Starting position traditionally key to success at Pocono

The most telling statistic in the history of NASCAR racing at Pocono Raceway is in regards to where the winners have started. In 65 Sprint Cup starts, the eventual winner has come from a top-10 start position 46 times (72%) with the front row producing 23 winners. When looking at possible candidates to win this week, it’s a great idea to begin with looking at the drivers starting up front.

The probable cause for such a drastic percentage comes from the drivers up front being able to drive their own preferred lines in and out of the three differing tricky turns on Pocono’s massive 2.5-mile triangular layout. Granted, the drivers started up front because they qualified well — meaning they have lots of horsepower to begin with — but they go a lot faster when they aren’t constantly battling for position like the drivers stuck in packs behind the top-10 drivers have to. They are no longer able to hit their marks because everyone in the back is trying to move up which creates some side by side racing going around the tricky flat turns, ultimately causing them to lose speed.

The drivers in the back also are hampered by the process of having several long green flag runs where the drivers with no traffic and clean air separate themselves from the other quite easily. The furthest back any driver has started to win a race was 29th with Carl Edwards in 2005.
 
The next thing to check on when looking for this weeks top candidates to win is compare notes from the June Pocono race and last weeks Brickyard 400. While both tracks a vastly different in configuration, the long straightaways and flat sweeping turns mirror each other so much that many of the teams use the same set-ups for each.
 
When comparing results from the June race to the Brickyard 400, they look almost identical, or at least the names do. Nine of the top-15 finishers from June finished in the top-15 at Indy last week. What’s even more glaring is that two of the best cars from both races, driven by Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya, aren’t even part of the nine drivers even though they both finished within the top-10 in June. Johnson and Montoya had two of the best cars at Indy but had troubles near the end of the race.
 
Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus are a perfect example of a team putting a premium on qualifying well for Pocono this week after what happened in the June race where they started 25th and finished fifth. Though they finished well, it was an uphill battle all day for them trying to get position as they were continually mired within those packs in the back fighting for position. In Friday’s first practice session while most of the teams spent the first half of the session tinkering with their set-up in race trim, Johnson and Knaus used the entire session exclusively with qualifying trim on. The move paid off as Johnson qualified sixth.
 
During Saturday’s practice sessions, Johnson shined with the second best times early and was third fastest during happy hour. Most impressive of all was his average lap time over the duration of happy hour and his average on 10 consecutive laps where Johnson was faster than anyone. Should Johnson get out front early on with that clean air, he’s going to be tough to beat.
 
When mixing in all of Johnson’s past history at Pocono where he’s averaged a finish of 9.5 per race in his 17 starts that includes an amazing 16 top-15 finishes, it’s hard to find a better candidate to win this week.
 
The driver who may have something to say about that is the four-time Pocono winner Denny Hamlin. He comes in with a two-race winning streak at Pocono and while he wasn’t all that impressive with individual lap times in Saturday’s practice, he did have great average lap speeds. He’ll be looking to tie Bobby Allison and Tim Richmond for a track record of three straight wins. Hamlin also has the luxury of starting third.
 
The only knock on Hamlin this week is that he and crew chief Mike Forde didn’t bring the same winning chassis from the June race, a car that had never lost going 3-for-3 in starts and wins this year. One would think that a team that hasn’t had a top-five finish in five straight races would bring their best to their best track. The streak of poor runs started at Sonoma when Hamlin and the team chose not to test for road races prior to the event, essentially giving it away.
If Pocono can’t get Hamlin back on track to looking like the driver that won five races in the first 15, it may be a while.
 
The best combined efforts by team at Pocono and Indy this year has been Richard Childress racing’s stable of drivers. All three finished within the top-10 of both races with Kevin Harvick being one of only two drivers to crack the top-five of both. Jeff Burton has been the best in combined practices — including fastest in Saturday’s happy hour — and has a seventh and sixth place finish to show for it. Harvick starts 14th this week while Burton begins within the top-10 in eighth.
 
Clint Bowyer starts 40th this week after slipping during his qualifying run. He like, like his two teammates, has been just as good at Pocono and Indy this year. Bowyer finished sixth fastest in both practice sessions Saturday. If it weren’t for his poor start position, Bowyer would be rated much higher. He led 59 laps early on in the June race.    
   
Tony Stewart is sitting on the pole for third time in the last four Pocono races. He won from the pole in the first Pocono race last year to give him his second career win there. He is one of only two drivers to finish in the top-five of both Pocono and Indy this year. This week he’ll be using his winning chassis from the 2009 All-Star race, a monumental first win — albeit a non-points race — for his new team. Three weeks later, Stewart would get his new team their first points race win at Pocono.
 
Two drivers to keep an eye on Sunday are Greg Biffle and Joey Logano. Biffle is using the same car from last week at Indy that led 38 laps and finished third. It was the first real sign this year that Roush Racing had competitive horsepower capable of winning a race. Because of the confidence that Biffle’s car will bring to the team, they very well could help car owner Jack Roush to a speedy recovery with a win. The Roush stable of four cars is winless this season making it the longest a Ford has gone without winning since 1977.
 
Joey Logano returns to the site where he got more media coverage than his rain shortened win at New Hampshire last year. In June’s race, Logano was running fifth when he flat out got punted by Harvick which caused Logano to go on a rant on television where he unwisely brought Harvick’s wife Delana into the conversation. The finish would have been Logano’s third top-five of the season. Currently, six races since, he’s still searching for that elusive third top-five. The good news for Logano is that it could happen this week. He was second fastest during happy hour and has the fortune of being in the Gibbs family who netted first and second place in the June race.
 
  
Roberts Weekly Driver Ratings
Each week I will provide an analysis of my top rated drivers on how well they will do in the race based on the following criteria:
• Practice sessions leading up to the weekend’s Sprint Cup race
• Chassis information on what was brought to each track by each team, good or bad
• Driver tendencies at certain tracks
• Recent and overall histories for each driver at each track
• Decipher poor past results with what really happened, good car — or bad luck?
These final ratings should help assist in final betting strategies with the Las Vegas books or match-up and prop plays, as well as help in NASCAR fantasy leagues.      
  
Micah Roberts Top 10 Driver Ratings
Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500
Pocono Raceway
Sunday, August 1, 2010 – 10:16 am (PDT)
 
Rating    Driver     Odds     Practice 1  Qualifying  Practice 3   Practice 4
 
 1. Jimmie Johnson 5/1          1st               6th             2nd             3rd
Two-time Pocono winner (swept 2004); Finished in top-15 in 16 of 17 career races.
 2. Kevin Harvick 10/1           11th             14th            3rd              7th
Using fourth-place chassis from June race; one of two drivers with top-5s at Indy and Pocono.         
 3. Tony Stewart 10/1             5th               1st            26th            26th  
Two-time Pocono winner; won from pole last year. Using winning 2009 All-Star chassis this week.
 4. Denny Hamlin 9/2             2nd               3rd            22nd           14th
Four-time Pocono winner, including June’s race, however, not using the same chassis this week.
 5. Jeff Gordon 8/1                 7th               4th             1st              24th
Four-time Pocono winner with a 10.7 average finish in 35 career starts; 16 top-fives.
 6. Jeff Burton 15/1                20th              8th            4th               1st   
Has collectively been the strongest in the combined practices of both Pocono races and Indy.
 7. Mark Martin 25/1              17th              10th           8th               8th       
Using same chassis that led 10 laps finishing 11th last week at Indy. Six time runner-up at Pocono.
 8. Juan Pablo Montoya 20/1  8th              2nd            19th            10th
Using same chassis that finished eighth in June’s race. Finished runner-up in this 2009 race. 
 9. Ryan Newman 40/1          3rd               5th             20th            15th           
Won at Pocono in 2003; Has a 13.4 average finish in 17 career starts, including six top-fives.
10. Greg Biffle 18/1               10th             12th            5th              28th    
Using same fast car from last week at Indy that led 38 laps and finished third.
                      
Note: The one track similar to Pocono on the circuit is Indy because of the long straightaways and flat, sweeping turns each possess.
Odds courtesy of the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book.
Micah Roberts, a former Race and Sports Book Director, has been setting NASCAR lines in Las Vegas since 1995. He currently writes for multiple publications covering all sports. He can be reached at MM.Roberts7Gmail.com.
 
 
DRIVER QUOTES
 
DENNY HAMLIN ON THE POSSIBILITY OF WINNING THREE STRAIGHT POCONO RACES: "Way too tough to predict wins in this sport, it’s just too competitive but I like coming here and this FedEx team always prepares really good cars for this track. Indy was frustrating for us, we really raced all day trying to get a spot back on the lead lap so I think we are excited to get here and put last weekend behind us. We are building really good cars right now as we look ahead and learning a lot. We want to come here, have a good weekend and keep our focus on a championship and performing at that level where we can compete each and every week. If that means win here, we’ll take it."
 
GREG BIFFLE ON RACING AT POCONO: "I am very excited to be going back to Pocono with the car we finished third with last weekend at Indy. We have run very well the last two races. We had a top-five car at Chicago and then last week at Indy we had a car that could win and ended up with a third place finish. I’m ready to go to Pocono and Michigan to try to get the win that we’ve been working for. Who knows, we may have a shot at it at Watkins Glen too. I just can’t say enough about how well our cars and our engines are performing right now. We just need to get that win."
 
JIMMIE JOHNSON ON PEOPLE COMPARING INDY TO POCONO AND WHAT THE DIFFERENCES ARE: "People have said that and I have always thought they’re crazy. Maybe if you look at the setup on paper, at one time they were similar. But I just don’t think there’s anything to get you ready for either one of the tracks. And then Pocono – it’s a triangle. It’s bumpy and rough and different and awkward. So I think Pocono is its own animal. I think it’s a stretch to compare the two."
 
KYLE BUSCH ON THE TOUGHEST THING ABOUT RACING AT POCONO: “The hardest part of the track, for me, is probably turn one, and then turn two is the second-hardest, and then turn three is the third-hardest. Turn three, last year, because of the patch they laid down. We couldn’t go down low and get underneath somebody and get a run on them because, when you come off the corner, you’re 8 to 10 mph slower than the guy on your outside, and they’re just going to blow right by you going down the straightaway.”
 
TONY STEWART EXPLAINING A LAP AROUND POCONO: “Turn one is probably the easiest of the three – you drive it in kind of deep and then try to float the car through the corner. You go down the backstretch and into the tunnel turn and it’s basically one lane. It’s flat and very line-sensitive. You’ve got to make sure you’re right on your marks every lap when you go through there. Then you’ve got a short chute into turn three. It’s a big, long corner and it too is very line-sensitive. Add the fact that we’ve got a straightaway that’s three-quarters of a mile long after that, and it’s very important that you get through the last corner well. You need to come off the corner quickly so that you’re not bogged down when you start down that long straightaway. Each corner has its challenges, and each one tends to present a different set of circumstances with each lap you make.”
 
 
POCONO ODDS & ENDS: SUNOCO RED CROSS PENNSYLVANIA 500
 
Compiled by Mike Forde
NASCAR Media Service
 
History
Pocono Raceway held the first race on the 2.5-mile track in 1971.
The first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race was in 1974.
Notebook
There have been 65 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Pocono.
There was one race from 1974 through 1981, and two per year since.
All NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Pocono have been scheduled for 500 miles.
Buddy Baker won the first pole.There have been 36 different pole winners, including David Pearson who won the pole there in June 1984 but did not race; 15 drivers have more than one pole there.
The pole has been swept just three times: Bill Elliott (1985), Ken Schrader (1993), Denny Hamlin (2006).
Richard Petty won the first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Pocono.
28 different drivers have won races at Pocono, led by Bill Elliott, with five victories; 20 drivers have won more than once there.
There have been six season sweeps at Pocono, the last by Denny Hamlin in 2006.
Bobby Allison and Tim Richmond each won three consecutive races at Pocono.
47 of 65 Pocono races have been won from a top-10 start.
The June 2005 race was won by Carl Edwards from the 29th starting position, the deepest in the field that a race winner has started.
Rick Hendrick leads all car owners with 11 Pocono victories.
Mark Martin leads all drivers in top fives (19) and top 10s (32), but has yet to win at Pocono. His best finish was second, six times (most recently in August 2004).
Denny Hamlin (8.6) and Jimmie Johnson (9.5) are the only active drivers to average a top-10 finish.
Pocono Raceway Data
Race #: 21 of 36 (8-1-10)
Track Size: 2.5 mile (200 laps/500miles)
• Banking/Turn 1: 14 degrees
• Banking/Turn 2: 8 degrees
• Banking/Turn 3: 6 degrees
• Frontstretch: 3,740 feet
• Backstretch: 3,055 feet
• Shortstretch: 1,780
Driver Rating at Pocono
Denny Hamlin 119.1
Kurt Busch 103.7
Jimmie Johnson 103.7
Tony Stewart 101.4
Carl Edwards 98.5
Jeff Gordon 96.1
Mark Martin 95.8
Ryan Newman 94.5
Kasey Kahne 92.0
Kevin Harvick 90.1
Note: Driver Rating compiled from 2005-2010 races (11 total) at Pocono.

Qualifying/Race Data
2009 pole winner: None (inclement weather)
2009 race winner: Denny Hamlin, 126.396 mph, 8-3-09)
Track qualifying record: Kasey Kahne (172.533 mph, 52.164 secs., 6-11-04)
Track race record: Rusty Wallace (144.892 mph, 7-21-96)

Estimated Pit Window: Every 28-30 laps, based on fuel mileage.
 
 
NASCAR ODDS TO WIN FROM THE LAS VEGAS HILTON SUPER BOOK
 
SUNOCO RED CROSS PENNSYLVANIA 500
POCONO SPEEDWAY
SUNDAY, AUGUST 1, 2010

JIMMIE JOHNSON 5
KYLE BUSCH 8
JEFF GORDON 8
DENNY HAMLIN 9-2
JEFF BURTON 15
KEVIN HARVICK 10
MATT KENSETH 30
CARL EDWARDS 20
GREG BIFFLE 18
KURT BUSCH 20
MARK MARTIN 25
TONY STEWART 10
CLINT BOWYER 15
JUAN MONTOYA 20
KASEY KAHNE 20
JOEY LOGANO 35
RYAN NEWMAN 40
MARTIN TRUEX JR 40
JAMIE McMURRAY 20
DALE EARNHARDT JR 50
BRAD KESELOWSKI 100
DAVID REUTIMANN 50
REED SORENSON 200
DAVID RAGAN 200
AJ ALLMENDINGER 80
MARCOS AMBROSE 300
SAM HORNISH JR 100
ELLIOTT SADLER 500
REGAN SMITH 500
PAUL MENARD 300
SCOTT SPEED 500
BOBBY LABONTE 2000
TRAVIS KVAPIL 3000
FIELD 300

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