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Pocono 500 preview

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We’ve had 13 NASCAR Sprint Cup series races thus far and three of them have been won by drivers at 100/1 odds or higher. Last week’s fuel mileage win by Brad Keselowski at Kansas was another in the growing list of 2011’s improbable winners as he joins Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 win (100/1) and Regan Smith’s Darlington surprise (500/1).

When mixing in the fact that we’re seeing a whole new change on the landscape of NASCAR's hierarchy, it could be argued that 2011 may be the most competitive season ever. The reigning five-time champion Jimmie Johnson has only one win on the year and it came at a track, Talladega, that almost anyone has a chance to win at. He’s not dominating the intermediate tracks like he used to.

Current points leader Carl Edwards looked like he was going to recreate his nine win 2008 season early on, but still only has the lone Las Vegas win to his credit. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running well sitting in third, but even though he can't fins a win, the NASCAR Nation is loving it and TV ratings have reflected. Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin all are winless thus far into the season as well.

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For the first time I can ever recall, there are at least 25 drivers that have a legitimate shot at winning each week. We still have the heavy hitter teams doing well with Hendrick, Childress, Roush, Gibbs and now Penske, but the gap between them and the lesser teams is closing.

Stewart-Haas racing is an extension of Hendrick while Michael Waltrip and Red Bull racing are gaining steam. The Ganassi team of Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya are also going to be better going forward; it’s an amazing mix of parity never seen before.

This week at Pocono Raceway we have an opportunity to see another first time winner as Denny Hamlin’s team comes in with things just starting to click for them. Last weeks third-place finish at Kansas gave Hamlin only his second top-five finish of the season. At this juncture last season Hamlin already had three of his eventual eight wins on the season.

At Pocono, no one has been better than Hamlin since he made his debut there in 2006. He made a splash there in his first season like never seen before as he swept both races. He also won the fall race of 2009 and this race last season giving him four wins in 10 starts with an average finish of 8.2.

The only case you could make for Hamlin not winning is just because of the climate of parity going on. Hamlin also has been in somewhat of a hangover since blowing the Championship in the final two races last season that no aspirin has been able to cure. However, momentum and being the best at the track should counter most negative assertions of Hamlin this week.

The Las Vegas Hilton Super Book feels so good about his chances to rebound this week that they have posted Hamlin as the huge 4/1 favorite, a major change from the double-digit odds routinely seen on him weekly.

The main component to doing well at Pocono always rests with horsepower and who can get the most out of it on the long straight-aways. Getting a cars balance set exactly to a drivers liking is never possible because each of the three turns are vastly different which usually makes the driver choose what corner they want to be the best at. They can only be really good on one of them, but not all three.

This season the fans get the added boost of seeing the drivers being able to shift at Pocono which gives it more of a road course feel, with 2004 being the last season where the drivers shifted. The majority of race fans have complained about the last few Pocono races because they can get pretty boring with everyone running the same gear ratio with not enough passing. With the change we should see a lot more passing with drivers ability coming to the forefront more so than other tracks.

Even though Juan Pablo Montoya hasn't had a very good season, he could be a driver to keep and eye on during practice because of his road racing skills. Marcos Ambrose, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick should also be considered a little bit more just because of the new/old element we have this week.

The top horsepower teams right now appear to be the stable of drivers at Roush and Childress, with Gibbs and Hendrick just a notch behind.

Stewart has also been able to get his cars set pretty well in his last two seasons at Pocono that include a win in 2009, third in this race last season and runner-up in the fall. Stewart will be using his seventh-place Darlington chassis. Beyond what car he brought, the real key for all drivers and their crew chiefs is what gear ratio turns out to be the best. If Stewart can gain any edge there, his driving ability and horsepower will be the winning combination Sunday.

Carl Edwards is a two-time winner who won as a rookie like Hamlin did in 2005, the first year NASCAR changed the gear ratio for Pocono. He also won in his magical year of 2008 and was third in the fall race last season. He would seem like the most logical choice on paper to stop Hamlin’s look at win No. 5. He's bringing an excellent car this week too. It's the same one that won at Las Vegas and finished runner-up at Darlington.

Greg Biffle won the fall race here last season and was part of the late season surge by all the Roush cars that has spilled over to this season. Matt Kenseth has had only two top-five finishes at Pocono over his career, but because of how solid the entire Roush team has been he could be in store for his best career finish.

Last season all three Childress cars looked good enough to win in both races. Between Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Bowyer they had five top-10 finishes in the six combined starts. Harvick ended up showing the best with fourth-place in both races. With the way that Harvick has been stealing wins this season, taking one here wouldn’t be a surprise. It doesn't hurt that Harvick will be using his winning Michigan car from last season, a track that requires lots of horsepower.

Top 5 Finish prediction:

1) #14 Tony Stewart (10/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (4/1)
3) #99 Carl Edwards (10/1)
4) #16 Greg Biffle (15/1)
5) #29 Kevin Harvick (12/1)

  
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