Expect to see great racing at Pocono 400

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You can expect to see one of the best races ever at Pocono Speedway’s 2.5-mile tricky triangle in Sunday’s Pocono 400.

I can say that with little negative feedback just because I know most NASCAR fans can’t remember a great NASCAR race at Pocono, which has been running Cup races at the popular Pennsylvania holiday destination since 1974 and twice a season since 1982. 

Most of us fondly remember the Pocono race in 2000 where Jeremy Mayfield did the intimidating to Dale Earnhardt by bumping him out of the way on the last turn of the last lap.

And while that was one of the best moments of the entire season, the memory of that 3 1/2-hour race I have is of Rusty Wallace leading 107 of the 200 laps in what was another typical snoozefest there. And it’s gotten worse in recent years such as only 11 lead changes in the first race last season and just 13 in the second race.

I don’t think any of us like watching just one driver run away with a race — unless having a bet on him — and the treatment for preventing boring races at Pocono this season is the new race package where the engines produce only 550 horsepower compared to the 750 HP the cars produced last season.

Aero ducts were also added to this weeks package in a change NASCAR made four weeks ago. The changes were all made to provide better side-by-side racing with more opportunities to pass.

The exact same package was used at Charlotte in last week’s Coca-Cola 600 that featured 30 lead changes among 11 drivers. Martin Truex Jr. took the checkered flag and led a race-high 116 of the 400 laps. But there was real suspense throughout the race where at one point it looked like Kevin Harvick had the best car, then it was Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott or Kyle Busch that had the best car.

There was also a hint of a 200-1 longshot with Ricky Stenhouse possibly winning before he finished fifth. A couple of 300-1 long shots were also in the mix with elite cars late as Chris Buescher finished sixth while Ryan Newman was lurking around the top-five in the final 100 laps.

But perhaps the most exciting moment was watching if Joey Logano (runner-up) could reel in Truex in the final laps. It wasn’t just about rooting for Logano, it was also about rooting for Team Penske to sweep Sunday after winning the Indy 500.

Team owner Roger Penske has never done the Indy-Charlotte sweep. Simon Pagenaud gave Penske his 18th Indy 500 win. By the way, it was also unique that both Pagenaud and Logano drove car No. 22.

Basically, Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 was the most exciting I’ve seen start to finish in NASCAR’s longest race of the year. It is possible I’m clouded with negative thoughts of recent 600s with Kyle Busch leading 377 of the 400 laps last season and Truex leading 392 of 400 in 2016 — yuck.

But I believe what I saw Sunday and it’s been an evolving process with several teams getting better and competing with the Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing who had a substantial early edge. I like seeing Buescher and JTG Daugherty Racing run competitively, and by the way, Buescher’s only career win was at Pocono in 2016, albeit a rain-shortened win. The Westgate SuperBook has him at 100-1 to win . 

The Pocono 400 will be the seventh race this season using this week’s package with the exception of no aero ducts being used at Atlanta in February. That’s five races on 1.5-mile ovals and another on the 2-mile layout at Fontana.

Pocono has been called the super-speedway that races like a road course. Three turns and they’re all different ending with a tight turn 3 that Mayfield made his move on in 2000. Turn 3 is usually where drivers make the most errors and also where most of the passing is done.

But how I watched NASCAR at Pocono over the years is about to change. Pocono has the longest straightaway on the tour and lots of horsepower is needed. But the new package should race the track much differently this season. Maybe the side-drafting down the drag strip will offer more passing. Perhaps the high banked turn 1 will produce more passing, or maybe it’s the tunnel turn 2.

I don’t know, but I know the racing will be different and much more enjoyable than the past just because of the new race package.

Now with all my talk of parity and the gap closed with elite teams, the reality still remains that Gibbs has eight of the 13 wins this season, Penske has three and Hendrick Motorsports has one. It doesn’t sound like parity. We’re all still waiting for the elites at Stewart-Haas Racing to jump into the win column.

For wagering purposes, I’m going to use what has happened with this package in 2019 more than what a drivers’ past history has been on the unique course. Although it’s important to know that Kyle Busch has won two of the last three there, Truex won this race last season and Hamlin leads all active drivers with four wins.

Gibbs has been strong there in the past. But I’m going with longer odds on someone from Penske. Ryan Blaney won his first Cup race at Pocono in 2017 and he’s the only Penske driver without a win this season.

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