|Tony Stewart jumped back into Chase picture with win at Dover|
With half of the regular season in the record book, the road to the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ figures to take a variety of twists and turns through the next 13 races, beginning with Sunday’s Party in the Poconos 400. Pocono Speedway’s first of two events kicks off TNT’s NASCAR Summer Series of six events at 1 p.m. EDT (TNT, Motor Racing Network Radio and SiriusXM Radio).
The Chase lineup will be set Sept. 7 at Richmond International Raceway. The top 10 in points automatically qualify for the Chase. Two Wild Cards – drivers ranked 11th through 20th with the most wins – fill out the field of 12.
By points margins, the current top 10 is unsettled. From eighth – Kyle Busch – to 13th – Greg Biffle – the spread is just 21 points. A year ago, nine of the 10 drivers qualifying for the Chase by points occupied a top-10 position entering the regular season’s final 13 races.
So it’s not too early to consider the Wild Card scenarios.
Tony Stewart, until recently outside the top 20, is the current Wild Card leader (16th) following Sunday’s victory at Dover International Speedway.
Jeff Gordon, 11th in the standings, holds the second Wild Card based upon his points position.
David Ragan won at Talladega but ranks 27th and is 113 points outside top-20 eligibility.
Stewart’s Dover victory was his first top-five finish of the 2013 campaign – the slowest start in 15 seasons for the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. To say Stewart-Haas Racing has struggled would be an understatement, but Stewart said last month at Charlotte his team had turned the corner.
Only 33 points outside the top 10, Stewart may not be a Wild Card hopeful for long. He finished third in Pocono’s first race a year ago, fifth in the second. Stewart counts two victories at the track and a fifth-best Driver Rating of 98.6.
Of Stewart’s 48 career victories, 42 have come after June 1.
Gordon, likewise, is trending upward. A trio of accident-caused DNFs has offset three third-place finishes, the most recent coming last Sunday. He’s gained 10 positions in the points since Bristol, where Gordon suffered one of three finishes of 34th or worse.
The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion won last August’s weather-shortened Pocono event, his second victory in the last four races and sixth overall at the 2.5-mile track. Gordon enjoys a third-best Pocono Driver Rating (100.9) and series-best top-five (18) and top-10 (28) finishes.
Hamlin Reboots Chase Quest After Dover Stumble
Two steps forward, one giant step back for Denny Hamlin and his bid to qualify for this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.
Last Sunday’s 36th-place Dover finished virtually wiped out the success he enjoyed – and points gained – at Darlington and Charlotte, Hamlin’s first two full races since his back injury in late March.
Hamlin’s only Chase opportunity will come through the Wild Card process. But to gain eligibility, he must reach a top-20 ranking. Seventy-six points out of 20th entering May’s Darlington race, Hamlin had cut the deficit to 53. He now trails 20th-place Ryan Newman by 74 markers.
Pocono would appear to offer Hamlin a great opportunity to regain momentum. It’s long been one of the Virginian’s best tracks – beginning with a sweep in 2006, Hamlin’s rookie of the year campaign. Hamlin dominates Pocono statistics: four victories, top Driver Rating of 115.1, series-best Average Running Position (9.1) and fastest Average Green Flag Speed (160.936 mph).
All well and good, but Hamlin, addressing media members last week, tossed out a caveat. Today’s Pocono, following repaving after the 2011 season, isn’t the same. Any advantage a driver enjoyed, he said, has vanished.
“We had a leg up; we had two legs up on everyone when we went there with the old pavement,” Hamlin said. “I think now we’re better than average but we’re not the best anymore at that track.”
A year ago, after repaving, Hamlin finished fifth in June’s race. He qualified second in August and led three laps but was eliminated in a late-race accident.
Qualifying remains Hamlin’s ace – especially on a new surface where track position is paramount. He’s qualified among the top 10 in eight consecutive Pocono events and won his second straight Coors Light Pole last weekend at Dover.
“Track position is total key,” he said. “And you have to be the fastest car.”
NASCAR’s Best Hunting For First Win At Pocono
What do Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have in common?
Answer: All are winless at Pocono Raceway.
Martin, who’ll make his 53rd Pocono start on Sunday, posted his seventh second-place finish in last year’s spring race. That set an unfortunate record – most runner-up finishes at a single track without a win. Martin’s first Pocono visit came in 1982.
Kenseth was unable to conquer Pocono as a Roush Fenway Racing driver. An 0-for-26 drought could end this weekend as Kenseth – already a three-time winner in 2013 – drives the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR cars have visited Pocono’s Victory Lane nine times.
The JGR connection hasn’t helped Busch master the 2.5-mile Pennsylvania layout. Busch has four DNFs – three by accident – in 12 trips to Pocono, where his average finish is 19.2. Busch has been second twice but failed to finish either race a year ago. His 63 laps led are second fewest (to Indianapolis) on a series track.
Harvick’s Pocono drought is a head scratcher. He’s working a streak of 16 consecutive lead-lap finishes and 21 overall, the latter number the Bakersfield, Calif., veteran’s best on a series track. His team, Richard Childress Racing, last won at Pocono with Dale Earnhardt in 1993.
Earnhardt Jr. won a pole and finished second in his final start with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2007. His modest string of three top-10 finishes – Junior’s best with Hendrick Motorsports – ended with last summer’s 32nd-place finish in a weather-shortened event won by teammate Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt, however, led both Pocono races a year ago, the first time he’d led back-to-back events at the track since 2003.
At Midpoint, Stats Tell First-Half Story
It’s been quite the first half, with an abundance of competition statistics that illustrate the Gen-6 race car’s debut.
Speed thrills, and it’s a standout characteristic of the Gen-6 car in its debut season – seven track qualifying records have been set thus far.
Tight finishes have been the norm. Over the first 13 races, there has been an average margin of victory of .893 seconds, which is only the fourth time since the inception of electronic timing and scoring in 1993 that the average MOV has been under a second through 13 events.
Two statistics in particular highlight the Gen-6 race car’s ability to level the playing field – lead lap finishes and cars running at the finish. This season, 46.3% of the cars have finished on the lead lap, compared to 38.6% through 13 races in 2012. Through the first half, 81.2% of the cars have been running at the finish, the highest total through 13 races since 2009.
Passing figures have increased at a number of venues during the first half, most notably at intermediate tracks. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, there were 31 green flag passes for the lead, a new track best since the inception of Loop Data in 2005. At Auto Club Speedway, there were 41 green flag passes for the lead, which tied a track record. The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway saw 35 passes for the lead, which tied a race best.
And last Sunday’s race at Dover featured 25 passes for the lead, which set a track Loop Data record.
First Time’s A Charm: Tricky Triangle Kind To Rookies
Pocono Raceway defies logic. Its three-turn dilemma screams growing pains. Yet, that’s not the case for some. Often, first-timers fare just fine.
Take Denny Hamlin, the prime example in rookie success at Pocono. In 2006, Hamlin’s rookie season, he swept the Pocono races – winning each from the Coors Light Pole. In the first, he led 83 laps. In the second: 151.
Or sample Carl Edwards’ Pocono debut. In 2005, Edwards had already collected his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He entered Pocono with that one win, and marched his way through the field to win in his first Pocono start after starting 29th.
So, that might give some hope to Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick, neither of whom have raced at Pocono.
Patrick turned laps at Pocono last week during a test session and looks to become the first female to score a top-10 finish there in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Janet Guthrie is the only female to race in the Sprint Cup series, with a top finish of 11th in three starts.
Stenhouse, who has finished in the top 20 in each of the last six races but has yet to score his first career top-10 finish, leads the rookie standings by four points over Patrick.