The NASCAR Sprint Series heads to Pocono Raceway this weekend for action on the 2.5-mile tricky triangle where each of the three turns is banked flatter than the previous.
The unique layout features the longest front-stretch in the series that allows cars to drag race into turn one like no other track.
The major difference this season from recent years is the reduction in horsepower, which in theory should be slowing the cars down. But what we’re seeing is drivers getting in and out of the corners much faster because of coming in slower, which has negated NASCAR’s intention with the horsepower reduction.
In many ways it’s more dangerous than ever because drivers are having a major learning curve in how to handle all that speed in the corners.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won for the first time ever at Pocono last season after being winless in his first 28 starts. He had so much fun in this race last year he would do it again later in the fall. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a drought reap such great rewards in a season before.
Horsepower reduction or not, this race is still about who can get the most of it and the past two weeks of races at Dover and Charlotte have seen not only Joe Gibbs Racing show some major power, but also Roush Fenway Racing.
For most of the season Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson have been dominating with the most horsepower. Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have also shown power similar, but now you have to seriously add Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch into that group.
For Hamlin, he’s probably licking his chops waiting to get to Pocono to show off some more like he did last week at Dover, where he had the fastest lap in each of the final practice sessions before getting involved in a wreck during Sunday’s race and finishing 21st.
We saw the power at Charlotte as he won $1 million in the All-Star Race and now he goes to a track where he’s got four wins over his career, but none since 2010. As a rookie in 2006, he swept the Pocono season and has an 11.9 average finish overall.
Last year in this race, he finished fourth with a car that was substandard in horsepower, but his ability in and out of the turns – particularly the tight flat turn three – made the difference. Now he’s got some power on par with the elite and skills in the turns that elevate him into being considered a favorite to win.
However, Harvick and Johnson will both be listed by Las Vegas sports books as the favorite just because of their body of work this season and because they’ll be popular bets with the public that has witnessed their power.
Harvick finished a career-best second-place in the second Pocono race last season, but he’s still winless in 28 starts. Johnson is a three-time winner, the last coming in 2013, and has a 9.88 average finish. That stellar average was muddied with a 39th-place finish in the last Pocono race run.
Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with six wins and 1,037 laps led. Among active drivers with at least three starts, Gordon leads the way with a 9.86 average finish. He’s still looking for his first win of 2015, which is supposed to be his last full season, and he’ll be making his 45th career start on Sunday.
Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards are all two-time Pocono winners. Busch and Edwards have both won this season while Kahne is still looking for his first. For whatever reason, Kahne hasn’t been as good as teammates Johnson and Earnhardt Jr., and even though he’s scored more points than Gordon on the season, Gordon’s car has looked better in most practices, but just has worse luck on race day.
Kurt Busch is the driver that might give Hamlin the best run on Sunday. He’s been stellar throughout his career at Pocono when given a car with some power. Last year he finished third in this race.
Brad Keselowski won in 2011 and led the most laps (95) in this race last season before settling for runner-up. However, the team was way off on their set-up last week at Dover, a place Keselowski typically runs well at. He had to battle hard all race long and did a great job just to finish 12th.
I would look at his teammate, Joey Logano, to have a better run this week.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].