Wednesday, June 6, 2012

2012 Pocono 400 Preview: No One Hotter Than Johnson Right Now

Jeff Gordon has been stuck on 85 wins, maybe No. 86 Sunday? (Getty)
By Micah Roberts

Jimmie Johnson has won two of the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup races, as well as the non-points All-Star race for a $1 million prize. There is nobody hotter right now than Johnson which is why the LVH Superbook has him listed as the overwhelming 3-to-1 favorite to win the Championship despite being fifth in points. The closest driver to Johnson in odds is Tony Stewart at 7-to-1 with current points leader Greg Biffle still sitting at a very large 10-to-1 clip.

We are at the halfway mark in the Race to the Chase with 13 races to go until its determined what 12 drivers will make NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. One driver that has a long ways to go if he plans on making it is Jeff Gordon who is currently sitting in 21st position. He‘s at the point now where the only way he can get in the 10-race Chase for the Championship is by winning races.

The final two positions in the Chase are awarded to drivers within the top-20 who have the most wins. Brad Keselowski currently has the 11th position occupied on the basis of his two wins while Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne each have one win. So essentially, Gordon would have to win at least two races in the next 13 to get a win if the standings were to remain in relatively the same order.

It seems like an impossible task for Gordon with the way his season has gone thus far. Despite having good cars on a weekly basis, Gordon has routinely been snake bit with issues that never seemed to occur so often to the four-time Cup Champ. Last week at Dover was the perfect example of how Gordon’s season has been going. He not only had a good car again, he had the best car on the track, and even better than Johnson.

"I'm tired of the same old thing when we've got the best car out there," Gordon said following Sunday's race. "I know we had the best car. It's not every day you run the 48 down and pass him."

In 13 races this season Gordon has only one top-5 finish, but he should be able to add to that total this week at Pocono, a place he won at last season which was the fifth of his career -- tied for the most all-time in Pocono history. He’s currently on a run with two straight solid performances and should be considered one of the drivers to beat.

Another example of Gordon’s performances not telling the whole story is just by looking at his weekly odds. For a driver that hadn’t won at Dover in 11 years and was finishing poorly week after week, Gordon could only be found at 10-to-1 odds on race day which means the sports books still respect Gordon and feel he‘s close to winning soon.

Although it‘s tough to bet a driver like Gordon to win, this week at Pocono looks like a great opportunity to finally cash in. Aside from his statistical short comings this season, the bigger picture here is his association with Hendrick Motorsports, a team that has won the last three Cup races between Johnson and Kahne. They also have Dale Earnhardt Jr. running for Championship sitting in third-place, two slots ahead of Johnson.

One of the elements Gordon will have to deal with this week besides Johnson and the tricky 2.5-mile triangular track is a new surface, which means one of the fastest tracks with the longest straightaway is going to be even faster.

"No matter what, we’ll face similar challenges (at Pocono) just because the shape and the banking of the turns haven’t changed,” said Gordon. “The grip level and the smoothness of the track will determine how aggressive we can be getting the car ‘sealed’ down to the race track.”

Another challenge Gordon and the 42 others drivers will have to adjust to this week is the strategy played into running only 400 miles. Sunday will mark the first time that a Pocono race hasn't been 500 miles and Gordon thinks the race will be better because of it.

“I think a shorter race at Pocono is going to be a better race and a more exciting race,” said Gordon. “We’ll have fewer laps, so I don’t know how that will change strategy for the race.”

The drivers Gordon will have to pass to get the win begin with Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

As if Johnson didn't already have the luxury of riding a hot streak into a track where he's averaged a 9th-place finish over his career, he also comes in a chassis that has won a couple of trophies. The car Johnson is using this week won at Darlington last month and also took the checkers in Kansas last fall. In six starts this car has led at least one lap on each occasion. The only trend going against Johnson -- and it's hard to find one -- is that he hasn't won at Pocono since 2004. However, he did sweep the season.

A driver who knows something about sweeping the season at Pocono is Hamlin, who did it as a rookie in 2006. Hamlin won again in 2009 and 2010 giving him an amazing four wins in only 12 starts. Compare that to Gordon's track record of five wins in 38 starts and it shows just how impressive Hamlin's credentials are at Pocono. He may not be the reigning champion of the race, but everyone in the garage knows who the 'King of Pocono' is.

Hamlin struggled last year at Pocono, or at least compared to the standards he set for himself, but he also struggled everywhere in kind of a hangover season. This year things look a little different as he sits fourth in points and has already won twice through 13 races.

Keselowski powered his Penske Dodge to a win last fall at Pocono and should be contending again on Sunday. Kurt Busch fared very well while with Penske which should also make A.J. Allmendinger a quality longshot to look at this week.

Because of the new surface at Pocono, NASCAR has mandated a test session scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday which should give them all plenty of quality notes to sort through by the time Friday's practice begins. Because of all the extra time on the track, the Friday practices should be very telling to who is dialed in the most on the new surface.

With 100 miles less, there is less time for teams to make in-race adjustments on their cars so it benefits those who have it all figured out on Friday and are ready to be fast when the green flag drops.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
2) #2 Brad Keselowski (15/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (5/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)

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