If you're like me, you can't wait for this Sunday's race at Pocono. Not that Pocono is one of my favorite tracks, even though its unique shape does make it stand out; but I'm sure I speak for many fans out there when I say I'm ready to get the bad taste that Indianapolis left out of my mouth.
From a fantasy standpoint, Indy could have been a good week for you if you were able to put your lineup in after qualifying. With limited racing and passing, if your driver qualified up front; he likely finished there. But if you were gambling on your picks working their way through the field during one of the biggest races of the year; you were likely doubly disappointed with how last weekend transpired.
But it's time to start fresh and work to erase the memories from last week's nightmare. With a race under their belts in the new car at this track, expect things to be much smoother and racier this weekend. In the June race, several drivers were able to make their way through the field to post top finishes; including race winner Kasey Kahne. As always, track position will be important, but in June we saw 23 lead changes among 12 drivers so it is possible for someone starting deep in the field to make their way to the front.
The ability for drivers to pass opens up the fantasy field a bit wider; but as always there are favorites, sleepers and longshots. Let's find out who they are for this Sunday's final trip to Pocono for 2008.
Jimmie Johnson: His two wins this season haven't been typical dominating Johnson performances, but the count just the same. In April at Phoenix, Chad Knaus pulled off a winning fuel strategy and last weekend at Indy he did the same thing with tires. This weekend Johnson could likely win with pure muscle or by using Knaus' knack for making the right call at the right time. Johnson, coming off a second-place finish at Chicago to go along with his win at Indy, was sixth in the June event at Pocono and has an overall average finish of 10.3. That gives him the great combination of strong track history and current momentum to make him one of this week's favorites for a spot on your roster.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin is another driver that fighting to be the top dog on your team this week. In his rookie year, Hamlin swept both Pocono events and so far hasn't done anything to make us think it was just a fluke. In five career starts he has an amazing average finish of 2.8, coming from the two wins, a sixth-place finish and back-to-back third place finishes. After rough finishes at Daytona and Chicago, the No. 11 bounced back with a third place finish at Indy and even looked pretty racy at times during the brief green flag runs. Hamlin most likely will be a very popular pick this weekend, if you don't want to lose any ground to the masses -- make sure he's on your team too.
Kasey Kahne: Since his early summer hot streak, Kahne had cooled slightly but things look to be turning around for the No. 9 team. Entering this weekend's race, Kahne looks to become the third driver in the last four years complete the Pocono sweep following his win in June when he led 69 laps on his way to victory. Despite sitting ninth in the standings, Kahne seems to be flying under the radar and isn't garnering much attention. Don't make that mistake and leave him off your roster this weekend.
Brian Vickers: Vickers is another driver I don't think many people take seriously when it comes to putting together their team or making race predictions. Granted, I would be fairly surprised if Vickers came away with Red Bull Racing's first NASCAR victory; but it's not totally out of left field, and I certainly expect that the team is more than capable of putting in a solid Top 10 run this Sunday. In June he led 18 laps on his way to a second place finish, the team's highest of the year. Other than an engine failure last weekend, Vickers hasn't finished lower than 16th in the four races since the last trip to Pennsylvania. Add to that Vickers overall record at Pocono, four top-four finishes and only two finishes outside the top 15 in nine starts, and it's time to pay serious attention to the No. 83.
Kurt Busch: So far this season, it's been difficult for Busch to get any kind of momentum. It might sound odd, but that might play into your hands this weekend if you put him on your team. He followed up his Loudon win with a fourth place finish at Daytona, but then stumbled at Chicago and Indy. That means he's due for a good run now. Flash forward to Pocono where Busch finished eighth in June and finished first or second in four of the last six events. Sitting 18th in the standings, a Chase bid might be a bit too much to expect; but you know anyone named Busch is going to be doing all they can to win each week. And this time weekend it might be big brother Busch in victory lane.
Elliott Sadler: Looking at Sadler's record at Pocono he might not catch your attention, but don't let that deter you from giving him a serious look this weekend. Last weekend at Indy, Sadler scored his best finish of the year (fourth) and has finished in the top 10 in three of the last six races. In the first race at Pocono this year, Sadler was running in the top 10 for the majority of the day and even led six laps, before he ultimately finished 34th after late race tire issues. He has enough positives going for him that he would be a good choice for filling out your roster.
Bobby Labonte: His teammate might be changing weekly, but that hasn't stopped Labonte and the No. 43 team from trying to find some stability and solid performances this season. And lately, it seems like they are starting to find something that can continue to build upon. In June, Labonte finished 11th at Pocono which is even more impressive when you consider the three-time Pocono winner had to come from 37th position to do it. This team certainly isn't setting the world on fire, but when they are running well they are good for a solid top 15, maybe even top-10 run. I look for something in that neighborhood for Labonte this weekend.
Last week my pinch hitter put in some pretty decent sleeper picks with Jeff Gordon (fifth), Kasey Kahne (seventh) and Mark Martin (11th). The other picks weren't so great, but if you managed to post up a good number with how the race was run last weekend, kudos to you!
"Pocono has been one of my favorite tracks for years. Anytime you can have success somewhere, you look forward to going back. It can solidify a strong season, or it can help you turn your season around. We've had some good races this year, but we could use a spark to propel us to a strong second half of the year. That could happen this weekend. We've had good cars and strong motors and that's what it takes to be successful at Pocono." -- Bobby Labonte
We stay with the big tracks, but this one has more twists and turns. Next week the Cup Series makes its final road course stop with a trip to Watkins Glen.