|Dale Earnhardt Jr top points chart for the first-time in eight years (Getty)|
Jimmie Johnson’s amazing run of five consecutive championships came to an end a year ago but his emphatic Indianapolis victory – his fourth at the Speedway – establishes the Californian as a solid favorite to win title No. 6. Johnson, reigning champion Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski top the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ seeding derby with three wins and nine bonus points apiece.
Stewart (third) and Johnson (fourth) topped current top 10-ranked drivers when the series visited Pocono Raceway in June – the first race held on the track’s new asphalt surface.
It’s time to put up or fold for drivers battling for a pair of Chase "wild card" berths currently held by Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch. Joey Logano won the 2.5-mile track’s June race. Ryan Newman, who has one win this season, also has a Pocono victory. Jeff Gordon (five Pocono wins) and Carl Edwards (two) must end 2012 winless streaks to keep their fading Chase hopes alive.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. swept both NASCAR Nationwide Series races at Iowa Speedway a year ago and kept his streak alive with a victory at the 0.875-mile track in May. Now just 13 points behind standings leader Elliott Sadler, Stenhouse hopes to become the series’ first to win four straight at the same track since Kyle Busch assembled a five-win streak at Texas Motor Speedway (2008-10).
Saturday night’s race ends this year’s Nationwide "Dash 4 Cash" bonus program with Stenhouse, Sam Hornish Jr., Austin Dillon and Iowa’s Michael Annett vying for a $100,000 payoff as the highest finishing eligible driver. A fan selected by random drawing and paired with the winning "Dash 4 Cash"-winning driver also wins $100,000.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series points-eligible drivers hope to win for the first time at Pocono Raceway on Saturday. "Visitors" Elliott Sadler and Kevin Harvick won the series’ first two visits in 2010-11 and Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski represent formidable road blocks for series regulars this year – especially since they have experience on the repaved Pocono layout.
Points leader Timothy Peters was solid with top-10 finishes in both races. Standings runner up and Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader Ty Dillon won last year’s Pocono ARCA race and warmed up with a third-place finish in last weekend’s NASCAR Nationwide Series debut at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
Junior Perseveres, No. 1 At Last In Sprint Cup Standings
It’s been a long climb but Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back in the No. 1 points position after an absence of nearly eight years. Junior officially last led the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings on Sept. 19, 2004 following a third-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He also led after the Oct. 3, 2004 race at Talladega Speedway, but lost the lead after a midweek penalty. Earnhardt made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ a year ago and finished seventh – his best points placing since a fifth in 2006. With a victory earlier this summer and 20 consecutive finishes on the lead lap Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Steve Letarte have every reason to believe they’re solid championship contenders. Asked by a reporter for reasons why they can win the title, Letarte replied, "Give me a reason why not."
Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet Team In Championship Form
Now there are three. Jimmie Johnson’s dominating Indianapolis victory – his fourth at the Speedway – added the five-time champion’s name to the short list of drivers with three NASCAR Sprint Cup wins in 2012. Were the Chase to be seeded today, Johnson, reigning champion Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski would top the chart with nine bonus points apiece. Without a doubt, Johnson is in championship form with six races remaining until the post-season lineup is set. Since finishing fourth at Pocono Raceway in early June, Johnson has posted a victory and four top-five and six top-10 finishes.
"I feel that from a performance standpoint, we're as strong as we've ever been. We've had issues late in a race that's cost us track position for a variety of reasons and that's the part that we need to make sure is buttoned up before the Chase starts and carry that through the Chase," said Johnson, who declared his ultimate goal is winning eight titles – one more than Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. "But from a performance standpoint, these are amazing race cars. We've made a lot of progress through the off season and then getting started this year. I feel really good about the Chase. I'm ready for it to start."
Pocono Looms Large For ‘Wild Card’ Aspirants
For 10 drivers vying for two "wild card" entries into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway has become a must-win affair. Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch are the current "wild card" holders, drivers ranked 11th through 20th with the most wins. Kahne has two victories and Busch, who finished second to Johnson at Indianapolis, prevails via tie-breaker over Ryan Newman and Joey Logano. Kahne, Newman and Logano all have Pocono victories – Logano won there when the series visited the 2.5-mile track in June. It’s not quite a last-chance situation for 2012 non-winners Carl Edwards (12th) and Jeff Gordon (15th) but the clock is ticking toward midnight. Gordon has won five times at the Pennsylvania track most recently in June 2011. Edwards won in 2005 and 2008.
Chase Contenders Solid At Pocono In June
Pocono Raceway’s June event could have been a preview of this year’s Chase with six of the current top-10 drivers finishing among the top 10 of the Pocono 400 presented by #NASCAR. Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson were the best-placed among the series’ elite finishing third and fourth respectively. Greg Biffle (24th) was the only member of the current top five outside the top 10. Biffle won Pocono’s late summer race in 2010. Brad Keselowski is the defending winner of this week’s event – the first of two August victories that propelled the Penske Racing driver into the Chase as a "wild card" qualifier.
June’s event was the first held since Pocono’s latest repaving. Logano won the Coors Light Pole award at a record 179.598 mph speed.
Pocono President Has ‘Super Pac’ Pledge For Fan
Pocono Raceway President and CEO Brandon Igdalsky has confidently picked Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400, pledging $100,000 to a lucky fan should Junior go to Victory Lane. Fans must register at the track prior to the halfway point of the race at which time the potential winner’s name will be drawn at random. "While watching the 2012 Presidential races, I decided it was time to make a campaign pledge of my own," said Igdalsky.
Earnhardt has yet to win at Pocono finishing second in 2001 and 2007. He was eighth in June’s race.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Etc.
Johnson won Sunday’s Indianapolis race with a perfect 150.0 Driver Rating, the first in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since Carl Edwards’ 2010 victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. … This week marks just the second time in 2012 that a Roush Fenway Racing driver has not led the points standings. Matt Kenseth, now second, headed the points since taking the lead from teammate Biffle in June at Pocono. Denny Hamlin led the points standings after the second race of the season at Phoenix. … Mark Martin finished second for a seventh time at Pocono in June setting a record for the most runner-up finishes without a victory at the same NASCAR Sprint Cup track. … Based upon the final aerodynamic test results from July 18, NASCAR has announced that all four of its Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) have met the necessary targets for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race car. This represents another step forward in the new car process and means manufacturers can begin making parts and pieces for the new models – the Chevrolet SS, Dodge Charger, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry.