Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – With only six races left to set the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field, there are plenty of drivers looking for their first wins of the season and one – Daniel Suarez – racing for the first win of his career.
But when it comes to this week’s stop, Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, more typically the “Tricky Triangle” has proven itself a venue for veterans and multi-time winners. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin scored his first career win a the track in 2006 and answered with another to sweep the season. He leads all current drivers with four wins. Seven-time Monster Energy Series champion, Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson leads all active drivers in laps led (740) at the 2.5-mile track.
Nine times a driver has won back-to-back Pocono races, the most recent being Kyle Busch who has won the last two consecutively and three of the last four. Should he win Sunday’s Gander RV 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) he would join an ultra-elite group to win three straight – NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (1982-83) and the late Tim Richmond (1986-87).
For the most part in recent years, Pocono has been a veteran’s playfield scattered with a couple worthy exceptions. When Ryan Blaney earned his first career Cup victory there in 2017, veteran Kevin Harvick was right on his bumper in the second closest finish (.139-seconds) in the track’s history. When Chris Buescher claimed his first Cup win in 2016, it was primarily a strategy call – he was leading when the race was called early due to bad weather.
With the exception of Hamlin, who is a perennial championship challenger, the track’s winningest drivers are also series champions – from the seven-time champ Johnson, who has three Pocono wins to 2004 series champ Kurt Busch and 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch, who also have three wins each and 2017 series champ Martin Truex Jr., who claims a pair of Pocono wins.
A Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion or future series champ has won 12 of the last 17 Pocono races.
Of the drivers contending for the final Playoff positions with six regular season races remaining, Johnson, who is ranked 17th, leads the way with his Pocono trio of trophies. Roush-Fenway Racing driver Ryan Newman, who is ranked 15th, is the only other former Pocono winner in this group – hoisting the trophy in 2003. Johnson and Newman finished 19th and 16th, respectively, earlier this summer.
Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson, who is ranked 13th, only 31 points to the Playoff good, has a pair of top-five finishes at Pocono including a runner-up finish to Truex in 2018. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones, who is 14th in the standings, 28 points to the Playoff good, has three top-fives at Pocono and was third earlier this season. Bowyer, who drives the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and is ranked 16th in the standings, had a fifth-place finish at Pocono in June.
Suarez, who drives the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, won his first career pole position in this race last year and finished a career best runner-up. He was eighth in June’s race.
“I’m confident in the No. 41 team,” Suarez said. “We have a good group of guys who work hard. Unfortunately we have had a few things that were out of our control that have happened during races which has made things more difficult for us.
“Other times, we’ve been trying different things to see if they’d work or not and some of those things didn’t work. But we have some of my best tracks in Pocono and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) coming up. We’re just going to keep focused and doing our jobs.”
XFINITY RETURNS TO IOWA
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell and Stewart-Haas Racing driver Cole Custer have already set a historic pace of triumph this season and we’re only 18 races into NASCAR’s Xfinity Series championship run. All indications are that Saturday’s U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa Speedway (5 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) could well be the next chapter in a dominating year for the pair plus championship leader Tyler Reddick. This threesome accounts for 13 wins.
With five victories each, Bell and Custer have tied a historic mark for success – joining Jack Ingram and Sam Ard (1984, seven wins each) as the only pair of drivers to each earn five or more trophies through the opening 18 races of a season.
There’s no reason to assume this pace will slow either. Bell is the two-time defending champion at Iowa and could join Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as the only two drivers to win three consecutive Xfinity Series races at the track. Stenhouse did it in 2011-12.
In four starts at the Iowa .875-mile oval, Bell has two wins, a runner-up, a pole position and led an amazing 434 laps. He’s led at least 150 laps twice – finishing 16th after leading 152 laps in his 2017 Iowa debut and leading 186 laps in this June’s victory.
Championship leader Reddick, who holds a 56-point edge over Bell in the standings, has never led a lap at Iowa and has only a pair of top-10s in five starts. The Richard Childress Racing driver was 15th last month here. Custer, who is third in the points standings, has four top-10 finishes and was runner-up to Bell earlier this summer.
Keeping them honest all season and especially this weekend, will be perennial championship contender Justin Allgaier, who won five times last season, but is still looking for his first victory of 2019. The JR Motorsports driver joins Bell as a former Iowa winner – the only two past winners in Saturday’s field. He won the season’s first summer Iowa race in 2018 and has finished second and third in the two races since. He’s the highest ranked driver in the series right now (fourth) without a win yet.
“It all comes down to one race at Homestead, so you never really know what you’re gonna have until there, but I think at this point you’re just trying to keep your own momentum up and try to get to Homestead,” Custer said of the fast early season pace. “We’re just trying to build as many Playoff points as possible and then from there when we get to Homestead we’ll settle it there.”
Eight races remain until the Playoffs. The top 12 ranked drivers will be eligible to contend for the trophy. Currently that includes Reddick, Bell, Custer, the winner of the season-opening Daytona race Michael Annett, Allgaier, Austin Cindric and rookie Noah Gragson.
OF NOTE: Kaulig Racing driver Justin Haley will have a new leader atop his pit box this weekend, crew chief Alex Yontz, will handle crew chief duties following the unexpected death of Haley’s crew chief Nick Harrison last Sunday. Harrison was beloved in the NASCAR community and as you would expect, Haley and the team are highly motivated to honor him with a win at Iowa on Saturday. Yontz and Haley worked together at Michigan earlier this season, scoring a 10th-place finish.
“Nick [Harrison] and I had a really fast car at Iowa a few weeks back,” Haley said. “This will be our second time there this year. Hopefully we will be just as fast and maybe get a win for Nick and see what else we can do this weekend.
“We’ve got some road courses after that, so I am really excited. We are going to the race track this weekend in honor of Nick, and we are going to go win one for him.”
POCONO WELCOMES THE TRUCKS
With only three races remaining to set the eight-driver NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Playoff field, this week’s Gander RV 150 at Pocono Raceway (1 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) takes on added significance for much of the field.
Only one driver among the top-five in the championship standings – defending series champion Brett Moffitt – has a victory so far. As it stands the other four truck series regulars who have qualified for the Playoffs with wins include Austin Hill, Johnny Sauter, Tyler Ankrum and Ross Chastain, meaning the championship-eligible field would be filled by only the top-three in the standings – Grant Enfinger, Stewart Friesen and Matt Crafton.
This week’s race seems like a true wild card in terms of precedent. No past winners are entered. Among the top-five ranked drivers still without a win, the veteran Crafton has the most Pocono starts, having competed in all nine races. He has six top-six finishes and his best showing (third) came in the inaugural Gander Trucks race in 2010.
Harrison Burton, who is the first driver on the wrong side of the Playoff cutoff will be making his Pocono debut in the Gander Trucks, however he did win the 2018 ARCA Menards Series race at the track. Ben Rhodes is just behind Burton in the standings (ranked sixth). He boasts the best previous Pocono finish among the top-ranked drivers still racing for a season first win. He won the pole position and finished second at Pocono in 2017.