Stock Car Challenge Preview: Pocono
This week's race at Pocono could bring more surprises. We could have another first-time winner or, if past results prevail, we will at least have a driver who will win for the first time in 2007. Denny Hamlin dominated at Pocono last year, and he's long overdue for his first victory of this season.
Hamlin's success was linked to practicing on video games as he prepared for his first run on the unique track last season. Pocono has three straightaways, all of which are different lengths. There are three turns, all with different bankings. Pocono has been referred to as a "roval", because it has the features of both an oval and a road course.
Last week, the run of Hendrick dominance came to an end, at least temporarily. On Sunday, it's going to be hard to bet against another non-Hendrick driver ending up in Victory Lane.
Denny Hamlin (22.4): Last season, Hamlin earned his first-ever Nextel Cup win at Pocono, taking the pole and then managing to recover from a blown tire on lap 50 to get back to the top of the field by lap 103. Hamlin completed a sweep at the site by taking the pole again in late July and led for 151 laps en route to another win. Hamlin led for a total of 234 laps in both races, and had an average running position of fifth. He also had 145 of the fastest laps run. In the past four Pocono races, Hamlin has three top-five finishes and has placed in the top 10 in every race during that span. He's ready for his first win of the 2007 season.
Jimmie Johnson (23.7): He could have certainly challenged Martin Truex Jr. for the win last week, if not for tire problems. Johnson appears to be a lock to perform well again at Pocono. In 10 career races at the site, he has six top-10 finishes, and he swept both races at the site in 2004. Johnson finished sixth in the second race at the site last year and has finished out of the top 15 only once at Pocono. He has an average finish of 8.1 at the site. Johnson should be ready to get back on track for a top spot at the finish after two consecutive races of not placing in the top five.
Tony Stewart (22.1): Stewart will look to bounce back from his controversial 40th-place finish at Dover. He should do so at Pocono, where he finished fourth and seventh in two races last season. Over the past two seasons at Pocono, Stewart has an average running position of 12th, and has spent 597 laps in the top 15, sixth-best among current drivers. Stewart has 11 top-10 finishes in 16 career races at Pocono. He has finished in the top 10 in three consecutive Pocono races, and also has one career win at the site.
Kevin Harvick (20.5): Harvick has endured through some disappointing finishes recently and has been unreliable for fantasy purposes overall. Yet he can still challenge for a top spot in any given week and Pocono looks like a good place for him to get back into a positive groove. During the past two seasons at Pocono, Harvick has an average running position of 10th and has spent 617 laps in the top 15. He has finished in the top 10 in three of the past four Pocono races, and he has an average career finish of 16th at the site. Harvick finished fifth in the second Pocono race of 2006.
Kurt Busch (19.9): He'll be highly motivated for a strong finish after his tiff with Stewart ruined his day at Dover. Look for him to qualify well, as Busch has started in the top 10 in five consecutive Pocono races. He has delivered three consecutive top-five finishes at the site. Busch has an average running position of sixth, third-best among current drivers in the past two seasons, and he has 107 of the fastest laps run, which is second-best. His 682 laps in the top 15 are also second-best, and he won the second Pocono race in 2005.
Brian Vickers (17.8): He's now in a Toyota, but Vickers has been the manufacturer's best driver in the Nextel Cup series so far, and he certainly enjoys racing at Pocono. He has three top-five finishes at the site, including a pair of fourth-place showings in 2006. Vickers has never finished out of the top 15 in six Pocono races, and he has led for 140 laps. Vickers has an average finish of 8.5 at Pocono, and he has 64 of the fastest laps run. His 773 laps in the top 15 is the best rank among current drivers over the past two years.
J.J. Yeley (16.6): Car problems ruined Yeley's run at Dover after he came in second at Lowe's. Yeley should shake off the Dover outing this week to run well at Pocono, especially for the price tag. Yeley finished 15th and 11th at Pocono last year, in his first two career races at the site. Yeley had a run of four consecutive top-20 finishes broken last week, and he should come through with another respectable finish this week if he can steer clear of bad luck.
Carl Edwards (21.2) is another solid choice, especially if you don't trust Harvick, he has one win and two top fives at Pocono. Jeff Gordon (24.1) has three wins and 13 top fives at Pocono. Jeff Burton (21.2) has 13 top-10 finishes at Pocono. Bobby Labonte (17.6) is another good value pick when you consider he has finished eighth in two of the past three races at Pocono. He finished 12th in the first race at the site in 2006. Tony Raines (16.1), who has started to look more respectable recently, finished 16th and 21st at Pocono last season. He has finished 16th twice at the site.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
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