Pocono 400 Preview

Pocono Raceway's 2.5-mile tricky triangle is the most unique track on the circuit, but the last few races there have been snooze-fests with little passing. There were just 11 lead changes in this race last season and only 13 in the July race, but I think Sunday's Pocono 400 might be a little different due to the new package featuring aero ducts and engines producing 550 horsepower. The drivers aren't quite sure what to expect with the package.

“Everything this so tight in our sport right now with this rules package," said Clint Bowyer. "In qualifying at Charlotte last week, third-place through 16th-place qualifiers all ran 182 mph. In the race, the guy leading would get back a few minutes later and struggle in 20th. It’s just really, really tight right now and you can’t make any errors.”

Yes, it's tight, and I like the type of racing it has produced. Last week at Charlotte there were 30 lead changes among 11 drivers and three weeks ago at Kansas there 23 lead changes among 12 drivers and at Texas, in late March there were 26 lead changes among 13 drivers. That's some nice parity with the last three races using this exact package.

Teams are getting better with it and finding more speed to close the gap Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske has shown this season by winning 12 of the 13 races so far with all the packages. Chris Beuscher from JTG-Daugherty Racing finished sixth last week in the Coca-Cola 600. Also, Roush Fenway Racing matters again with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finishing fifth last week.

Of course, Martin Truex Jr. won last week for the third time in the last five of the schedule, a Gibbs car, and he was followed by Penske's Joey Logano and in third-place was Gibbs' Kyle Busch. There's still a divide with the elite teams, but others are catching up.

The upward progression with most teams getting more familiar with the new package should continue this weekend at Pocono. The bump drafting and side-drafting are going to be a huge part of the equation on the longest straightaway on the Cup tour on Pocono's front stretch. But passing in each of the three unique turns is what I crave the most.

The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has Kyle Busch listed as the 3/1 betting favorite to win and while he hasn't raced this package at Pocono yet, he did he share where he traditionally does his most passing.

“Most of your passing is going to be done probably through turn one and off of turn one and getting into turn two, and if somebody can get a good run off of turn two, get back up high and get in line to get on that patch, getting into turn three," Busch said. "Besides that, in turn one, we just can’t get the cars to turn down there because there’s so much load on the bump stops from going 210 mph down the front straightaway and then trying to slow it down to about a ‘buck-40’ (140 mph). Turn two is kind of bumpy and kind of rough."

The new package with the gear change has also taken away the shifting element, something I thought gave a few drivers an edge at certain areas of the track. What's the effect now?.

“I have no idea," Busch said. "Shifting at Pocono has always kind of been – when we went from shifting to not shifting it didn’t do anything. It didn’t save anybody any money. It didn’t do anything. All it did was reduce gear temps. In my opinion, I think it’s better if you’re able to shift.

It took Busch 26 starts to get his first Pocono win in the second race of 2017. He was third behind Truex in this race last season and then won again in July. However, that package is gone and while he has three wins with the new packages this season, all the wins came in the first eight races. It's as if he handed a baton off to teammate Truex who has all three of his wins in the last five.

The other Gibbs driver that has two of the eight wins for the organization is Denny Hamlin, who happens to be the active leader with four Pocono wins. He's looking to regain the momentum that saw him finish 11th or better in the first nine races of the season. He's been 16th or worse in his last four starts.

“We had a really fast FedEx Toyota in Charlotte and it’s crazy how many cars we passed over the course of the entire race, repeatedly going from the back to the front,’’ said Hamlin who has 11/1 odds to win this week. Unfortunately, our finish doesn’t reflect how good of a car we had, but I’m proud of the speed our team brought to the race track and if we can bring that speed with us to Pocono, we will be in great position to win. Historically, the FedEx No. 11 has had some success and we will be entering Pocono confident that we can secure another victory.’’

Hamlin's last Pocono win came in 2010, but there's a reason to believe this new package puts him in the serious contender category because as he said, he has had speed with this package which includes a Texas win.

There's a couple of drivers I have on my radar this week that I think have a great shot at winning.of it is from past success at Pocono, but most of it is from the progression they've made with the race package.

How about Daniel Suarez in the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 at 40/1 odds who had best Cup race ever with second-place at Pocono in July while driving for JGR.

“It was cool to get the pole there last year," said Suarez. "Of course, it always helps to have a good starting spot. You really have to capitalize on a good starting position like that and we were able to do that and finish second. I can’t make mistakes and we can’t have mistakes on pit road. Everyone has to do their part to execute perfectly. I really feel like with the 41 team we keep making progress each weekend. Sometimes the results may not exactly show it, but my guys are doing a great job and they never give up.”

Kurt Busch recently took the SHR No. 41 to victory lane at Pocono in 2016. The elder Busch brother has the distinction of winning three times at Pocono with three different manufacturers -- Ford, Dodge, and Chevrolet. He's 20/1 to win in his Ganassi No. 1 Chevrolet.

One of my favorites this week is Alex Bowman at 25/1 odds as Hendrick Motorsports is collectively getting better every week. Last week at Charlotte all four of the HMS car finished ninth or better. Bowman's seventh-place finish ended a run of three straight runner-ups. He's knocking on the door loudly.

“I love Pocono," Bowman said. "We got a third-place finish there last year and ran really strong throughout the entire race. Pocono is very unique, and it is different from the tracks we typically go to."

Chase Elliott is on a similar run as Bowman, but he's made it four straight top-fives which started with his Talladega win, the only win for Chevrolet this season. He's 10/1 to win this week, which for a team running so well seems extremely fair. Elliott has top-10s in five of his six Pocono starts. He also has a win in the ARCA Series there in 2013. Another HMS note is that William Byron won a 2016 Truck Series race at Pocono and was sixth in the July Cup race last season. After being 80/1 or higher most of the season, he's 40/1 this week. I can't argue with a wager on Elliott or Byron.

The driver I like the most this week is Ryan Blaney at 20/1 odds to win. He doesn't have a win on the season and has been disappointing with this package so far with fifth-place at Fontana being his best among four top-fives overall this season. This bet is more about what type of racing he's excelled at the most. His first career Cup win came at Pocono, the superspeedway that drives like a road course, and his second Cup win came last season on the Roval at Charlotte. He's also got a 2013 Truck Series win at Pocono. In six career Cup starts at Pocono he's averaged an 11th-place finish and in this race last season he started from the pole and finished sixth.

Blaney definitely has the skills to get in and out of the tight, flat Turn 3 faster than most. And also, he's certainly got the Penske power to get him down the long straightaway -- they've won three of the six races with this package (no aero ducts used at Atlanta). Besides the nice odds at 20-to-1, what I really like is the situation and his desperation of not holding his weight with an elite team, which in turn is also why you could make a case for JGR's winless Erik Jones at 25/1, who has two top-fives in four Pocono Cup starts.

Enjoy the race everyone, I think it'll be one of the better Pocono races y'all have seen there in a while.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #12 Ryan Blaney (20/1)
2) #2 Brad Keselowski (7/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (3/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)
5) #19 Martin Truex Jr. (6/1)