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Johnson, Stewart could break slumps with strong Pocono finish


On Sunday the Sprint Cup circuit stops in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania for the Pocono 500, a race that marks the beginning of the second half of NASCAR's 26-race regular season.

This typically is one of the more uneventful races on the schedule. A 2.5-mile tri-oval, Pocono is known for stretched out, ho-hum, parade-style racing, which is one reason why it surely won't be long before NASCAR takes away one of Pocono's two dates on the Sprint Cup calendar. But Pocono does feature the longest, fastest straightaway in NASCAR, making it, naturally, one of the most dangerous ribbons of road in the sport.

Four years ago Jeff Gordon was hurtling down the Pocono frontstretch at over 200 mph when, suddenly, his brakes went out. This is as close to a worst-case scenario for a NASCAR driver as there is. Gordon turned his car toward the infield, hoping the grass would slow him, but he smashed into the wall in Turn 1 at about 185 mph. It was horrifying, the hardest hit I've seen in person in my eight years on the beat.

Before safety gains were made in NASCAR in the wake of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s 2001 death at Daytona -- the addition of SAFER barrier walls, the carbon-fiber seats, the better design of car, the energy absorbing foam in the shell of the cars -- Gordon wouldn't have walked away from this crash. But he did.

"Was I lucky?" Gordon said to me a few years ago when he recalled the crash. "Hell yes."

Here are the five drivers I'll be watching on Sunday, and they begin with Gordon:

1. Jeff Gordon

Winless this season, Gordon arrives at Pocono as one of the favorites. He has four career victories here and five second-place finishes. Gordon has always been one of the top drivers in the series at flat tracks like Pocono -- he's flourished at both Martinsville Speedway (career average finish of 6.7) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (8.6) -- and he should be speedy on Sunday.

Gordon has been as aggressive this season as he's been in recent memory -- a reflection, I think, of the fact that unlike in recent years, Gordon's lower back isn't bothering him -- and as long as he can avoid any mechanical failures on Sunday, he should be among the leaders as the laps wind down.

2. Jimmie Johnson

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One of these weekends Johnson is going to break out of his slump. To review: Over the last month Johnson has been very, very un-Johnson like. He's caused accidents, gotten caught up in wrecks, been busted for speeding on pit road at crucial times, and failed to diagnose problems with his car. Since the spoiler replaced the rear wing on the cars in late March, Johnson has slipped from first to seventh in the standings.

Johnson has two career victories at Pocono. This is just a hunch, but I say he gets win number three here on Sunday. This team and this driver are simply too good to keep struggling like an underfunded, unfocused, undisciplined rookie outfit, which is what they've looked like recently.

3. Denny Hamlin

No driver has benefited more from the return of the spoiler than Hamlin. For him, it's been a game-changer. The spoiler altered the aerodynamics and handling characteristics of the cars, and Hamlin seems to have figured out faster than anyone the setup riddle posed by the spoiler. Since the rear-wing became a historical footnote -- and let's just say right now that the wing turned out to be an utter disaster, mostly because it contributed in driving fans away from the sport -- Hamlin has three wins in eight starts.

Hamlin swept both races at Pocono as a rookie in 2007 and won again here last summer. Go ahead and pencil him in for a top-five finish on Sunday.

4. Tony Stewart

A year after winning the regular season points title, Stewart has struggled in 2010. Currently 16th in points, Stewart is in danger of missing the Chase for only the second time in his career. But his fortunes could change drastically on Sunday; after all, he won this race last year.

Plus, Stewart has a history of heating up as the summer temperatures rise. A former dirt track racer, Stewart likes hot, slick, sun-baked surfaces on which cars slide around -- just like they do on dirt. It would surprise no one in the garage if Stewart started his traditional summer surge on Sunday.

5. Jamie McMurray

Over the last month McMurray has been among the most impressive drivers in the Cup series. In his last five starts, he has three second-place finishes and is now 15th in the points.

This already has been quite a season for McMurray. Dumped by car owner Jack Roush last season, McMurray signed with owner Chip Ganassi late last year and then came out of nowhere to win the Daytona 500. McMurray has always been well thought of in the garage, but his results never seemed to match his talent -- until recently. It says here he makes the Chase and authors another top-5 run on Sunday.