The hallowed ground of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) didn’t disappoint last week in the NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) Crown Royal Presents the Curtis Shaver 400, the 20th race of the 2012 NSC season. Jimmie Johnson, stalking (and perhaps struggling) through the early parts of the season, put on quite a show, taking his fourth Checkered Flag at the Brickyard with over a four-second margin over second-place Kyle Busch. Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr, and Jeff Gordon completed the top five (three of Hendrick Motorsports’ four cars finished within the top five), with Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr, Brad Keselowski, and Tony Stewart rounding out the top ten. Matt Kenseth, who went into last week’s race as the NSC points leader, finished a disappointing 35th, making way for Dale Earnhardt Jr to assume the lead in the Points Standings for the first time in nearly eight years (so needless to say Jr Nation was cheering loudly). Probably one of the most poignant sights of the weekend, was when Jimmie Johnson went to kiss the bricks, with daughter Genevieve right next to him.
This week, we’re back at the “Tricky Triangle” of Pocono Raceway, for the second race at this track this year in the Pocono 400. For those who remember the race here in June, drivers will be racing again on a relatively young racing surface, after Pocono officials completed a repaving job earlier this year. During that race we saw a record number of speeding penalties on Pit Road, with 22 different violations. We’re told the timing lines haven’t changed on Pit Road since the June Pocono race, so hopefully the drivers and teams alike will have their strategies down. Fans will see if the teams have learned anything, and whether we’ll see as many Black Flags this week. Speaking of weather, there’s a good chance (60% ) of rain and thunderstorms Sunday, as a large system moves through the Ohio Valley and into New England. But not to worry, Pocono will have ten jet dryers on hand to dry the surface if rain should delay the race, even thought that provides more “targets” for Juan Pablo Montoya (yes, pun intended). So if those rains come, be prepared for a long afternoon of rain delays and track drying.
The Green Flag will wave at approximately 1:18pm EDT, after the National Anthem (performed by recording artist Alex Boyd), and a pre-race military flyover of a North American P-51 Mustang and General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, in a “Heritage Flyby” presented by the 20th Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, SC. Coors Light Pole Award winner Juan Pablo Montoya will bring the field of forty-three to the line for 160 laps, where we’ll likely see a lot of hard racing, a few penalties, and a number of good wrecks. The broadcast day begins at 10:00am EDT with NASCAR Raceday on SPEED, NASCAR Countdown at Noon EDT on ESPN, with the race itself at 1:00pm EDT. At this point, there are no drivers that will start at the tail of the field.
The NSC points battle is definitely heating up as we get deeper into the summer, as there are only six more races left before Richmond, and the end of the “regular season”. Dale Earnhardt Jr will want to keep his lead in the standings, a mere 14 points ahead of second place driver Matt Kenseth. Jimmie Johnson looked to be in as top a form as he’s been in a long time, indicating that he and crew chief Chad Knaus are ready to get their sixth NSC Championship. For Carl Edwards, his lackluster performance and disappointing finish in the 2011 NSC season, it’s make or break time. Currently sitting 12th in the points standings and with no wins, Carl is on the outside looking in. One hundred forty-nine points behind, he needs to get at least two wins in the next six races if he wants a shot at the 2012 NSC Championship. (Remember, although there are twelve drivers who are in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, only the top ten in points, plus the two “wild card” positions based on number of wins for those outside the top ten, but within the top twenty, will have a chance at the Cup).
Best Bets: Multiple Pocono winners lead off my BB’s this week.
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Ground Toyota)- Denny has managed to salvage what could have become a dismal season for himself, and now stands fifth in the NSC standings after his sixth place finish last week. Denny has managed to put up two wins, nine top-fives, and eleven top-tens to get him where he sits today. Many people consider him “Mr. Pocono”, as he’s got four wins, eight top-five, and nine top-ten finishes at the Tricky Triangle. In the last four races, Hamlin’s finished no worse than nineteenth, with two fifth-place outings. He’ll start on the outside of the front row alongside Juan Pablo Montoya, and was fifteenth-fastest in final practice.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Chevy)- Jimmie impressed everyone last week with his win at Indy in the Brickyard 400, and he’s looking to continue that run. In the last four races at Pocono, he’s finished fourth in three of them, with a tenth-place finish in the other. Overall, “Five Time” has two wins, nine top-five, and fifteen top-ten finishes at Pocono, and with his impressive run this season of two wins, nine-top fives, and eleven top-ten finishes, he’s definitely the driver to beat. Jimmie will roll off tenth, and was tenth-fastest in Happy Hour final practice. Let’s just see what he’s got up his sleeve.
Probables: The top two drivers in the NSC points battle are my probables for Sunday’s outing at Pocono.
Matt Kenseth (#17 Zest Ford)- Matt will definitely be out to regain his lead in the NSC standings this week. He’s winless here at Pocono, but has three top-five and ten top-ten finishes. In his last four races here, Kenseth has finished no worse than fourteenth, so if you’re looking for a decent points-earner for a fantasy team, I’d bet you will see him close to the top ten, if not even higher up. He’s up among the best performers (naturally) with only one win, but has nine top-fives, and thirteen top-ten finishes. Matt will start seventh, and was second-fastest in final practice.
Dale Earnhardt Jr (#88 Diet Mt Dew/Amp Energy/National Guard Chevy)- Jr Nation cheered when they saw him take the NSC points standing lead last week, and they’re hoping he stays up there for a long time. Jr seems to have a newly-found confidence, and that is translating to performance out on the track. Dale’s had only one win this season, but has put up a very consistent nine top-five and fifteen top-ten finishes. He hasn’t made it to Victory Lane at Pocono, but with five top-five and nine top-ten finishes, he’ll be looking to cross this track off his “winless list”. Dale has been consistent as well here at Pocono, where he’s finished no worse than ninth his last three races here. Qualifying eighth this week, it’s been his best qualifying run in a few weeks. More impressive, though, is that he won the Happy Hour final practice session. All I can say right now, is the rest of the drivers on the grid had better watch out.
Dark Horses: A few additional drivers you may want to keep on the radar scope, as they’ve been known to find their way to Victory Lane here at Pocono.
Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge)- Keselowski won this race last season, in a race that he ran after having suffered a broken ankle (many have seen the pictures, and they were not pretty). That win set up a string of wins that got Brad into the Chase. Despite that win, he’s finished no better than eighteenth in the other three of the last four races at Pocono. That win last year was his only top five and top ten he’s posted, but with three wins, six top-fives, and ten top-tens this season, K’ski’s definitely out for blood. He’s starting way back in thirty-first, and was sixteenth-fastest. If the race ends up in a fuel mileage race, you can bet he’ll find his way up front.
Kurt Busch (#51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevy)- The elder of the Busch brothers has had some successes, and a few less-than-stellar performances this season. Only scoring a single top-five and two top-ten finishes, he’s trying to find his stride with his new racing team. Kurt’s won twice at Pocono, with nine top-five and twelve top-ten finishes. In the last three races at Pocono, he’s scored two top-three finishes. I’m’ expecting to see him up front on Sunday, and with his sixth place starting position and ninth-fastest final practice session time, fans will see his number near, or on the top of the scoring tower.
Others you could potentially see up front include Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, and Jamie McMurray, and possibly even Kyle Busch. Carl, as mentioned above, needs to salvage something of his season if he wants to make the Chase; with two wins, he knows how to win here. Gordon has five wins at this track, and three finishes in the top six, including one win…he starts near the back in twenty-eighth but had the eighth-fastest run during Happy Hour. McMurray, with only three top-tens this season, has a long way to go, but his sixth-fastest final practice run could show he’s got something to beat the Big Dogs with. And Kyle, so desperately wanting to prove he can make the Chase, has one of the Wild Card bids so far for the year; if he can finish high enough up on the scoring tower with the fourth-fastest car in final practice, he’d be the first to be amazed. But watch out for Greg Biffle and his 3M Ford…he could end up the spoiler of the weekend.
Rumor Mill: Another interesting week in the NASCAR world…
For whom the bell tolls (otherwise known as Ding, Dong, the driver’s out)- AJ Allmendinger, was released this week by Penske Racing, after routine drug tests showed that he had a banned substance (reported as amphetamines) in his system. AJ has agreed to enter NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program, tailored to each individual and situation. Team owner Roger Penske, speaking on Wednesday, had this to say: “Penske Racing fully supports NASCAR’s substance abuse policy and we are disappointed with AJ’s positive drug test results. AJ is a terrific driver, a good person and it is very unfortunate that we have to separate at this time. We have invested greatly in AJ and we were confident in his success with our team. The decision to dismiss him is consistent with how we would treat any other Penske Racing team member under similar circumstances. As AJ begins NASCAR’s ‘Road to Recovery’ program, we wish him the best and look forward to seeing him compete again in NASCAR.” (PenskeRacing.com) Sam Hornish Jr, who finished sixteenth last week at Indy, will temporarily assume full-time driver duties in the #22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge.
Baby Daddy- Denny Hamlin found out this week that he and his longtime girlfriend, Jordan Fish, is expecting their first child in January. While they have yet to set a date for the wedding, Denny said they have a “busy six months ahead of us. We wish the best to Jordan and Denny! (NASCAR.com)
Back to School- Dale Earnhardt Jr, has a special relationship with Shepherd Elementary School, located in Mooresville NC, close to his home. After his fourth-place finish at Indy and his assumption of the NSC Points lead, the school’s marquis had an interesting message on it: “Congrats to NASCAR’s New Sprint Point Leader Dale Jr. Go 88.” This school has been fortunate in receiving assistance from Dale Jr and his charitable foundation in recent years, borne out after Jr had noticed that the football team had been playing without the proper equipment. Dale Jr was very appreciative, commenting at Pocono on Friday: “It meant a lot to me that they would do something like that, really the fact that anybody would go out of their way to acknowledge what we did.” (Jim Utter, the Charlotte Observer, via ThatsRacin.com). NASCAR’s most popular driver knows he’s had many doubt his ability to be competitive again; it’s nice to see even more still believe in him.
We’ll all see if Mother Nature has something to say about running the Pocono 400 tomorrow, and determine whether or not @TheOrangeCone will have his radar gun set up on Pit Road. Stay tuned to your favorite NASCAR broadcast outlet, whether catching the action on ESPN, your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, or SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (channel 90). And remember for those following along on SiriusXM, they’ve created a series of stations where one can not only hear the race broadcast, but also hear favorite drivers’ radio transmissions. But either way, you can always follow me on Twitter (@Speedglutton) for my race updates, news, and rants.
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