NASCAR at Pocono 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Axalta We Paint Winners 400

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistMay 31, 2016

NASCAR at Pocono 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Axalta We Paint Winners 400

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    I don’t know about you, but I still can’t get over Martin Truex’s performance during the Coca-Cola 600. That was somehow on par with Bane breaking Batman’s back.

    Three hundred and 92 laps led? The only time he “lost” the lead came during pit stops when other lead-lap cars stayed out an extra trip or two. I hope we never stop talking about this race because it was that special, like Godfather II-esque special.

    Anyway, move on we must as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Pocono Raceway where, you guessed it, Truex led the most laps and won a year ago.

    The top three of this year’s Coke 600 (Truex, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson) were last year’s Pocono top three. All qualified inside the top 10 and finished un, deux, trois.

    For the second week in a row, these three will get their trigonometry on at the Tricky Triangle*.

    Read on for a preview at the foothills of the Pocono Mountains.

    *: Pocono needs a new a nickname, like Isosceles** or something.

    **: The understanding here is that we know that two sides of this triangle are not equilateral, but it sounds far cooler and more mythologically impressive to say Isosceles.

By the Numbers: Pocono Raceway

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Axalta We Paint Winners 400

    Place: Pocono Raceway

    Date: Sunday, June 5

    TV Coverage: 1:18 p.m. (ET), FS1

    Distance: 400 miles, 160 laps

    Defending Champion: Martin Truex Jr.

Current Driver Standings

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    Kurt Busch
    Kurt BuschAssociated Press

    1. Kevin Harvick, 457

    2. Kurt Busch, 421

    3. Jimmie Johnson, 409

    4. Kyle Busch, 405

    5. Carl Edwards, 404

    6. Brad Keselowski, 404

    7. Martin Truex Jr., 381

    8. Chase Elliott, 374

    9. Joey Logano, 373

    10. Matt Kenseth, 347

    11. Denny Hamlin, 345

    12. Austin Dillon, 344

    13. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 341

    14. Jamie McMurray, 318

    15. Ryan Blaney, 309

    16. Ryan Newman, 309

    Bold denotes 2016 race winner; italics denote multi-race winner.

Biggest Movers

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    Denny Hamlin
    Denny HamlinStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    We’re at the point in the season where a “big” climb or a “big” fall might only be two spots. If you’re on the Chase Bubble, that’s hugeinsignificant to meaningless if you’ve won a race.

    So I’ll try to focus on the few who seem to matter in this spot.

    Biggest Climb

    Denny Hamlin, Up Two

    Sure, Hamlin won the Daytona 500, so his slide up or down the driver standings is a moot point. That is unless you look at it as a trend spotter or as a means to gauge the team’s long-term viability.

    Of late, Hamlin can’t seem to enter or exit pit road without the ref throwing a yellow flag for illegal motion. He leads the Sprint Cup in pit penalties, yet he still manages to drive up into contention.

    After a buffet of mediocre races, Hamlin looks like he’s driving like a future champion as he climbs from 13th in the standings to 11th.

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Up One

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moves up to 18th in the standings after the Coke 600.

    This is his lot for 2016. Odds are he won’t win a race, so he’ll need to log points, stay on the lead lap and finish races. If he does, he stands a chance at reaching the Chase.

    The margin for error is wickedly tight for the No. 17 car. He must be near flawless and hope some of the other bubble drivers come back to him.

    Biggest Fall

    Austin Dillon, Down Two

    Dillon is one of those bubble drivers Stenhouse will keep an eye on. Dillon was inside the top 10 in driver standings for most of the first half of the season. Now he slips to 12th.

    Dillon represents one of three drivers who have never tasted Chase-ness. (Rookies Elliott and Blaney are the other two.) This is where drivers need to get serious and tighten the screws.

    We’ve crested the mountain, so it’s all downhill from here to Richmond.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., Down Two

    Should this be a real worry, Earnhardt sliding to 13th in the driver standings?

    Yes and no.

    With one more plate race at Daytona and this weekend’s trip to Pocono, Earnhardt has two prime chances to earn a win in the next 13 races and secure a spot in the Chase.

    It’ll have to be on in-race tactics.

    He has just five top-10s, but four of those top-10s were top-fives. Junior is either in contention, or he isn’t. There’s no middle ground.

    What he’ll do in-race with crew chief Greg Ives will determine whether he wins. He doesn’t appear to have that pure speed the top-five cars have week to week.

The Chase Bubble Watch

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    Ryan Newman
    Ryan NewmanAssociated Press

    The Too-Early-to-Watch Chase Bubble turned into the Still-Too-Early-to-Watch Chase Bubble a few weeks into the season. With 13 races left in the regular season, it’s on. It’s now the Chase Bubble Watch.

    The Two Above the Line

    Ryan Blaney

    Five top-10s and one top-five keep this salutatorian rookie in the hunt for the playoffs.

    He hasn’t had much experience or positive results over the next 13 tracks, and the ones he has experience or positive results at don’t come until the Chase. So Blaney will need to do things he’s never done before to keep pace with the top 16.

    Ryan Newman

    Newman, what can be said?

    This is his time of year. He hovers like a plane in a holding pattern, and now’s the time when he’ll start to bring this jet in for a landing.

    That isn’t to say he’ll win, but Newman is your classic veteran: not wasting any energy early, turning it on when it really matters, when the money is on the line.

    Newman has eight career wins (including three at Loudon) over the next 13 venues. There’s a strong chance he’ll log 10 top-10s over the next 13 and lock up a Chase bid on points.

    The Two Below the Line

    AJ Allmendinger

    The good news for AJ Allmendinger comes in three words: Sonoma and Watkins Glen. He’s a road-course demon. One suspects he could like totally own Wario or Bowser on Rainbow Road or something.

    Few drivers in the mid-tier have his degree of skill on the dextral and sinistral nature of a road course.

    With a handful of quirky tracks remaining, Allmendinger must capitalize or he will be on the outside of the Chase for the second year in a row.

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

    Same goes for Stenhouse.

    We already gave him adequate real estate in this slider, but he needs to take a similar tact.

    Big drivers can overcome big mistakes. Little drivers don’t have that margin for error. This likely keeps them from taking the necessary risks to perhaps earn more points and shoot for wins, thus keeping LDs in the lower ranks because they can’t afford to spend outside of their pay grade, if that makes any sense.

    The No. 17 team needs to realize the special position they’re in and deliver a spear-pointed plan to hit 16th in the driver standings.

Biggest Storyline: Is This Martin Truex's Time?

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    Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    Winning the Coke 600 in the manner Truex did wasn’t just a historic feat of team dominance, it was a statement of the first order.

    That win, coupled with the alliance he shares with Joe Gibbs Racing, makes him an immediate candidate for Homestead, and now heading to Pocono where he won a year ago, he could truly assert himself as one of the top four cars to beat in all of NASCAR.

    Think about it: He could have as many as five wins this year, probably should have at least two, maybe three.

    "And we keep on fighting,” Truex said in Reid Spencer’s NASCAR.com story. “We never give up. We never quit. We always keep digging, and I'm proud of my guys for sticking by me. They all did a great job tonight. There are so many fans that have supported us the last few years with so many heartbreaks.”

    Now Truex has the Chase Passport punched and can relax knowing he’s earned a bid at the Sprint Cup for a second straight year.

Biggest Storyline: Kurt Busch Ascending

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Pop quiz, hotshot*: Who has the most top-10s in 2016?

    It’s not Kyle Busch. It’s not Harvick. It’s not Edwards. It’s Kurt Busch**.

    Kurt, who has 11 top-10s from 13 races, has inherited the 2016 sobriquet of Best Winless Driver of the Season (BWDS).

    Even without a win, Kurt is the sleeper pick to win the Sprint Cup. His consistency of top-10s means he’s always within striking distance. You’ll frequently hear him talk about going from good to great. That gap is shortening up.

    Right now, he’s real good and, as it stands, is driving with that invisibility cloak where people haven’t given him quite the credit he and the No. 41 team deserve.

    Once he wins—and he will—suddenly that will wake people up to how well he’s performing and alert them to maybe the biggest threat to the top drivers going.

    *: RIP Dennis Hopper

    **: Hard to keep this little gem hidden. What are you gonna do?

Biggest Storylines: Smoke Watch

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    From one Stewart-Haas driver in Kurt to the Stewart-Haas owner, Tony Stewart.

    Where does Stewart sit in the standings, and what must he do the rest of the way to get into the Chase in his final season?

    Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com says Stewart is just 60 points out from 30th in the standings and thinks Stewart will more than likely eclipse that mark. But Smoke needs a win.

    Jensen thinks Smoke can pull off the summer Daytona race, where Stewart has won four times.

    I think it’ll come down to Richmond, the final race of the regular season, where Stewart will earn that win and his self-proclaimed favorite track.

    The opportunities are there, and by the Coke Zero 400 and the final race at Richmond, Stewart will have more repetitions and better endurance behind the wheel.

    Now we wait.

Dark-Horse Pick: Kyle Larson

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Yeah, baby! Kyle Larson takes back his rightful spot as the weekly dark-horse pick.

    No one can argue the awakening this car, this team and this driver have undergone since Kansas. He finished second at Dover, 13th at Charlotte and was a menace in the Showdown and All-Star Race.

    Larson said in Bob Pockrass’ ESPN.com story (h/t ABC.com):

    When I ran second at Fontana, I wasn't that good. I didn't run up front the whole race. When it's that early in your Sprint Cup career, you don't know, really know, if it's for real or if it's going to happen again.

    Where now I feel like I am fast enough, talented enough, our team is good enough, whatever you want to call it, to run up front more often. I guess it's a little bit different [now].

    A Larson win will muddy up the Chase picture since he’ll likely not crack the top 16 but will hold a win and thus a spot in the playoffs.

    A Larson win is a nightmare for drivers on the Chase Bubble, but is there a driver more ready for a win outside the top 16 than Larson?

And the Winner Is...Kurt Busch

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    It’s Kurt Busch’s time.

    He’s a two-time winner at Pocono, finished fifth a year ago in this race, has 16 career top-10s at Isosceles and has 11 top-10s in the 2016.

    Busch’s fire is burning white-hot.

    Geologists predict volcanic eruptions by measuring subterranean pressure; they know when the surface will be breached. Is there not a similar sense of that geologic pressure for the No. 41 car?

    There will be no under-the-radar flying after this race.