Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Pocono NASCAR Cup Series Notes: 2018 Gander Outdoors 400

Let's go Hokies!!!!
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Gander Outdoors 400
The Place: Pocono Raceway
The Date: Sunday, July 29
The Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400 miles (160 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 50),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 100), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 160)

Chasing History

You know they’ve been good. But exactly how good have Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. been this season? The trio of drivers (Harvick – six wins, Busch – five and Truex – four) have combined to win 15 of the opening 20 contests.

2018 marks just the seventh season in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series history to see three drivers record four or more wins through the first 20 races of the year. And the last time it happened was nearly two decades years ago when Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon won four apiece to tally 12 wins in the opening 20 races of 1999. Before that? You would have to go back to the powerhouse drivers of the 1970s.

And only twice in NASCAR’s illustrious history has a trio of driver won more through the first 20 races than the current “Big 3.”

In 1974, the trio of NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough (eight), Richard Petty (seven) and David Pearson (four) combined to win 19 of the opening 20 races. Amazingly, those three drivers also accounted for the next six race trophies, giving the trio 23 straight race wins after Bobby Allison won the third race of the season. The streak was broken at race No. 26 – when Earl Ross won at Martinsville; the only victory in Ross’s career.

Three years later, Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Petty won 16 of the opening 20 and 17 of the first 21 races with Pearson breaking up the three-driver party with a win at Darlington in Race 22.

Here’s a look at the seven times in which three drivers have dominated so much of the opening 20 races of the season:

2018 – Kevin Harvick (6), Kyle Busch (5), Martin Truex Jr. (4) – 15 total
1999 – Jeff Burton (4), Jeff Gordon (4), Dale Jarrett (4) – 12 total
1978 – Cale Yarborough (5), Darrell Waltrip (5), David Pearson (4) – 14 total
1977 – Yarborough (7), Richard Petty (5), Waltrip (4) – 16 total
1974 – Yarborough (8), Petty (7), Pearson (4) – 19 total
1972 – Bobby Allison (6), Petty (5), Pearson (4) – 15 total
1962 – Jack Smith (4), Joe Weatherly (4), Rex White (4) – 12 total

Powerful Heading Into Pocono

If you thought the “Big 3” couldn’t possibly keep up their near-historic pace of winning – be prepared. Martin Truex Jr. won at this week’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series venue, Pocono Raceway, earlier this summer and Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick finished third and fourth, respectively.

Last year, Busch won the second Pocono race, followed by Harvick and Truex. There’s a theme. A recurring, high-performing, headline-making theme for these three dominant drivers in 2018. Here’s a look at their outlook heading into Tricky Triangle.

Harvick: Fresh off his hard-earned win over Busch with a bump-and-run in the waning laps in New Hampshire on Sunday, Harvick arrives in scenic northeastern Pennsylvania looking for his first career victory at the 2.5-mile Pocono triangle. It’s one of only two venues (including Kentucky Speedway) on the current Monster Energy Series schedule where he hasn’t won yet - in 35 career starts.

Harvick was fourth in the June race at Pocono this season and has finished in the top-10 in seven of the last eight races. Four times he’s been the race runner-up.

Win last week in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and top-five finishes in six of the last seven races on the 2018 schedule certainly give Harvick every reason to be optimistic about establishing some personal history Sunday.

Busch: Busch returns to Pocono as the defending winner of the late-summer Gander Outdoors 400. But similar to Harvick, he hasn’t necessarily posted his best career results at the unique track. That victory is his only one in 27 Pocono starts. He is coming off four consecutive top-10 efforts, however, including a third place in June. His 12 top-10 hauls in 27 starts makes this one of his lower yielding venues overall.

The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota continues to only look forward, however. Busch continues to answer the call in 2018 – leading the season points standings for the 15th consecutive week, his runner-up showing to Harvick last weekend still giving him a 53-point advantage. He has seven top-five finishes in the last eight races.

Truex: Truex may have the lowest total victory count among the three series frontrunners, but he does hold the distinction for most wins (two) in the six races since the series last raced at Pocono – a race that Truex won, giving him three wins in the past seven races overall.

The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota has nine top-five finishes in the last 10 races, including three wins (Pocono, Sonoma, Kentucky) and three runner-up showings (at Kansas, Charlotte and Daytona).

Overall at Pocono, Truex has a pair of wins at Pocono, started from the front row three consecutive times (2016-2017) and led 83 laps in the last four races.

Pushing for the Playoffs

With just six races remaining in the regular season, and only seven drivers locked in on wins, the pressure is on this weekend in the Gander Outdoors 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) to get to Victory Lane for the chance at postseason glory.

Here’s a look at active, championship-contending drivers who have wins at upcoming tracks but have yet to visit Victory Lane in 2018:

Pocono: Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman

Watkins Glen: AJ Allmendinger, Hamlin
Michigan: Ku. Busch, Hamlin, Johnson, Kahne, Kyle Larson, Newman
Bristol: Ku. Busch, Hamlin, Johnson, Kahne, Keselowski
Darlington: Hamlin, Johnson
Indianapolis: Kahne, Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Newman

Fond Memories

Ryan Blaney will of course remember Pocono Raceway as the place he scored his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in 2017. But right now, he’d love the track to be the place he scores his next, a 2018 Playoff-insurance victory.

The popular 24-year old driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford has four top-11 finishes in five Pocono starts. He won the pole position there in June and finished sixth.

And Blaney seems to be recovering from a rough three-race midsummer swing of finishes outside the top 15, including two finishes of 34th or worse. He was runner-up at Kentucky two weeks ago and seventh last Sunday at New Hampshire.

Champion’s Pocono Groove

There are still four former Monster Energy Series champions looking for their first victory of the 2018 season – Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth.

Of those, Johnson and Busch boast three Pocono victories each. Keselowski and Kenseth have won there once in the Monster Energy Series as well.

Busch appears to have the most favorable momentum heading into this week’s race with top-10 finishes in the last two races. And he won the Busch Pole position in the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford last week at New Hampshire. Of the four winless series champions, he is the most recent winner at Pocono (June, 2016) and has seven top-10 finishes in the last 11 races at the Tricky Triangle.

Keselowski, who won at Pocono in the July race in 2011, has six top-five finishes in his last six races at the track, including runner-up finishes in the July races in 2015 and 2016 in this race.

Kenseth, who is sharing a drive in the Roush-Fenway Racing No. 6 Ford, has five top-10 finishes in his last seven Pocono starts.

Johnson, who has three wins and four Busch Poles in the Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 Chevrolet finished eighth here earlier this season, but overall has struggled as of late at Pocono – with DNFs in three of the last five races.


Popular driver Aric Almirola seemed almost heartbroken on pit road Sunday following the New Hampshire race. His third-place finish was his best showing in his debut season as driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and he truly hoped to hoist the winner’s trophy. He led 42 laps and was every bit in contention to pick up his first victory since a dramatic win at Daytona in 2014 for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola can be encouraged, however, as the series moves to Pocono. His new team looks to be a harbinger of better finishes for him at the track. He was seventh in June – his first top-10 in 12 starts there.

The Tampa native has three top-10 finishes in the last five races of the season and is ranked a solid 11th in the championship standings, looking to make his first NASCAR Playoffs since 2014.

Rookie Race

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie battle is currently a tale of two directions for the two fan favorites, Bubba Wallace and William Byron.

Byron, driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is coming off a 14th place finish at New Hampshire. He’s had three top-11 finishes in the last five races and is ranked 21st in the standings – ironically, 43 points ahead of Wallace who drives the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet. Byron was 16th in the June Pocono race.

Wallace is 24th in the points standings and has had only one top-20 in the last five races – a 14th place showing at Daytona – where he was runner-up in February’s season-opening Daytona 500. Wallace made his first career Cup start at Pocono last year, filling in four races for driver Aric Almirola in the No. 43 RPM car, and finished 26th. He was 38th in the race there this June, retiring early with engine problems.

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