Saturday, July 31, 2010

Starting Position Is The Key To Success At Pocono; Most of the Big Guns Up Front

By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

The most telling statistic in the history of NASCAR racing at Pocono Raceway is in regards to where the winners have started. In 65 Sprint Cup starts, the eventual winner has come from a top-10 start position 46 times (72%) with the front row producing 23 winners. When looking at possible candidates to win this week, it’s a great idea to begin with looking at the drivers starting up front.

The probable cause for such a drastic percentage comes from the drivers up front being able to drive their own preferred lines in and out of the three differing tricky turns on Pocono’s massive 2.5-mile triangular layout. Granted, the drivers started up front because they qualified well -- meaning they have lots of horsepower to begin with -- but they go a lot faster when they aren’t constantly battling for position like the drivers stuck in packs behind the top-10 drivers have to. They are no longer able to hit their marks because everyone in the back is trying to move up which creates some side by side racing going around the tricky flat turns, ultimately causing them to lose speed.

The drivers in the back also are hampered by the process of having several long green flag runs where the drivers with no traffic and clean air separate themselves from the other quite easily. The furthest back any driver has started to win a race was 29th with Carl Edwards in 2005.

The next thing to check on when looking for this weeks top candidates to win is compare notes from the June Pocono race and last weeks Brickyard 400. While both tracks a vastly different in configuration, the long straightaways and flat sweeping turns mirror each other so much that many of the teams use the same set-ups for each.

When comparing results from the June race to the Brickyard 400, they look almost identical, or at least the names do. Nine of the top-15 finishers from June finished in the top-15 at Indy last week. What’s even more glaring is that two of the best cars from both races, driven by Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya, aren’t even part of the nine drivers even though they both finished within the top-10 in June. Johnson and Montoya had two of the best cars at Indy but had troubles near the end of the race.

Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus are a perfect example of a team putting a premium on qualifying well for Pocono this week after what happened in the June race where they started 25th and finished fifth. Though they finished well, it was an uphill battle all day for them trying to get position as they were continually mired within those packs in the back fighting for position. In Friday’s first practice session while most of the teams spent the first half of the session tinkering with their set-up in race trim, Johnson and Knaus used the entire session exclusively with qualifying trim on. The move paid off as Johnson qualified sixth.

During Saturday’s practice sessions, Johnson shined with the second best times early and was third fastest during happy hour. Most impressive of all was his average lap time over the duration of happy hour and his average on 10 consecutive laps where Johnson was faster than anyone. Should Johnson get out front early on with that clean air, he’s going to be tough to beat.

When mixing in all of Johnson’s past history at Pocono where he’s averaged a finish of 9.5 per race in his 17 starts that includes an amazing 16 top-15 finishes, it’s hard to find a better candidate to win this week.

The driver who may have something to say about that is the four-time Pocono winner Denny Hamlin. He comes in with a two-race winning streak at Pocono and while he wasn’t all that impressive with individual lap times in Saturday’s practice, he did have great average lap speeds. He'll be looking to tie Bobby Allison and Tim Richmond for a track record of three straight wins. Hamlin also has the luxury of starting third.

The only knock on Hamlin this week is that he and crew chief Mike Forde didn’t bring the same winning chassis from the June race, a car that had never lost going 3-for-3 in starts and wins this year. One would think that a team that hasn’t had a top-five finish in five straight races would bring their best to their best track. The streak of poor runs started at Sonoma when Hamlin and the team chose not to test for road races prior to the event, essentially giving it away.
If Pocono can’t get Hamlin back on track to looking like the driver that won five races in the first 15, it may be a while.

The best combined efforts by team at Pocono and Indy this year has been Richard Childress racing’s stable of drivers. All three finished within the top-10 of both races with Kevin Harvick being one of only two drivers to crack the top-five of both. Jeff Burton has been the best in combined practices -- including fastest in Saturday’s happy hour -- and has a seventh and sixth place finish to show for it. Harvick starts 14th this week while Burton begins within the top-10 in eighth.

Clint Bowyer starts 40th this week after slipping during his qualifying run. He like, like his two teammates, has been just as good at Pocono and Indy this year. Bowyer finished sixth fastest in both practice sessions Saturday. If it weren’t for his poor start position, Bowyer would be rated much higher. He led 59 laps early on in the June race. 

Tony Stewart is sitting on the pole for third time in the last four Pocono races. He won from the pole in the first Pocono race last year to give him his second career win there. He is one of only two drivers to finish in the top-five of both Pocono and Indy this year. This week he’ll be using his winning chassis from the 2009 All-Star race, a monumental first win -- albeit a non-points race -- for his new team. Three weeks later, Stewart would get his new team their first points race win at Pocono.

Two drivers to keep an eye on Sunday are Greg Biffle and Joey Logano. Biffle is using the same car from last week at Indy that led 38 laps and finished third. It was the first real sign this year that Roush Racing had competitive horsepower capable of winning a race. Because of the confidence that Biffle’s car will bring to the team, they very well could help car owner Jack Roush to a speedy recovery with a win. The Roush stable of four cars is winless this season making it the longest a Ford has gone without winning since 1977.

Joey Logano returns to the site where he got more media coverage than his rain shortened win at New Hampshire last year. In June’s race, Logano was running fifth when he flat out got punted by Harvick which caused Logano to go on a rant on television where he unwisely brought Harvick’s wife Delana into the conversation. The finish would have been Logano’s third top-five of the season. Currently, six races since, he’s still searching for that elusive third top-five. The good news for Logano is that it could happen this week. He was second fastest during happy hour and has the fortune of being in the Gibbs family who netted first and second place in the June race.

Read More Here for Notes, Quotes, Odds, & Final Driver Ratings

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