Las Vegas Review-Journal
Kevin Harvick will be using a brand new chassis this week and while he has had some moderate past success at Pocono with two top-five finishes in 18 starts, he believes a key to the race will rest on how he does through the second turn.
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Denny Hamlin is about as sick as they come on this track. He’s got a little Cale Yarborough in him mixed in with some Tim Richmond that make him the driver to ultimately beat this week. This guy came out as a rookie and swept both Pocono races in 2006. He won the last race run there giving him three wins already during his short career. The bad news for the rest of the field this week is that he is bringing a chassis that is two-for two this season -- the car has never lost! Even worse news for everyone is that he had the quickest average speeds during happy hour. Despite Childress' massive gains, Hamlin is clearly the odds on favorite to win this week.
Jimmie Johnson is one of six drivers to complete a season sweep at Pocono, but the 2004 wins remain his only wins there despite winning just about everywhere else during his four Cup championship seasons in a row. Had Johnson not been going through his current slump, his practice times would justify saying he’s the driver to beat this week. He was fastest in the first two sessions and second best in happy hour, which also included the second fastest average speeds.
Johnson’s practice times look very similar to last season’s two Pocono races when he was fastest in three of the five combined sessions ran, but finished only seventh and 13th. The doubt for Johnson this week rests squarely on his mind set. He’s not the same confident Johnson going into turns without fear. Right now, he’s got to be concerned about just finishing and doing things that will keep him on the track. Starting 26th this week, among the lesser drivers, on such a fast track will not ease his tension as he tries to move up front.
Kyle Busch is sitting on the pole this week and has also had one of his better combined practices this season, but something seems to be missing and it stems from his past history. Why hasn’t he had a top-five finish at Pocono since his first race ever on the track which was 10 races ago. It’s odd that he could have so much horse-power, be a teammate of Hamlin’s, and not done better. On the other side, he is surging to the top like no one else. All he has done for the last two months is finish well and compete for wins. Against Kyle’s wishes, he will not be flying around the country racing in the Nationwide series with the intention of being entirely focused on this week's Pocono race.
Tony Stewart had one of his best practice sessions in the last two months this weekend, a sign that maybe he is ready to return to his normal self. With 13 races left in the race to the chase and Stewart currently outside looking in, racing at the place he won at last year should be a comforting. He was so good in this race last season that won with a backup car starting from the rear. He has two Pocono wins with an average finish of 12.4 over his career.
Jeff Gordon has a career average finish of 10.0 that includes four wins and 24 top-fives in 34 career starts at Pocono. He didn’t do anything special during practices, but he can be expected to continue his regular trend of finishing well again. Last year, Gordon finished fourth and eighth in the two races, one of only three drivers to finish in the top-10 for each race in 2009.
Juan Pablo Montoya is one of the other drivers to finish both 2009 Pocono races in the top-10 and he’s carrying that momentum over into this years first crack at it. Montoya was outstanding in all three practices leading up to Sunday’s race. He had the second fastest laps in each the first two sessions and was sixth best during happy hour. On top of all the great single lap times, Montoya also has the quick average speeds to go along with it.
The only negative with Montoya this week is his crew, and I mean everyone from the crew chief, car chief, pit crew, and we can even throw in the custodian at the shop for good measure. Almost every week Montoya looks to have a car to beat and contend for the win, but can’t bust loose. He’s finished 34th or worse six times this season while also showing flashes of greatness with four top-5 finishes. Despite all the speculation on what the problem might be, he’s just too good on paper to ignore, once again, this week. With his type of excellence entering and exiting turns at maximum speeds, this week at Pocono could be the week the team finally puts it all together.