We're halfway to the Chase cutoff and a third of the way through the 2010 season already. Where does the time go? That's a question, you can be sure, a number of Sprint Cup drivers are already asking themselves as their pre-season expectations fade away into disappointment and the Chase campaigns they were hoping to author disappear in the marbles.
Next up is Pocono Raceway, a unique track in many ways. Not only is it one of three tracks (of 22 on the current Sprint Cup slate) not owned by the two megalith corporations of SMI (Speedway Motorsports, Inc) and ISC (International Speedway Corporation), it's also the only venue that is triangular in shape. Making matters more complicated, the three corners of the 2.5 mile circuit are all completely different from each other. Some refer to the track as a "roval" (or a road oval, if you prefer) given the gear changes required to accommodate the huge sweeping straightaways and the variety of speeds needed headed into each of the corners.
Whatever you call it, one thing is sure: The role of the crew chief in making in-race set up changes is more crucial at Pocono than at many of the other circuits and, with 500 miles to run, the driver's pretty important too. Let's start with a wheelman who is almost a prohibitive favorite.
Put simply: Denny Hamlin is all kinds of handy at Pocono. He's won three times in eight races (sweeping both events in his rookie year of 2006) and adding a third victory in the second race of last season when he, quite literally, willed his way to the front. Hamlin has led 391 of the 1484 laps he's run at the Tricky Triangle. Put another way that's 26 percent -- an impressive clip. And with six total top 10s in eight races, it's fair to say Hamlin's a great bet for the weekend. One note of caution: In the first race at Pocono in 2009, Hamlin's car stalled before he even took the green flag and he wound up 38th.
By the Numbers: Hamlin has the best average finish of all active Sprint Cup drivers at Pocono (9.5) with Jimmie Johnson (surprise, surprise) close behind (9.8).
What a couple weeks it's been for Kurt Busch who swept the All-Star Race and the Coke 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, firmly establishing himself as a bona fide contender for the Championship (in case there was any doubt.) Busch has won twice at Pocono, has seven top-5s and nine top 10s. He does have three DNFs all while driving for Jack Roush and given the last one came in 2004, it's not necessarily much of a factor. Expect Busch to keep up the momentum and finish well on Sunday afternoon.
By the Numbers: Busch has led laps in eight of the last 10 races at Pocono.
It's not been a fantastic start to his sophomore year as a driver-owner but if "typical form" holds true, Smoke's on the verge of heating up for the summer stretch. With that in mind, Pocono's a pretty good track to do just that. Stewart won the first race last season and has 16 top 10s in 22 starts: good enough for an average finish of 12.3. Some 37 points out of 12th place, Smoke's still in good shape to make the Chase but having led the regular season points standings for much of 2009, he's looking for a top finish. Pocono might be just the venue.
By the Numbers: Stewart has picked up eight top 10s in the last nine races at Pocono.
Sam Hornish Jr.:
All right, all right stop scoffing -- this is a legitimate pick as everybody's favorite wrecker of stock cars swept the top 10 at Pocono in 2009. Given he's managed just five other top 10s in 85 races it's fair to say, Pocono is at the top of a small list marked "good tracks" for the triple IRL Champion. With sponsorship issues swirling over him for next year, it's clear Hornish Jr. needs to start showing much better form in his Penske Dodge and Pocono would be a good place to start doing so.
By the Numbers: Hornish Jr. has an average finish of 20.5 at Pocono -- his second best track, statistically speaking, behind Michigan (19.5) where we head next week.
The Reut might not have had the start to the season he was hoping for (a 5th place finish in the Daytona 500 aside) but in the past few weeks, the form that kept him in Chase contention for much of 2009 has started to rear its head. An 11th place at Darlington was followed by two straight fifth place runs at Dover and Charlotte. He was third in the first race at Pocono last season and he'll be hoping for more of the same this weekend.
By the Numbers: Reutimann has led laps (okay only a total of 12) in four of the last five races.
Martin Truex Jr:
Truex Jr. has one top 5 and two top 10s in eight races at Pocono and has never finished lower than 24th. He might not record a super high finish but he is very consistent at the 2.5 mile triangular venue and that's a key factor in an arduous, typically sweltering, race. Truex has three of his four top 10s in 2010 since the return of the spoiler and sits just 14 points out of the Chase. A good run this weekend could see him shoehorn his way back into the elite field of 12.
By the Numbers: Truex already has one top five and four top tens on the season compared to the one top five and six top tens he had all last year.
Who'll win? Denny Hamlin:
It's hard to back against Denny Hamlin at a track where he secured his first ever Cup victory. Go with the No. 11 car this weekend to make it four wins in 14 on the season this Sunday.
Up Next: It's the deliciously named "Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400" at Michigan International Speedway.