The Nextel Cup series returns to the Pocono Raceway for the second time this season on Sunday. The main question on everyone's mind will be, can anyone keep Joe Gibbs Racing out of Victory Lane?
Tony Stewart will look to become the first driver since 2004 to win three consecutive races. Denny Hamlin swept both races at the site in 2006, and he would have been in contention for another win in June if not for a rain-shortened finish.
In the June race, Jeff Gordon barely held off a hard-charging Ryan Newman for the win just before the final caution flag. If the race lasted longer, Hamlin, Newman and Martin Truex Jr. would have been the favorites to end up in Victory Lane. If Gordon can pull off the sweep this week, he will become the seventh driver to do so at Pocono. Gordon will be shooting for his fifth win of the year on one of the most uniquely-shaped tracks on the circuit.
Pocono boasts three distinctive turns, and drivers need to know how to get the most out of their cars in each corner. There should be a healthy amount of green-flag racing, so fuel mileage and tire management will be keys for the pit crews, especially in the later stages of the race.
There are six races remaining before the Chase for the Cup begins. Kurt Busch (13 points behind 12th place), Ryan Newman (59 behind), Jamie McMurray (113 behind), Greg Biffle (128 behind) and Mark Martin (172 behind) all have opportunities to crack the top 12. Stewart and Gordon should again run near the top of the pack. Both have led in 14 races, more than any other driver, and lead they are tied at 90 for the lead in bonus points.
Victory Lane special
Denny Hamlin (22.2): Hamlin led for a race-high 49 laps at Pocono in June, and although he had one of the best cars on the track, he finished sixth. In his three career races at the site Hamlin has an average running position of 4.9, 164 of the fastest laps run and 92 percent of his laps in the top 15 -- all best among current drivers during that span. Hamlin is currently second in the Nextel Cup points standings, with seven top-5 finishes and 14 top-10s. Expect a strong qualifying run; Hamlin has taken the Pocono pole twice and started second in June. He'll be out to prove that he's still the dominant driver on this track after questionable pit strategies and weather cost him in June.
Jeff Gordon (25.1): He remains the most expensive driver in the game, a veritable Peyton Manning-type in fantasy racing. Gordon has an amazing run of 18 top-10 finishes in 20 races this year, and he also has 13 top-5 showings. He's the safest pick in the Stock Car Challenge or any other fantasy racing game. Gordon has four wins and two poles at Pocono. He has 20 top-10 finishes in 29 starts at the site. Gordon finished third in the second Pocono race of 2006. He has an average finish of 10.4 at the track.
Tony Stewart (23.2): It's hard not to stick with the hot hand here. Stewart's last two victories moved him up to fifth in the points standings, and he'll be a strong contender this weekend at Pocono, a track which bears some resemblance to Indianapolis. Stewart won at Pocono in 2003 and placed seventh at the site last August. Stewart has finished in the top 10 in four consecutive Pocono races. He has a series-high 201 quality passes in the past five Pocono races. (NASCAR defines quality passes as passes of cars in the top 15 under green-flag conditions.)
Kurt Busch (20.5): He won the second race at Pocono in 2005 and finished second to Hamlin in both 2006 races. Over the past five races at the site, Busch has an average running position of 8.7 and 108 of the fastest laps run -- both second-best among current drivers. His 720 laps in the top 15 is third-best during that span. Busch has six top-5 finishes to his credit at Pocono, and he has started in the top 10 in five of his past six races there.
Ryan Newman (19.3): He took the pole at Pocono in June and finished second after leading for 20 laps. Since 2005, Newman's 734 laps in the top 15 are second-best among current drivers. He also has an average running position of 9.5 during that span. Newman won at Pocono in 2003 and has five top-5 finishes at the site. He has eight top-10 finishes this season. Look for him to make a strong push to get back on track after he crashed and finished 42nd at Indianapolis.
Brian Vickers (16.7): If he can qualify, Vickers will be a good value selection this week; he qualified ninth in the June race. Vickers has started in the top 10 in all seven of his Pocono races. Over the past five races there, his 793 laps in the top 15 are best of any driver, and his average running position of 9.4 is third-best in the field. Vickers finished fourth in both of the 2006 Pocono races.
J.J. Yeley (16.2): Another bargain driver besides, or in place of, Vickers may be needed, especially if you want to front load your lineup with big names. Yeley can certainly give you respectable finishes for the price tag. He has finished in the top 20 in all three of his Pocono races. Yeley finished 17th there in June after qualifying 11th.
Jimmie Johnson (22.2) has finished outside the top 15 only once in 11 Pocono races, but that was in June, when he finished 42nd because of tire problems. … Martin Truex Jr. (19.4) finished third at Pocono in June and 10th in the second race of 2006. He's another good value pick. … Dale Earnhardt Jr. (20.8) is trying to cling to the 12th spot in the standings, but he has only three top-5 finishes in 15 Pocono starts. … Bobby Labonte (17.1) finished eighth in the second Pocono races of 2005 and 2006.