It was only seven weeks ago when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series visited Pocono Raceway, the most unique track on the circuit.
Pocono combines all the great facets in motor sports racing except the occasional right turn. The combination of high speeds mixed in with a varying degree of banking and turns really make the drivers work and might be the only track where both the driver and car come to the forefront with equal importance.
In most cases, the car is the most important aspect and the driver makes up about 20 to 30 percent of the difference on the day. Road courses are about 60 percent driver and 40 percent car, but Pocono gives a nice perfect blend.
The early June race at Pocono and this week’s race will also give everyone a head start into handicapping next week’s race at the famed Brickyard in Indianapolis. The long straights and relatively flat turns make Pocono the only track similar to Indy. The setups will be very similar and most teams will use the same cars for all three races.
Last season, Bill Elliott rolled to victory in blazing fashion in consecutive weeks at Pocono and Indy. Of the six different NASCAR Indy winners, all of them have won at Pocono. Jeff Gordon also did the back-to-back feat in 1998 as Elliott did last year. This is the only time of the year where a back-to-back race has almost the exact same set-up, so keep a tight watch on the top performers at Pocono and be ahead of the game next week.
As for this Sunday, we’ll start with the top candidate to win.
Tony Stewart (7-1): Won his first Pocono race last month as he held off Mark Martin down the stretch. Though only his fifth season as Winston Cup driver, it is surprising that it took him nine races to finally win at Pocono. He is one of the top drivers on tour, with a great car.
Bobby Labonte (8-1): Also has the benefit of having the great Gibbs horsepower under the hood. Never been known as a great driver in the broad fashion some of the others have, but does have three career wins at Pocono. Qualified great in the June race but had to settle for a 17th place finish. Look for a much better performance this week.
Sterling Marlin (18-1): Led the most laps at Pocono last month, but settled for sixth. Finished in the Top 5 of both Pocono races last season. Expect similar results this week and maybe even a win. Things have been tough this year. The team should be fired up about their chances this week.
Jeff Gordon (8-1): A three-time winner at Pocono, Placed fifth, 12th and 13th in last three appearances there. Hard to bet against, but recent past history indicates there are a few other drivers much more dialed in for Pocono. There is value in matchups against him.
Ryan Newman (9-1): Finished in the Top 5 in the last two races at Pocono. Definitely a wild card and can win at any time on just about any track. Will get every ounce of power out of his engine, which fares well for him on this track.
Mark Martin (18-1): Never won at Pocono, but did finish second in June event. Has five career runner-up finishes there and 17 Top 5’s in 33 starts.
A few longshots to look at this week:
Jeremy Mayfield (35-1): Has two of his three career wins at Pocono. Car owner Ray Evernham challenged the team a few weeks ago for better results and they have responded. Combination of his past success and teammate Bill Elliott’s (18-1) winning notes from last year may be enough reason to give him a shot.
Terry Labonte(40-1): From nowhere has put up quality finishes. Was seventh here last month and bumping cars out of the way for position late in the race. No one has called him tenacious for almost a decade, but he’s again battling.