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Thursday December 5th, 2019 10:28PM

Veteran drivers have advantage at Pocono Raceway

By Holly Cain-NASCAR Wire Service
  Contact Editor

With only six races left to set the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field, there are plenty of drivers looking for their first wins of the season and one – Daniel Suarez – racing for the first win of his career.

But when it comes to this week’s stop, Pocono Raceway, more typically the “Tricky Triangle” has proven itself a venue for veterans and multi-time winners. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin scored his first career win a the track in 2006 and answered with another to sweep the season. He leads all current drivers with four wins. Seven-time Monster Energy Series champion, Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson leads all active drivers in laps led (740) at the 2.5-mile track.

Nine times a driver has won back-to-back Pocono races, the most recent being Kyle Busch who has won the last two consecutively and three of the last four. Should he win Sunday’s Gander RV 400 he would join an ultra-elite group to win three straight – NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (1982-83) and the late Tim Richmond (1986-87).

For the most part in recent years, Pocono has been a veteran’s playfield scattered with a couple worthy exceptions. When Ryan Blaney earned his first career Cup victory there in 2017, veteran Kevin Harvick was right on his bumper in the second closest finish (.139-seconds) in the track’s history. When Chris Buescher claimed his first Cup win in 2016, it was primarily a strategy call – he was leading when the race was called early due to bad weather.

With the exception of Hamlin, who is a perennial championship challenger, the track’s winningest drivers are also series champions – from the seven-time champ Johnson, who has three Pocono wins to 2004 series champ Kurt Busch and 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch, who also have three wins each and 2017 series champ Martin Truex, Jr., who claims a pair of Pocono wins.

A Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion or future series champ has won 12 of the last 17 Pocono races.

Of the drivers contending for the final Playoff positions with six regular season races remaining, Johnson, who is ranked 17th, leads the way with his Pocono trio of trophies. Roush-Fenway Racing driver Ryan Newman, who is ranked 15th, is the only other former Pocono winner in this group – hoisting the trophy in 2003. Johnson and Newman finished 19th and 16th, respectively, earlier this summer.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson, who is ranked 13th, only 31 points to the Playoff good, has a pair of top-five finishes at Pocono including a runner-up finish to Truex in 2018. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones, who is 14th in the standings, 28 points to the Playoff good, has three top-fives at Pocono and was third earlier this season. Bowyer, who drives the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and is ranked 16th in the standings, had a fifth-place finish at Pocono in June.

Suarez, who drives the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, won his first career pole position in this race last year and finished a career best runner-up. He was eighth in June’s race.

“I’m confident in the No. 41 team,” Suarez said. “We have a good group of guys who work hard. Unfortunately we have had a few things that were out of our control that have happened during races which has made things more difficult for us.

“Other times, we’ve been trying different things to see if they’d work or not and some of those things didn’t work. But we have some of my best tracks in Pocono and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) coming up. We’re just going to keep focused and doing our jobs.”

Xfinity Series Returns To Iowa

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell and Stewart-Haas Racing driver Cole Custer have already set a historic pace of triumph this season and we’re only 18 races into NASCAR’s Xfinity Series championship run. All indications are that Saturday’s U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa Speedway could well be the next chapter in a dominating year for the pair plus championship leader Tyler Reddick. This threesome accounts for 13 wins.

With five victories each, Bell and Custer have tied a historic mark for success – joining Jack Ingram and Sam Ard (1984, seven wins each) as the only pair of drivers to each earn five or more trophies through the opening 18 races of a season.

There’s no reason to assume this pace will slow either. Bell is the two-time defending champion at Iowa and could join Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. as the only two drivers to win three consecutive Xfinity Series races at the track. Stenhouse did it in 2011-12.

In four starts at the Iowa .875-mile oval, Bell has two wins, a runner-up, a pole position and led an amazing 434 laps. He’s led at least 150 laps twice – finishing 16th after leading 152 laps in his 2017 Iowa debut and leading 186 laps in this June’s victory.

Championship leader Reddick, who holds a 56-point edge over Bell in the standings, has never led a lap at Iowa and has only a pair of top-10s in five starts. The Richard Childress Racing driver was 15th last month here. Custer, who is third in the points standings, has four top-10 finishes and was runner-up to Bell earlier this summer.

Keeping them honest all season and especially this weekend, will be perennial championship contender Justin Allgaier, who won five times last season, but is still looking for his first victory of 2019. The JR Motorsports driver joins Bell as a former Iowa winner – the only two past winners in Saturday’s field. He won the season’s first summer Iowa race in 2018 and has finished second and third in the two races since. He’s the highest ranked driver in the series right now (fourth) without a win yet.

“It all comes down to one race at Homestead, so you never really know what you’re gonna have until there, but I think at this point you’re just trying to keep your own momentum up and try to get to Homestead,” Custer said of the fast early season pace. “We’re just trying to build as many Playoff points as possible and then from there when we get to Homestead we’ll settle it there.”

Eight races remain until the Playoffs. The top 12 ranked drivers will be eligible to contend for the trophy. Currently that includes Reddick, Bell, Custer, the winner of the season-opening Daytona race Michael Annett, Allgaier, Austin Cindric and rookie Noah Gragson.

Of note, Kaulig Racing driver Justin Haley will have a new leader atop his pit box this weekend, crew chief Alex Yontz, will handle crew chief duties following the unexpected death of Haley’s crew chief Nick Harrison last Sunday. Harrison was beloved in the NASCAR community and as you would expect, Haley and the team are highly motivated to honor him with a win at Iowa on Saturday. Yontz and Haley worked together at Michigan earlier this season, scoring a 10th-place finish.

“Nick (Harrison) and I had a really fast car at Iowa a few weeks back,” Haley said. “This will be our second time there this year. Hopefully we will be just as fast and maybe get a win for Nick and see what else we can do this weekend.

“We’ve got some road courses after that, so I am really excited. We are going to the race track this weekend in honor of Nick, and we are going to go win one for him.”

Pocono Welcomes The Truck Series

With only three races remaining to set the eight-driver NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Playoff field, this week’s Gander RV 150 at Pocono Raceway takes on added significance for much of the field.

Only one driver among the top-five in the championship standings – defending series champion Brett Moffitt – has a victory so far. As it stands the other four truck series regulars who have qualified for the Playoffs with wins include Austin Hill, Johnny Sauter, Tyler Ankrum and Ross Chastain, meaning the championship-eligible field would be filled by only the top-three in the standings – Grant Enfinger, Stewart Friesen and Matt Crafton.

This week’s race seems like a true wild card in terms of precedent. No past winners are entered. Among the top-five ranked drivers still without a win, the veteran Crafton has the most Pocono starts, having competed in all nine races. He has six top-six finishes and his best showing (third) came in the inaugural Gander Trucks race in 2010.

Harrison Burton, who is the first driver on the wrong side of the Playoff cutoff will be making his Pocono debut in the Gander Trucks, however he did win the 2018 ARCA Menards Series race at the track. Ben Rhodes is just behind Burton in the standings (ranked sixth). He boasts the best previous Pocono finish among the top-ranked drivers still racing for a season first win. He won the pole position and finished second at Pocono in 2017.

WDUN will carry live MRN Radio coverage of the NASCAR Weekend, beginning with Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series U.S. Cellular 250 from Iowa Speedway at 4:30 pm on 102.9 FM and streaming live on AccessWDUN. Coverage continues on Sunday with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Gander RV 400 from Pocono Raceway beginning at 2 o’clock on 102.9 FM, AM 550 and streaming live on AccessWDUN.

NASCAR Weekend Preview

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Gander RV 400
The Place: Pocono Raceway – Long Pond, PA
The Date: Sunday, July 28
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 2:30 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)
2018 Race Winner: Kyle Busch
What to Watch For: Denny Hamlin boasts the most wins (4) among drivers entered this week at Pocono. Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson also have the most pole positions (3) among active drivers. … Jeff Gordon holds the all-time wins record (6). … Bill Elliott and Ken Schrader hold the record for most pole positions (5 each). Kyle Busch has the most among active drivers (4). … Richard Petty won the first Pocono race in August, 1974. … Kevin Harvick has made the most starts (37) among active drivers. Ricky Rudd (55) holds the all-time mark. … The only active driver to make his Cup debut at Pocono is Bubba Wallace (June, 2017). …Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez won their first career pole positions at Pocono. …Five active drivers are multi-time winners: Hamlin (4), Johnson (3), Kurt Busch (3), Kyle Busch (3) and Martin Truex, Jr. (2). …The youngest Cup race winner in history at Pocono is Joey Logano (22 years, 17 days) in June, 2012. … The oldest race winner in history is Harry Gant (50 years, five months) in June, 1990. …The pole position is the winningest starting spot on the grid, producing 16 winners, most recently Kyle Busch in 2017. … 71 percent of the races have been won from a top-10 starting position. The farthest back on the grid a winner has started is 29th – Carl Edwards in 2005. … Three active drivers earned their first career win at Pocono – Hamlin (June, 2006), Chris Buescher (August, 2016) and Ryan Blaney (June, 2017). …Since 2005, according to Loop Data Statistics, Hamlin leads the field in four of six crucial categories – Driver Rating (104.1), Laps Run in the Top-10 (3,678), Laps Led (694) and Fastest Laps Run (471). …Hendrick Motorsports has earned the most wins (17) among teams. … Chevrolet (32) is the winningest manufacturer. Ford has 23 wins and Toyota has eight. … Mark Martin holds the record for most runner-up finishes (7) at Pocono. Kurt Busch has the most (5) among active drivers. … Among active drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch lead the field with 20 top-10s. Kurt Busch has the most top-fives (14). … The closest Margin of Victory of .126-second when Rusty Wallace beat Jeff Burton in July, 2000. The second closest MoV is when Blaney beat Harvick by .139-second in June, 2017. … There have been four overtime races. Kyle Busch won the most recent last year. … Jimmie Johnson has led the most laps (740) among active drivers and is fourth on the all-time list. Jeff Gordon has led the most all-time (1,040). … The most laps led by a race winner in a 400-mile Pocono race is 128 of 160 – Jimmie Johnson in June, 2013.

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: U.S. Cellular 250
The Place: Iowa Speedway – Newton, Iowa
The Date: Saturday, July 27
The Time: 5 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 5 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 218.75 miles (250 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 250)
2018 Race Winner: Christopher Bell
What to Watch For: Christopher Bell is the two-time defending race winner. … Bell is one of only two drivers in Iowa Speedway Xfinity race history to win back-to-back races. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. won three consecutive from 2011-12. …Stenhouse and Brad Keselowski hold the record for most Iowa wins (three). …There will be only two former winners in the field this weekend. Bell and 2018 winner Justin Allgaier. … Eight of the 19 races have been won from the front row. The second starting spot is the most prolific, producing six winners. … The last pole winner to win was Ryan Preece in 2017. … Three drivers scored their first career Xfinity Series race win at Iowa – Stenhouse in 2011, Ryan Preece (July) and William Byron (June) in 2017. … Ford has won the most races (eight), followed by Toyota (seven) and Chevrolet (four). … Twice Ford had a three-race winning streak (2011-12, 2014-15) – the longest streak by a manufacturer. … The most lead changes in a race is 17. It happened in 2011 when Stenhouse won. …The most cautions in a race is 12 – happening in the 2009 inaugural event. The fewest cautions in a race is three – Elliott Sadler’s 2012 victory. … Four races have produced overtime finishes. The last was 2018 (1) when Bell beat Justin Allgaier. … Ryan Blaney turned in the most dominating showing in a race – leading 252 if 260 laps in August, 2015. … Bell and Cole Custer’s 10 victories (five each) through the opening 18 races marks only the second time in series history that’s been done by a pair of competitors. The last time was Jack Ingram and Sam Ard in 1984 they each won seven in the first 18 races. ….Noah Gragson leads the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings by 28 points over Chase Briscoe.

NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series
Next Race: Gander RV 150
The Place: Pocono Raceway – Long Pond, PA
The Date: Saturday, July 27
The Time: 1 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 12:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 150 miles (60 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 15),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 30), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 60)
2018 Race Winner: Kyle Busch
What to Watch For: Kyle Busch’s victory in this race last year was his third at Pocono in one season – he won the June Xfinity Series race and both the Cup and truck series races in July. … There has never been a back-to-back Gander Trucks winner at Pocono. Kyle Busch is the only driver to win more than once in the nine-year history of the truck race – earning the 2015 and 2018 victories. …Seven of the nine races have been won by the driver who led the most laps. The two exceptions are 2017 (winner Christopher Bell led seven laps) and 2012 (Joey Coulter led seven laps). … The most dominant win came in 2011 when Kevin Harvick led 44 of 53 laps. … The 2018 race had the fewest cautions (two) in the race’s history. … The most lead changes (10) came in the 2014 race won by Austin Dillon. … There will be no defending race winners in this week’s field. … The front row has been the winningest spot on the starting grid producing six winners in nine races. The pole position is the winningest starting position, producing four winners. … Toyota has won the last four consecutive races. … Toyota and Chevrolet each have four wins and Ford has one (Ryan Blaney in 2012). … Four of the top-five drivers in the standings (Grant Enfinger, Stewart Friesen, Matt Crafton and Harrison Burton) are still winless on the season. … Enfinger (June, 2016) and Burton (June, 2018) won in the ARCA Menards Series at Pocono – the only fulltime series drivers with a previous victory at the track.

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