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Pocono 400 Preview

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It's time for NASCAR racing in the Pocono's where opinion is split among fans on how they feel about the bizarre 2.5-mile triangular layout. Some say there isn't enough passing and the races are boring, while others protest that in this era of cookie-cutter tracks, anything unique is a pleasant change. And Pocono is definitely unique with each of the three turns getting progressively flatter and more difficult.

I happen to be in the group of people that look forward to the two Pocono races a season. I love that it takes takes some road course and short track skills while also requiring lots of horsepower down the longest front stretch on the circuit.

What will be different this season from recent years is the reduction in horsepower, which in theory should be slowing the cars down, but what we’re seeing is drivers getting in and out of the corners much faster because of coming in slower which has negated NASCAR intention with the horsepower reduction. In many ways it’s more dangerous than ever because drivers are having a major learning curve in how to handle all that speed exiting the corners. At Pocono's tricky triangle, this could present a major problem, especially in turns 1 & 2.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
won for the first time ever at Pocono last season after being winless in his first 28 starts. He had so much fun in this race last year that he would do it again in the second race. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a career drought at a track reap such great rewards with a sweep during a season before.

Horsepower reduction or not, this race is still about who can get the most of it and the past three weeks of races at Dover and Charlotte has seen not only Joe Gibbs Racing show some major power, but also Roush Fenway Racing. For most of the season Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson have been dominating with the most horsepower. Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have also shown power similar, but now you have to seriously add in Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch into that group. And just maybe, hopefully, we can throw 2010 Pocono winner Greg Biffle onto that list as well.

For Hamlin, he’s probably licking his chops waiting to get to Pocono to show off some more like he did last week at Dover where he had the fastest lap in each of the final practice sessions before getting involved ina wreck during Sunday’s race and finishing 21st. We saw the power at Charlotte as he won $1 million in the All-Star Race and now he goes to a track where he’s got four wins over his career, but none since 2010. As a rookie in 2006, he swept the Pocono season and has a 11.9 average finish overall. Last year in this race, he finished fourth with a car that was substandard in horsepower, but his ability in and out of the turns -- particularly the tight flat turn three -- made the difference. Now he’s got some power on par with the elite and skills in the turns that elevates him into being considered a favorite to win.

However, Harvick and Johnson will both be listed by Las Vegas sports books as the favorite just because of their body of work this season and because they‘ll be popular bets with the public who has witnessed their power. Harvick finished a career-best second-place in the second Pocono race last season, but he’s still winless in 28 starts. Johnson is a three-time winner, the last coming in 2013, and has a 9.88 average finish. That stellar average was muddied with a 39th-place finish in the last Pocono race run.

Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with six wins and 1,037 laps led. Among active drivers with at least three starts, Gordon leads the way with a 9.86 average finish. He’s still looking for his first win of 2015, which is supposed to be his last full season, and he’ll be making his 45 career start on Sunday.

Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards are all two-time Pocono winners. Busch and Edwards have both won this season while Kahne is still looking for his first. For whatever reason, Kahne hasn’t been as good as teammates Johnson and Earnhardt Jr., and even though he’s scored more points than Gordon on the season, Gordon’s car has looked better in most practices, but has just had worse luck on race day.

Kurt Busch is the driver that might give Hamlin the best run on Sunday. He’s been stellar throughout his career at Pocono when given a car with some power. Last year he finished third in this race.

Brad Keselowski won in 2011 and led the most laps (95) in this race last season before settling for runner-up. However, the team was way off on their set-up last week at Dover, a place Keselowski typically runs well at. He had to battle hard all race long and did a great job just to finish 12th. I would look at his teammate, Joey Logano, to have a better run this week.

As for Junior going for three straight wins, I don't see it, but I wish him well.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
2) #41 Kurt Busch (8/1)
3) #24 Jeff Gordon (12/1)
4) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
5) #4 Kevin Harvick (9/2)

NASCAR Expert Picks
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