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Twinbill for NASCAR racing at Pocono

A Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has won the last five races on the 2.5-mile tricky triangle at Pocono Raceway and they’ll have two chances this weekend to extend the streak to seven.

That’s right. For the first time, the NASCAR Cup Series will have two races — a doubleheader — on the same weekend.

The new wrinkle in the schedule wasn’t made due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was previously scheduled to try out something new to break up the long season by compacting two races into one weekend at one location to free up another. No practices are scheduled and instead of the normal 400-mile race around the unique layout, Saturday’s race will be 325 miles (130 laps) and Sunday’s will be 350 miles (140 laps).

Due to the lack of practice time, it’s a pretty good bet those who do well Saturday will be the ones to beat Sunday. However, the Sunday starting lineup will be set using Saturday’s results with all the lead lap cars being inverted from where they finished.

As you have probably noticed, the rain has been one of the most common weekly themes since the series re-started May 17 at Darlington Raceway. It seems like a weekly occurence. And without knowing the exact numbers, but watching every Pocono race twice a season for the last 30 years, I would speculate that races at Pocono are rain-delayed or rescheduled more than any other track.

Perhaps this is the June weekend that it doesn’t rain in the Poconos. No fans will be in the stands this week after a small gathering allowed the last two races because of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 policy which currently forbids large gatherings.

The teams will be using relatively the same race package as last season at Pocono, which has already raced eight times this season. What we saw in the first Pocono race last season was Kyle Busch lead 79 of the 160 laps for his third career Pocono — third in last five races there — with 13 lead changes among nine drivers. The second race saw Kevin Harvick lead a race-high 62 of the 163 laps (overtime) but finish sixth behind Denny Hamlin, who would win his fifth career race at Pocono to lead all active drivers. There were only nine lead changes among five drivers. Not a lot of passing.

But with the shorter distances this weekend, as soon as the green flag drops, it’s Go time. No waiting around for the race to come to them. They’ve got to get out fast, move up, then read what the car is doing and adjust anything that needs fixing immediately in the first pit stop.

These races should fly by in a hurry. And as we’ve seen the last few weeks, whoever gets their car set-up perfect at the team shop during the week in Charlotte will have the edge coming off the hauler at the track.

Of all the tracks using this week’s race package, setting up a car to be fast without practice looks to be the most difficult challenge because all three of the turns are vastly different. Each turn gets flatter with turn 3 being the flattest at 6 degrees of banking. Turn 1 is 18 degrees and turn two is 8 degrees. Even with a full weekend of practices scheduled, a team can’t get all three corners down perfectly on one set-up.

My approach this week to set a driver rating for each is looking at what has happened this season in the eight races featuring this race package with engines producing 550 horsepower while mixing in some past history and recent history overall in regards to how the overall team is performing from the team shop, pit road, crew chief and driver collectively.

From all that, Hamlin comes out ahead as my top-rated driver because he’s won twice with the race package and has five wins at Pocono. He loves this track. It’s where he got his first two career Cup wins as a rookie in 2006. He swept the season as a rookie and he might just go ahead and sweep this weekend as well. His 2009 and 2010 wins were also the first two wins for a young Toyota Racing Development at Pocono.

His team still has some work to do this season with the 750 horsepower package on the smaller tracks, but I don’t see anyone being as consistently good as his No. 11 team.

Next up is Harvick, who also has two wins using this week’s race package but what lowers his rating below Hamlin’s is that he’s never won at Pocono in the Cup Series, although he did win a 2011 Truck Series race there. It’s not that he hasn’t been good there because he’s been extremely competitive with four runner-ups and seven top-fives in his last 11 starts.

Kyle Busch didn’t have a win through the first 12 races, but it’s not like his car was junk. He and his crew have had things figured out at Pocono recently. He led 128 of the 320 laps between both races last season.

Another driver competitive every week but has yet to win in 2020 has been Ryan Blaney who has six top-fives between his first 12 starts. In eight career Cup starts at Pocono evenly with four each for the Wood Brothers and Team Penske he has averaged an 11.5 average that includes his first Cup win 2017. He also has a 2013 Truck Series win there.

Chase Elliott has probably shown the best with this race package after Hamlin and Harvick and comes in with two fourth-place finishes at Pocono as his best.

The best value on the board might be Erik Jones who should be able to be found at 30-1 odds somewhere that has a bookmaker sleeping. Jones has an 8.3 average between six Cup starts aided by top-fives in four of those starts, including runner-up last July and third in June.

The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook will post only one race at a time to avoid confusion with its guests. As soon as Saturday’s race is over, they’ll readjust and post Sunday’s odds immediately.