Pocono 400 Preview
June 1, 2016
By Micah Roberts
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Wow, Martin Truex Jr., that was an impressive Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I've never seen such a dominating performance there probably because it's never happened. The guy led 392 of the 400 laps and 588 of the 600 miles, both track records.
That is definitely strong stuff and we should have all seen if coming following his outstanding final practices Saturday. He had also led the most laps in the two previous 1.5-mile tracks at Texas and Kansas. It was his first win since last June when he led a race-high 97 laps en route to his first Pocono victory.
And that's how the stage is set this week as the tour heads to Pocono Raceway for Sunday's Axalta 400, the 14th race of the season. Can Truex keep his roll going? He finally captured victory that had eluded him several times this season, but it's in those failures to close out wins that made several bettors skeptical of him, despite the great practices, prior the Coca-Cola 600.
Truex has the benefit of having great equipment from Joe Gibbs Racing as an affiliate. When including Truex into the mix, Gibbs has now won seven of the past eight races on the schedule and eight of 13 overall. It's not hard to understand why each of the five cars will be 8-to-1 or less to win Sunday.
But what about Pocono Raceway's trick 2.5-mile triangle? The last race run there in August was won by a Gibbs driver as well with Matt Kenseth, but in the six previous races, it was all Chevrolets, including Truex's win last June when he drove a Chevrolet using Richard Childress Racing equipment.
Despite all the JGR Toyotas currently dominating, I think there is enough of a difference with the uniqueness of the track that we'll have either a Ford or Chevrolet in the winners circle this week. Before we get to them, let's take a look at what the Gibbs gang has done at Pocono.
- Prior to Kenseth's Pocono win last fall, he had never won there in 32 starts. He only had three other top-fives and has averaged a 15th-place finish.
- Denny Hamlin leads all active drivers with four Pocono wins, but the last one came in 2010. He's always been good at Pocono just because he gets in and out of the flat turn 3 the best. It suits his flat track style where he's typically been his best, places like Martinsville and Richmond. His first two wins came in a season sweep as a rookie in 2006.
- Carl Edwards is a two-time winner, but his last victory back-flip there came in 2008 while driving a Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
- The surprising piece of Pocono history is that Kyle Busch has never won there, one of only two tracks on the Cup schedule he's never won at. He hasn't had a top-five there since 2011 and in his championship season last year he finished ninth in June and 21st in August. Last fall he ran out of gas while leading with a lap to go.
So yes, JGR is currently the hottest thing going in NASCAR right now, but there may be an opportunity with the unique track that has three differing banked turns to find a few drivers elsewhere at nice prices to win. It's a dilemma with betting against JGR because you know they have the low downforce package figured out best and you know they'll be fast again Sunday, but how about a couple other candidates like the Chevy banner with Hendrick or Stewart Haas Racing or a Team Penske Ford?
If we look back at the past four Pocono race covering the past two seasons, you'll see that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a 4.25 average finish with two wins. After that in the last four races, it's Kyle Larson (9th-place average), Greg Biffle (9.5), Jamie McMurray (9.75), and Brad Keselowski (11th). The now retired Jeff Gordon had a 7.75 average and rookie Chase Elliott gets that sweet ride. That's the top-six performers and none of them are driving Toyotas.
The driver that has done the best over the long haul has been Jimmie Johnson with three wins and a 9.5 average finish in 28 starts. His last win came in 2013, but he's been sixth or better in eight of his past 12 starts, including third and sixth last season.
The one like the most to unseat JGR this week is Joey Logano, who won there in 2012. He led a race-high 97 laps last fall, but ran out of gas with two laps to go and settled for 20th. He had finished third and fourth in his previous two races there. He's starving for his first win of the season after leading the series in that category last season with six wins.
Look for teammate Brad Keselowski also to fare well Sunday. He won in 2011 and has been runner-up twice in the last four starts there.
Maybe it's just hoping some other team wins, but there's good value if deciding to go against the JGR train this week.
That's my plan this week.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #22 Joey Logano (10/1)
2) #2 Brad Keselowski (10/1)
3) #4 Kevin Harvick (8/1)
4) #24 Chase Elliott (18/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (8/1)