Saturday, August 1, 2015

Final Pocono Practice Notes & Driver Ratings: Battle of Busch Bros.?

Kyle Busch could easily win his fourth race in a row on Sunday.
If Saturday’s final practice at Pocono Raceway is any indication, we might see two brothers battling for the win in Sunday’s Windows 10 400. With five minutes remaining during the 50-minute session, Kurt Busch laid down the fastest lap at 175.067 mph. A minute later, his younger brother Kyle Busch -- the hottest topic in NASCAR for the past five weeks -- was just a little faster at 175.240 mph.

Seeing the two Las Vegas brothers battle for victory wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone considering they have combined to win five of the past six races on the Cup schedule with Kyle carrying most of the load grabbing the checkers four times.

However, it’s Kurt who has history in his side on Pocono’s 2.5-mile triangular track with two wins and five second-place finishes while Kyle has never won in 21 starts with a best finish of second, twice. In the June 7 Pocono race, Kurt started from the pole and finished fifth while Kyle finished ninth, but starts from the pole on Sunday. Big brother starts sixth.

The thing that stands out the most in favor in Kyle Busch in this race is that the Joe Gibbs organization has been completely transformed from what we saw most of the season on big horsepower tracks. It seems like they’ve used some of the winning set-up notes on temporary race packages used at Kentucky and Indianapolis to better themselves with the regular package where they were struggling.

Or maybe the JGR engine program finally cracked the code that Chevrolet drivers Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. had used to their advantage most of the season. What ever the case may be, it’s like a light switch has suddenly been flipped and the JGR Toyota’s have things all figured out. That edge that Harvick had for most of the season with 11 top-two finishes has been closed.

During Saturday’s first 50-minute practice, it was JGR cars stacking the speed charts 1-2-3-4 led by Carl Edwards (175.812) and followed by Matt Kenseth (175.418), Kyle Busch (175.408) and Denny Hamlin (175.298). Kurt Busch would come in with the fifth fastest speed at 175.285.

For four-time Pocono winner Hamlin, this is the best he’s looked at Pocono since the repave in 2012. His last win came in 2010. Edwards is a two-time winner, the last coming in 2008. The unique thing about the two teammates is that they are the only active drivers to win in their first Cup attempt at Pocono. Edwards accomplished the feat in 2005 and Hamlin followed suit in 2006 when he ended up sweeping the season.

If thinking sweep at Pocono just because it’s happened seven other times, including last season with Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Martin Truex Jr. is your driver. He led 97 laps in the June race after finishing with the sixth fast lap during final practice. In Saturday’s final practice he had the ninth fast lap (174.081) and was 11th fastest in the early session (174.547).

When looking at average speeds it was Edwards and Hamlin with the best 10-consecutive lap average in the early session followed by Kurt Busch and Harvick in the final session. Harvick was sluggish in the morning practice, but his team figured things out in the afternoon and should be in line to battle the JGR power Sunday. He’s finished second in the past two Pocono events, but has never won in 29 starts.

The Gibbs cars look outstanding, but it's still the Stewart Haas Racing duo of Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick that top our charts simply because we have so much more data to go on from the season with this race package. If a Gibbs car wins again, then it's almost as if we can erase just about everything we saw through May with the package that is expected to run exclusively through the Chase. Let's see it happen first before we go changing a formula.

Micah Roberts’ Top-10 Driver Ratings
Windows 10 400
Pocono Raceway
Sunday, August 2, 2015 - 10:46 am (PT)

RATING    DRIVER   ODDS         PRAC 1     QUALIFIED     PRAC 2     PRAC 3    
 1. Kurt Busch 8/1                10th           6th            5th        2nd 
Two-time winner, along with five runner-ups; best 10-consecutive lap average in practice 3. 
 2. Kevin Harvick 4/1             5th           2nd           18th       4th 
Career best runner-up past two starts; using 2014 chassis that won twice and led 890 laps. 
 3. Kyle Busch 6/1                 8th           1st             3rd        1st 
No wins in 21 starts, runner-up twice; no one hotter -- four wins in past five races on schedule.  
 4. Carl Edwards 20/1          11th           8th            1st        3rd 
Two-time winner, the last coming in 2008; best 10-consecutive lap average during practice 2. 
 5. Denny Hamlin 12/1          3rd           11th           4th        7th 
Four-time winner, the last coming in 2010; second-best 10 consecutive laps average in practice 2.
 6. Brad Keselowski 12/1      1st            9th            9th         6th 
2011 winner and 2014 runner-up; 13.7 average finish. Tenth or better in past three 2015 starts.  
 7. Martin Truex Jr. 7/1        12th           13th         11th        9th 
Won only race of season at Pocono leading 97 of 160 laps; seven sweeps in track history. 
 8. Jimmie Johnson 7/1         6th           12th         10th        5th  
Three-time winner; 9.6 average finish best among active drivers; finished third in June race.
 9. Matt Kenseth 15/1            2nd            7th           2nd        8th 
No wins in 31 career starts, but was very good in practice as well as June race with sixth-place.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 12/1  14th          15th          23rd      10th 
After no wins in 28 career starts, he swept the 2014 season; finished 11th in June race. 

Note: Pocono has a unique 2.5-mile triangular layout with each of the three turns flatter than the previous. It’s called by some as the Superspeedway that races like a road course.

Odds courtesy of Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.

Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas sports book director who has been setting NASCAR odds since 1994.

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