NASCAR Sprint Cup at Pocono: Denny Hamlin and 10 Top Contenders to Win at Pocono

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IJune 7, 2011

NASCAR Sprint Cup at Pocono: Denny Hamlin and 10 Top Contenders to Win at Pocono

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    LONG POND, PA - JUNE 06:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500 at Pocono Raceway on June 6, 2010 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joh
    John Harrelson/Getty Images

    This Sunday the Sprint Cup Series makes its first of two trips to the super speedway of Pocono. This is perhaps the most unique track that the series runs on, in that instead of the usual four turned oval, this is a massive, three turned triangle.

    Many drivers say that Pocono runs more like a road course than an oval, in that all three turns are completely different. And to win at this track takes skill, and a well balanced race car that can handle all of the tracks differences.

    I am going to take a look at the 10 drivers who may be in the best position to win this weekends race, and inch one step closer to making the Chase.

1. Denny Hamlin

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    LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 04:  Denny Hamlin drives the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 4, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASC
    John Harrelson/Getty Images

    While the 2011 season has not been as successful for Denny Hamlin as 2010 was, there may be no better track to go to for him to try and score his first win of the season.

    Hamlin has dominated Pocono in his brief Sprint Cup career, and he is the defending winner of this race. In 10 starts at Pocono, Hamlin has amassed four wins, including sweeping both races in his rookie year.

    He has scored eight top-10s in those 10 starts, and has led at least 40 laps on five different occasions.

    Hamlin puts himself in position for success at this track as well, by qualifying up front. He has scored two poles, and only started outside the top-10 twice at Pocono. Those two starts were 16th and 14th respectively.

    There is no doubt that to win in Pocono, you will have to go through Hamlin and the No. 11 Toyota to do it.

2. Carl Edwards

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    DOVER, DE - MAY 13:  Carl Edwards drives the #99 Aflac Ford during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on May 13, 2011 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for
    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    It's hard to bet against Carl Edwards at any track this year. He has is the current series point leader by a wide margin, and at times this season has looked untouchable.

    So far in 2011, Edwards has scored a series high 10 top-10s in 13 races, including a win earlier in the year. He has also led laps in all but two races thus far.

    Edwards has a stellar record at Pocono as well. In 12 starts, he has scored six top-10 finishes, which include a pair of wins. In his last six trips to the Pennsylvania speedway, he has one win, four top-10s and a worse finish of 18th.

    Just don't expect Edwards to start near the front. Only twice has he started a Pocono race in the top-10.

3. Jimmie Johnson

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29:  Jimmie Johnson drives the #48 Lowe's Summer Salute Chevrolet on the aprin after an incident in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by John Harrel
    John Harrelson/Getty Images

    Another driver that is typically tough to bet against at any track is the five time defending series champion, Jimmie Johnson. While he has scored just one win this season, Pocono is a track that also treats him quite kindly.

    In 18 starts at the triangle, Johnson has piloted his way to 12 top-10 finishes which include two wins, both coming in the 2004 season.

    If you look past his 42nd place finish in the 2007 race, Johnson has not finished worse than 15th in any of his other 17 starts at this track.

    Six of the last seven trips to the Pocono mountains have resulted in a top-10 finish for Johnson. He should have no problem staying in the mix right up until the end.

4. Jeff Gordon

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    KANSAS CITY, KS - JUNE 03:  Jeff Gordon drives the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 400 at Kansas Speedway on June 3, 2011 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    After a very strong run in Kansas, there is a lot of optimism that the season may be really turning around for Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team. Going to Pocono shouldn't hurt anything either.

    In 36 career starts at the super speedway, Gordon has scored four wins, and recorded 25 top-10 finishes.

    The last 14 times that Gordon has raced here, have produced 10 top-10s and only two finishes worse than 14th.

    Gordon currently finds himself in 13th place in the championship standings, but by virtue of his win earlier in the year, he would be in the Chase. If he wants to enhance those Chase chances, another strong run at Pocono would go a long way.

5. Kevin Harvick

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29:  Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Budweiser Armed Forces Tribute Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.  (
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    While Kevin Harvick's career numbers at Pocono won't blow anyone away, they aren't terrible either. And, with the way things have gone for him so far this season, it's hard to not consider him a contender any week.

    In 20 starts in Pocono, Harvick has yet to find victory lane, but does have seven top-10s. In his more recent history at this track, his results have begun to show improvement.

    In his last 12 starts here, 10 of his finishes were 13th or better, including fourth place finishes in both Pocono races a season ago.

    Just because Harvick doesn't have the best track record here is no reason to count him out. After all, Charlotte has been an absolutely terrible track for him over the course of his career, and he won there a couple weeks ago.

6. Tony Stewart

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    FORT WORTH, TX - APRIL 08:  Tony Stewart drives the #14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 8, 2011 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by To
    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    This is about the time of the year each season that Tony Stewart seems to flip on a switch and starts to rattle off some wins, along with some high quality finishes. Pocono is a track that really proves that theory.

    In 24 career starts here, Stewart has 18 top-10s, and is a two time winner at this track. Both of his wins have come in this race.

    Only one time in the last 11 races at Pocono has Stewart finished outside of the top 10, and in five of those 11 races he has finished third or better.

    Coming in to this race, Stewart sits eighth in the points with not a lot of breathing room. A win, or at least another real strong Pocono run would go a long way to securing a Chase spot for Stewart.

7. Kurt Busch

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 28:  (***EDITORS NOTE*** - THIS DIGITAL IMAGE WAS CREATED WITH THE USE OF VARIABLE FOCAL PLANE LENS) Kurt Busch drives the #22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Things seem to be headed back in the right direction for Kurt Busch and the No. 22 team. They started the season off by leading the points after four weeks. Then they went to a big time rut, that has heard multiple outbursts from the driver.

    After a fourth place finish in Charlotte followed by a pole win and dominant car at Kansas, the ship seems to be righted.

    Pocono has been a hit or miss track for Busch. In 20 starts here, he has scored 10 top-10s. On the flip side though, Busch has also posted six finishes that were outside the top-30.

    He does have two wins here, along with four runner up finishes, so as long as the team can continue firing on all cylinders, Busch should have no trouble contending for the win.

8. Mark Martin

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    FORT WORTH, TX - APRIL 07:  Mark Martin, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 7, 2011 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Mark Martin is a driver that really needs to get things going in the right direction if he has any hopes of qualifying for the Chase. He currently sits just 14th in the standings, and has only been average at best all season long.

    Pocono has always been a solid track for Martin, though he has never been able to score a win here. He has started 48 races at this track, and has compiled 33 top-10 finishes.

    That includes an impressive six runner up finishes. You can also expect Martin to qualify his car toward the front of the field.

    Only four times in his 48 trips to Pocono has Martin failed to qualify inside the top-20. If ever there was a driver needing a good showing, it's Martin this weekend.

9. Greg Biffle

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    KANSAS CITY, KS - JUNE 05:  Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M/Walgreens Ford, races during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 400 at Kansas Speedway on June 5, 2011 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Greg Biffle is another driver who is looking to improve his current Chase standings. He returns to Pocono as the last driver to score a win on the super speedway, as he earned his first career Pocono victory in the second race at this track.

    Prior to his win, Pocono had always been a thorn in the side of Biffle. In 15 starts prior to last years victory, Biffle had managed just two top-10 finishes.

    However, once a driver scores a win at a track, somehow their feelings towards it change. Hopefully Biffle can maintain his positive feelings to the track and find a way to keep his car near the front of the field again this year.

10. Brian Vickers

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 26:  Brian Vickers drives the #83 Red Bull Toyota during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCA
    John Harrelson/Getty Images

    Brian Vickers could be the surprise of this group. Last season, Vickers was forced to miss both races at Pocono while he recovered from his blood clot issues.

    Prior to that, Vickers had found some modest success at this track. He has made 12 career starts, and posted five top-10 finishes including a pair of runner up efforts.

    In 2005, the first of his two second place finishes here, Vickers dominated the race leading a race high 121 laps before ultimately finishing behind Carl Edwards.

    The only concern for Vickers heading in to this race would be if there is any rust in remembering how to get around the tricky triangle. If he can figure it out, look for Vickers to be a contender.