season. Hamlin is a race winner (Talladega spring race) and already has one of the 16 spots in the Chase. Hamlin will be back on top of the box, calling the shots on race day for the first race of the Chase. 

    Once again, NASCAR barks loudly but steps back from the bite.

    Gordon on a Hot Streak?

    Rejuvenated by his second win of 2014 last weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon has made it clear that he has every intention of going all the way this season. After the race he repeatedly expressed confidence in his team being able to take him into that final race at Homestead as one of the four drivers challenging for the title. 

    “I think the reason why we're leading the points is because I believe we're the best team,” Gordon said following his win in the Brickyard 400. “I think we saw we were points leaders, we saw we won at Kansas, but I don't know if we believed we were capable of winning this championship this year, truly believe it. We do now. We got to keep that fire in us, keep it going.” 

    One would be foolish to bet against this wily veteran, who appears to be on a mission to win his fifth title this season.

    Happy Harvick and Co. Need to Find the Handle 

    Although his team's place in the Chase is secure, now is the time for those teams set for postseason play to up their game and regularly score top-five or at least top-10 finishes.

    Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing squad is among the best in the Cup Series and always a threat to win. Their rebound eighth-place finish last weekend at Indianapolis needs to be the start of a string of top 10s all the way through Richmond.

    Harvick is unbeatable when the car is good. He dominated in his win at Darlington, but that was four months and a dozen races ago. The remaining six races before the start of the Chase are all tracks where Harvick does well. He has wins at every track but Pocono. He led 24 laps in the June race at the Tricky Triangle, yet he finished in an unrepresentative manner of the team’s effort, 14th.

    Expect a much better finish this weekend for the Budweiser Chevrolet.

    Edwards Faces Continuing Distractions

    After Carl Edwards' team owner, Jack Roush, tried to get the upper hand on the morning of the Brickyard 400 by having an impromptu press conference to officially announce that he would leave the team, Edwards had to manage the distraction of the media and a race team that knew officially that Edwards is a lame-duck driver—while at one of the biggest races of the year.

    The announcement by the team, whether orchestrated or not, was classic Roush and puts Edwards on the spot moving forward. His team will need to be reassured every week, although Edwards is a race winner with a spot in the Chase, that he’s the guy until Homestead and that it's in the best interest of everyone to go out and win the title.

    Lame-duck situations are usually a bit difficult, but last year, Kevin Harvick showed how it should be done, winning four races, making the Chase and finishing third in points. If not for his team’s falter in the second Bristol and Loudon races and the Talladega Chase race being a wreckfest, it would have been a real three-way battle for the title in 2013.

    Edwards will also have to deal with the media, which already knows he’s headed to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015 but continues to delight in watching him dodge the question. He is contractually unable to discuss next year’s situation until sometime in September.

    Will Kahne Get His Chance at Revenge?

    At last year's second Pocono race, Kasey Kahne was able to take the race lead on the final restart from Jeff Gordon. Gordon's memory of losing that race to Kahne had him determined to make the final restart against Kahne during the Brickyard 400 "the restart of his life," as Gordon put it after the race.

    It was, and Gordon went on to win.

    Kahne was not a factor in the June race at Pocono, having been involved in an accident early in the race. He'll not let his Hendrick teammate get the best of him again this weekend should the two be involved in a restart in the closing laps of the 400.

    Added incentive for Kahne is that he is still the only Hendrick driver who is winless this season, while teammates Johnson (three), Gordon (two) and Earnhardt (two) have multiple wins.

Drivers to Watch

3 of 9

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. (right) with teammate Jimmie Johnson
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. (right) with teammate Jimmie JohnsonJeff Curry/Getty Images

    The Hendrick Four

    Normally we like to list drivers here individually, but all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers—Gordon, Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and Kahne—are real threats to win on Sunday.

    All have won at Pocono, multiple times, except for Earnhardt Jr. It takes a lot of muscle under the hood to lead the pack down the long straightaways at the Tricky Triangle, and all four drivers will have it this weekend.

    It’s an easy assumption that all four will finish in the top 10. And it's just as easy to see one of them emerging as the race winner.

    Brad Keselowski

    If it weren't for a small piece of paper stuck on the nose of his race car, Keselowski would have left Pocono Raceway in June with the winner’s trophy. How’s that for the definition of frustrating?

    Since then, Keselowski has gone on a tear, winning at Kentucky and sweeping both races at New Hampshire. His run at Indy last weekend was a bit off-key, as he and crew chief Paul Wolfe couldn’t connect on the balance of the Team Penske Ford. He finished 12th after starting from the second row. 

    That won’t be an issue this weekend as Keselowski returns to a track that truly owes him one.

    Kyle Larson

    It’s easy to use tags such as “rookie sensation” and “phenom” when writing about Larson, because they both fit.

    The young Californian has been a bolt from the blue this season, surprising everyone. This is on the heels of his team owner, Chip Ganassi, taking a lot of heat in the media for signing Larson to replace Juan Montoya, when the Colombian left to return to IndyCars.

    Like most rookies, Larson suffers from inconsistent performances. But when he’s good, he is sensational. He finished fifth at Pocono in June and seventh last week at the Brickyard.

    Ryan Newman

    Although it has been more than a decade since Newman won at Pocono (2003), his record on the 2.5-mile, three-cornered race track has been quite good ever since then.

    Nine top fives and 13 top 10s with three teams—Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Newman and crew chief Luke Lambert are beginning to show signs of positive chemistry. Their stats show a top-10 finish followed by a top 20, followed by a top 10 and followed by a top 20. You get the idea.

    This is the week for the top 10. Newman was seventh in June.

    Joey Logano

    Remember when Joey Logano tangled with Kevin Harvick? That was the June 2010 race at Pocono Raceway.

    Logano is a more mature driver now, but he’s even more competitive and doesn’t take any B.S. from anyone. It’s not like we’re predicting anything for this weekend, but Logano hasn’t been to a Cup Victory Lane since Richmond in April. He looked good in the early going in June at Pocono when a mechanical issue took him out. He was fifth last week at Indianapolis.

    The Team Penske driver is due, don’t you think?

Quick Picks

4 of 9

    Tony Stewart
    Tony StewartMike McCarn/Associated Press

    Tony Stewart

    He led 24 laps in June and knows how to win at Pocono. Is he up to the task in a year when it's been obvious he’s not physically 100 percent yet?

    Jamie McMurray 

    The Chip Ganassi Racing driver finished top 10 in June at the Tricky Triangle. His 20th-place finish last weekend at Indy was a disappointment for this team, which is better than that. Look for a rebound at Pocono.

    Carl Edwards

    Despite all the craziness going on in Edwards’ NASCAR life—outside of the car—he’s remained a tough and steady driver. He’s won at Pocono twice.

    Matt Kenseth

    The number is six. Kenseth could make the Chase without a win. He’s got six more tries to get a win and make his life just a bit less stressful.

    Kurt Busch

    He was third at Pocono in June. He led five unimpressive laps. The bad weekend at Indianapolis, with all the media attention, was an embarrassment for Busch. He needs to turn that around with a win this weekend.

    Denny Hamlin

    He has won here before. It will be interesting to watch this driver and this team for no other reason than to see how they handle adversity.

Dark-Horse Pick

5 of 9

    Martin Truex Jr.
    Martin Truex Jr.USA TODAY Sports

    Martin Truex Jr. 

    OK, so maybe Pocono isn’t one of this Mayfield, New Jersey-born driver’s best tracks. But he does consider it one of his two home tracks. (Dover is the other.)

    It’s taken a lot longer for Truex Jr. and Daytona 500 (and just about everything else)-winning crew chief Todd Berrier to click. Both men ooze talent in their chosen field, and both men have been in the Chase. 

    Berrier and this team were in the Chase last year with Kurt Busch. Busch had two top-10 finishes at Pocono last year. Berrier also had success at Pocono while at Richard Childress Racing running the show for Harvick.

    There are six more chances for the Furniture Row team to return.

    “A lot of times during the first half of the year we were so far off at some of the tracks we could never catch up,” explained Truex in a pre-race interview. “But on the other hand, there were tracks that we did make some headway and Pocono was one of them. I felt that Pocono was the best car we had during the race. Things like that make me optimistic about the second half of the season and especially going back to Pocono, which was our last top-10 finish.”

    Sometimes, you just get this feeling. After looking at all the statistics, which show things coming together, and listening to what the driver is saying, you have to take that leap of faith and pick the guy who wants the win so badly, he can taste it.

Qualifying Report: 400

6 of 9

    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Rookie Kyle Larson (in photo above) won the Pole Award for the 41st Annual 400 with a track qualifying record lap of 49.063 seconds, 183.438 mph.

    It took the 22-year-old only 25 Sprint Cup Series races to capture his first pole. Earlier in the day, four-time champion Jeff Gordon told the media, “Kyle Larson is a special individual and talent like that comes around only every so often.”

    The Chip Ganassi Racing driver displayed that special talent in destroying the previous track record of 49.610 seconds, 181.415 mph held by Denny Hamlin at set just this past June.

    Larson also becomes the second Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate to win a Sprint Cup pole this season (Austin Dillon, Daytona 500).

    Alongside of Larson on the front row is Team Penske’s Joey Logano with a speed of 183.438 mph. His teammate Brad Keselowski starts third, Kurt Busch is fourth and Jeff Gordon rounds out the top five.

    Notable starts: Kevin Harvick (sixth), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ninth), Danica Patrick (10th), Tony Stewart (16th), Jimmie Johnson (17th), Matt Kenseth (18th) and Greg Biffle (25th).

    Only 43 cars had entered the event, so all cars will start.

And the Winner Is...

7 of 9

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr.John Raoux/Associated Press

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    It’s easy to pick Junior as the winner of the 400 because this team did everything right in the June race, including being in the right place in the closing laps of the race.

    The No. 88 Steve Letarte-led squad was statistically the third-best car, and while it took advantage of Brad Keselowski’s mental faux pas, it had to be good all afternoon to be in position to take that advantage.

    While this team’s performance in last weekend’s Brickyard 400 did not bring it a win, it did give it a top-10 result (ninth). It's consistently getting better every week. This team knows that it can win the championship, and it knows that its driver can take the team there.

    Pick Junior for the sweep.

Nationwide Snapshot

8 of 9

    Ty Dillon
    Ty DillonScott Halleran/Getty Images

    Apparently Ty Dillon wanted to make a big splash for his first career Nationwide Series win, so he did it at the historic 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    He also claimed Nationwide Insurance’s $100,000 Dash 4 Cash check while closing the gap (minus-15) between him and the series’ points leader, Chase Elliott. 

    Dillon has been under the radar for much of the season, and this past weekend’s victory at Indianapolis has put him in the talk of championship contention. He sits fourth in points.

    The 22-year-old has his sights on the series standings leader, Elliott, who has set the bar high this season. Elliott has three wins, eight top fives and 13 top 10s in 19 starts. Elliott finished fourth in his series debut at Iowa earlier this season.

    Currently third in the standings, just four points ahead of Dillon, is Elliott Sadler. Sadler has made seven starts at Iowa, winning once and posting six top-five finishes. His average finish of 3.9 at Iowa is his career-best among series tracks on the schedule. 

    Ahead of Sadler is Regan Smith, second in the series standings, 11 points ahead of Dillon.

    Four NNS championship contenders are eligible to compete for the chance to win the $100,000 bonus this weekend at Iowa. Ty Dillon banked the third round of Dash 4 Cash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend.

    By winning the award, Dillon automatically qualifies for the next payout this Saturday at Iowa. He will compete against Trevor Bayne, Brian Scott and Regan Smith. 

Pocono Raceway: A Perspective

9 of 9

    Dr. Joe Mattioli in 2010 at the Pocono Raceway solar farm
    Dr. Joe Mattioli in 2010 at the Pocono Raceway solar farmDrew Hallowell/Getty Images

    No one could have imagined the dynasty that the late Dr. Joe "Doc" Mattioli has managed to build in the Pocono Mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania.

    For years, while others were selling their tracks to the big conglomerates such as International Speedway Corporation, which is owned primarily by NASCAR and the France family or Speedway Motorsports Inc., which is run by Bruton Smith, Mattioli stood fast. He had a game plan.

    He knew that if he played it right, the race track that he gambled on would attract the biggest names in the world of motorsports and would eventually bring his family financial security for generations.

    While he was alive and in charge of the track, Mattioli’s management style of conservative progress helped him pay his bills and keep both of his Sprint Cup races when the world around him screamed for NASCAR to take one of its races.

    But Mattioli always knew that the ace up his sleeve in keeping both races was the close proximity of his race track to the No. 1 media market in the world, New York City, and that neither he nor the city would be moving anytime soon. 

    When the track brought its solar farm online in August 2010, it was, at the time, the largest solar- generating project at a sports facility in the country. Others soon followed, including nearby Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, home of the Philadelphia Eagles. 

    The third generation is now running the track, with the oldest, Brandon Igdalsky, at the helm.

    With a Verizon IndyCar Series race added in 2013 and other events such as music concerts being planned for the large facility, Pocono Raceway isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

    Bob Margolis has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent. All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases or received firsthand unless otherwise stated.

    Follow Bob on Twitter: @BobMargolis