Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – Although Pocono Raceway has long been regarded as one of the most challenging stops on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, young drivers have shown a propensity in mastering the challenge.
Particularly in the last few seasons, the 2.5-mile, triangular-shaped Pocono Raceway has proven to provide a high-speed introduction of first-time winners. From Denny Hamlin, who won his first two starts on “The Tricky Triangle” in 2006 to Chris Buescher’s win a decade later to Ryan Blaney’s emotion-filled first trophy hoist in 2017, this venue has served as a Welcome-to-the-Winner’s-Party for many of the sport’s best.
This Sunday’s Pocono 400 (2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) presents prime opportunity for Hendrick Motorsport’s Alex Bowman and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suarez to take their first ever trip to Victory Lane. Suarez won his first career series pole position in the last visit to Pocono in July, 2018 and finished a career best runner-up in the race. Bowman – who is fresh off three consecutive runner-up finishes at Talladega, Dover and Kansas – had his best ever Pocono finish in 2018 as well – a third place effort.
Bowman’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron scored a sixth-place finish at the most recent Pocono race in his 2018 Cup rookie season – the first top-10 of his Monster Energy Series career. In 2016 he won the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race from the pole position at Pocono.
As promising as it is for newcomers, this race stop also presents prime opportunity for several veterans looking to earn another type of first win – a first win of the season – to solidify their championship chances. Stewart-Haas Racing drivers such as Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola have been on the cusp of a first 2019 trophy – but the team, which won 12 races a year ago among four drivers, has been shut out of the winner’s circle so far.
Harvick, who had eight wins in 2018, had five of them before he arrived at Pocono Raceway last June. He has yet to win at Pocono in his championship career, but has eight top-10 finishes in the last nine races there, including four runner-up finishes in that timeframe. He was fourth in both races last year.
Bowyer has 10 top-10 finishes in 26 Pocono starts, but led only five laps in one race in the last 17 races there. Pocono was however, a good starting point for a solid summer run in 2018 as he earned his second victory of the season the very next week at Michigan.
Almirola scored the only top-10 (seventh) of his career at Pocono in this race last year.
Both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch have impressive past records at Pocono and would also like to land a first points-paying trophy of the season. Larson set the track qualifying record (183.438 mph) as a rookie in 2014 and has five top-10s in 10 starts at Pocono – plus a win in the inaugural Xfinity Series race there in 2017. Busch has more top-10 finishes (20) than any driver in the field and only Hamlin (four) has more wins than the three-time Pocono winner Busch.
Both bring promising recent work to the race weekend. Larson has earned two of his season’s four top-10s in the last three races. Busch has eight top-10s on the season.
The biggest threat to these Pocono-hopefuls, however, will likely be the defending race winner, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., who just earned his third victory of 2019 last weekend at Charlotte. Truex has won at Pocono twice – in 2015 and 2018 – and led laps in six of the last eight races.
This season he is one of three drivers with three wins each – meaning he and fellow three-race winners Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski have accounted for 69 percent of the victories in this young 13-race season.
XFINITY GETS READY FOR POCONO
With only three Xfinity races in its short but solid history at Pocono Raceway, there is a great sense of “anyone’s game” at the always-challenging track. That’s especially true in Saturday’s Pocono Green 250 Recycled by J.P. Mascaro and Sons (1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with no former winners in the field.
Championship points leader Tyler Reddick arrives in Pocono in the midst of a solid case for another title. The defending series champ has top-five finishes in the last eight races with wins at Talladega and last weekend at Charlotte. He holds a 65-point lead over second place Christopher Bell and is up 103 points on third place Cole Custer. The trio responsible for seven wins this year – the only fulltime Xfinity drivers with multiple wins this season.
Reddick was ninth last year in his series Pocono debut, while Bell crashed out in his first series try at the Tricky Triangle. Custer, on the other hand, has two top-10 finishes – seventh in 2017 and fifth last year.
Austin Cindric, fourth in the driver standings, started third and finished fourth in his Pocono debut last year. Among the series regulars, Justin Allgaier boasts the best finish in this week’s field, finishing runner-up to Brad Keselowski in 2017 by 0.615-seconds, the closest margin of victory in the event’s brief history.