Pocono Raceway’s unique, triangle-shaped layout makes it one of the most challenging tracks on the schedule, and this weekend, speeds have been at an all-time high. Denny Hamlin set a new track record en route to winning the pole for Sunday’s Pocono 400, headlining a top-five filled with drivers that have had a lot of success at the track in past. Four of the top-five qualifiers are former winners at Pocono, combining for 13 wins at the track overall. Considering 50 of the 72 races at Pocono have been won by a driver starting in the top 10 with 24 winners starting on the front row, there is a good chance that one of the top qualifiers could be heading back to victory lane Sunday.
Despite the higher speeds, Saturday’s practice sessions were relatively clean and quiet. Several of the top qualifiers continued to turn fast laps in race trim, but there were a few drivers that failed to back up their qualifying times. Meanwhile, other drivers that qualified a bit deeper in the field popped up near the top of the charts in Saturday’s practices, causing some minor fluctuations in the final driver rankings.
The only noteworthy storyline to develop so far is that Mike Bliss spent some time practicing in the No. 34 car of David Ragan Saturday. Ragan’s wife is expecting their first child any day, so there is a chance he could miss Sunday’s Pocono 400. Ragan is only worth considering in very deep leagues anyway, and from a performance standpoint, Bliss is likely to deliver similar results. However, most formats award points only to the driver that starts the race, so if you are thinking about using Ragan, make sure he is going to be behind the wheel.
The top 3
1) Kevin Harvick
Harvick has shown a ton of speed this weekend, and he jumps to the top of the final rankings after qualifying fourth and pacing the field on both short and long runs in both practices Saturday. He has been solid at Pocono in recent years, posting a 10.4 average finish and three top-five finishes in his last eight starts, and Harvick seems poised to take his performance at the track to another level this weekend with a car that looks like the fastest in the field.
2) Jimmie Johnson
The numbers say his 20th-place effort in qualifying will make it tough for him to get to victory lane for the third week in a row, but don’t write off Johnson altogether. His 8.8 average finish at the track is the best in the series, and he has finished fourth or better four times in his last six starts, leading the most laps of any driver during the stretch. More importantly, he posted strong practice times in race trim Saturday afternoon, turning the third-fastest lap in the final session.
3) Tony Stewart
There is something about the month of June that seems to jump start Stewart, and right on cue, he makes a huge jump into the No. 3 spot in the final rankings. Following a solid 12th-place effort in qualifying, Stewart was one of the five-fastest drivers in practice Saturday and was even better on long runs. He heads into this weekend’s race with 10 finishes of 11th or better in his last 11 starts at Pocono, and since the track was repaved in 2012, he owns a series-leading 5.2 average finish. “Smoke” should contend for his first win of 2014 Sunday.
8) Kurt Busch
It’s a little tough to trust a driver that has a 26.0 average finish in 2014, but what Busch lacks in reliability, he makes up for in upside this weekend at Pocono. For his career, he has two wins and five second-place finishes at Pocono, and he ranks among the top three drivers in the series in several scoring loop categories, including driver rating and fastest laps run. Busch will start second Sunday with a car that ranked second on the charts in race trim during Happy Hour Saturday. He may not be the safest pick, but Busch could also win the race.
11) Ryan Newman
His numbers at Pocono are among the most consistent in the series, and Newman appears headed for another solid performance at the triangle-shaped track. He qualified 15th Friday, and he ranked sixth and fifth on the practice charts Saturday. Newman enters Sunday’s race with top-15 finishes in his last 11 starts at Pocono, and he has three straight finishes of sixth or better at the track. He looks like a safe bet to challenge for another top-10 this weekend.
13) Brian Vickers
After missing six of the last eight races at Pocono, including four straight, I wasn’t sure if the success Vickers had at the track early in his career would carry over to the new surface. After qualifying ninth Friday and cracking the top five in practice Saturday, I think I have my answer. From 2004 to 2009, Vickers logged eight top-15 finishes in 12 starts at Pocono, including four top-four finishes. He has also led the sixth-most laps at the track since 2005 despite running in just 12 of the 18 races. Vickers definitely has top-10 potential this weekend.
17) Kyle Larson
Larson practiced at Pocono earlier this year, and it looks like the extra seat time is paying off for the rookie as he prepares to make his track debut. He qualified 14th Friday, and he jumped into the top 10 during practice Saturday. Larson’s natural talent has been on display all season, and even a notoriously tricky track like Pocono is having trouble slowing him down. You can expect at a least top-20 finish out of Larson, and his ceiling is much higher.
Big names outside the top 10
12) Kyle Busch
Busch got off to a fast start this weekend by qualifying sixth Friday. However, it has been downhill since, as he ranked outside the top 20 in both practice sessions Saturday afternoon. Busch has a tendency to run hot and cold at Pocono, and although he finished sixth and eighth in two starts at the track last year, he finished 30th and 33rd in two starts in 2012. Based on his struggles in practice Saturday, fantasy owners may want to dial back their expectations.
15) Matt Kenseth
His last top-five finish at Pocono came 16 races ago, and is looking like the drought is going to continue this weekend for Kenseth. He qualified outside the top 25, and he failed to crack the top 20 in the first practice in race trim Saturday. Kenseth did show some signs of life in Happy Hour, but overall, it appears fantasy owners can expect nothing more than an average run from Kenseth at Pocono.
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.
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