Hendrick Motorsports aims for 6th straight Pocono victory
LONG POND, Pa. (AP) Images of Richard Petty in his feathered Stetson hat and dark glasses stamp Pocono Raceway's victory lane tower, a tribute to one of racing's greats and the first winner at the track.
Oh yes, it's always good to be The King. But at Pocono, it's even better to drive for Rick Hendrick.
Petty has the celebratory circle named for him, though more drivers for Hendrick Motorsports have partied, taken selfies and bathed in confetti than any other team. Hendrick is on a hot streak, winning the last five races at Pocono.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. swept both races last season, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne won in 2013 and Jeff Gordon won the August 2012 race.
Pocono should charge Hendrick rent for all the time spent in the most coveted real estate in NASCAR.
Gordon owns the track record for wins with six and Hendrick drivers have 17 overall on the 2 1/2-mile tri-oval track.
''This is a horsepower race track where engines can make a difference,'' Earnhardt said. ''I feel like over the last several years, we've had one of the best engine programs in the sport.''
Hendrick placed Gordon (4th) and Johnson (9th) in the top 10 for Sunday's race. Kahne starts 12th and Earnhardt is 20th.
Johnson is aiming for back-to-back wins after taking the checkered flag last weekend at Dover International Speedway. It was the 74th of his career, putting him just two shy of matching Dale Earnhardt on the career list. Gordon is the only active driver with more wins at 92.
''If it does happen, I want to handle it in the right way and pay tribute to Dale and what he's done for our sport, the true badass he was in our sport,'' Johnson said. ''If and when that does happen, it will be an honor to be there in that status with him.''
So who can knock off the Hendrick drivers?
Kurt Busch starts from the pole for Stewart-Haas Racing, Carl Edwards is on the front row for Joe Gibbs Racing and Martin Truex Jr., one of the hottest drivers in the sport, is third for Furniture Row Racing.
The biggest threats, though, could come from Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Logano was the last non-Hendrick driver to win when he held off Mark Martin in the June 2012 race.
Keselowski had the car to beat in his No. 2 Ford in August until a piece of trash stuck to his grille and he was passed late by Earnhardt.
''This is one of those race tracks where aero and horsepower come into play a lot, and we've seen Hendrick be very good in those departments,'' Logano said, ''not that Penske isn't.''
Hendrick is ready to keep its grip on those race trophies.
''The car really shines here and we've got some of the best equipment in the garage,'' Earnhardt said.
Here are some more things to watch when Hendrick Motorsports goes for career win No. 18:
BUMP DAY: It'll be a bumpy road toward victory lane on Sunday. The drivers will have to survive bumps that formed in Turn 2, known as the tunnel turn, on the tri-oval track. Drivers complained about the bumps and track president Brandon Igdalsky said there was no way the track could get smoothed out in time for Sunday's race. Kurt Busch compared the lumps to speed bumps in a grocery store parking lot.
''There is a line between character and just a bad race track,'' defending race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. ''This is getting close to that line. You like your tracks to have the character, but that is just a little bit extreme right there.''
Igdalsky said the track would be smoothed out in time for the second Sprint Cup race in August.
The rough, frosty Pennsylvania winter was blamed for the misshapen lumps on the asphalt track, last repaved in 2012.
''A road is not any different than a race track at the end of the day. When the ground gets frozen, it does bad, bad things,'' Igdalsky said. ''We knew the bumps were there, but we didn't think they were that bad.''
It could lead to a fun ride.
''You hit that bump wrong or if you miss the heights a little bit on the splitter, the car could jump out from underneath of you pretty easily and create some interesting moments over there,'' four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said.
WE ARE: Jeff Gordon wants to turn Pocono into his own Happy Valley. Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet has a special paint scheme for the weekend. The blue and white car has Penn State displayed prominently on it, part of a program being run by Gordon sponsor Axalta Coating Systems. The company teamed with Penn State to promote the importance of science, technology, engineering and math. Last year, Axalta did a similar venture with Texas A&M that was tremendously received.
Gordon took a spin in a street-legal version of the No. 24 in April at Penn State, ending the ride in front of Penn State's Berkey Creamery. He even led the enthusiastic crowd on a cheer of ''We Are! Penn State!''
''I was able to do some little burnouts and different things and rev-up the engine and drive around there and wave to all of them and get all the cheers and stuff going,'' Gordon said. ''It was awesome. That got me really motivated for this weekend.''
Axalta CEO Charles Shaver said Saturday the company will remain with Hendrick Motorsports next season, even with Gordon retired.
NEW CAR: Martin Truex Jr. can enjoy that new car smell this weekend at Pocono. His Furniture Row Racing team had brought the same car to the track each of the last three weeks, with smashing results. Truex didn't win but he led the most laps at Kansas (95), Charlotte (131) and Dover (131).
But it's a new one for Pocono. It might be the driver as much as the car that's been hot - Truex starts third on Sunday.
''We have been hitting it pretty close each and every week,'' he said.