by Chris Leone, Special To NASCAR commentary and driver pictures, 2012 NASCAR schedule, video, Bench Racing With Steve and Charlie
I do weekly Fantasy Pick'Em columns here at OPR, as well as the occasional opinion and analysis piece. I also provide the IZOD IndyCar Series coverage. For more on that, head to my site, OpenWheelAmerica.com. My Twitter handle is @christopherlion.June 3, 2009 8:49 pm UTC 6 Comments
The Sprint Cup Series travels to the northeast this weekend for the first of Pocono’s 500 milers this season. These weekends often frustrate drivers due to the sheer length of the races, with many wishing that they’d be shortened to 400 miles. Regardless, Pocono races are so interesting because of how difficult it is to set up a car for its three different and dissimilar turns.
Kasey Kahne, this race’s defending winner, is coming off of two straight top-10s, as is Carl Edwards, the defending winner of the August race. Jimmie Johnson, last week’s winner, is one of only two active drivers with an average finish of better than 10.0 here. But it’s not my job to make easy picks, is it? It’s my job to make interesting picks. (For the record, I was hoping that Jeremy Mayfield was going to get an injunction to be able to race this weekend, so I could make him my sleeper. Two wins, a chip on his shoulder… It could’ve been quite the story.)
Bobby Labonte: For the sake of making an interesting pick, how about the likeable Texan? He had four top-20s in six starts with Petty Enterprises here. In this race last year, he qualified 37th, but gained 26 spots to place 11th.
Brian Vickers: Remember that Vickers nearly won his first Cup race at this event in 2005, leading 121 laps and finishing second. He never finished worse than 14th here while with Hendrick. He’s fared considerably less well with Red Bull, but did place second in this event again last year. The Red Bull team is still improving, and at a track where Vickers usually fares decently (and has only qualified outside the top 10 twice), they stand a chance at their first win if they play their cards right.
Denny Hamlin: This one is obvious if you’ve watched Pocono races for the past three years. Sweeping at Pocono as a rookie means that you’re tough there, and you always will be. Hamlin’s also dying for a win after watching Kyle Busch and Joey Logano hold the spotlight at Gibbs all season, and not quite getting it done in multiple opportunities.
Kurt Busch: He won the August race here in 2007 to help propel his team into the Chase. Don’t expect him to use this weekend to merely propel him into playoff contention if he wins, though – he’s already taken care of that. The Blue Deuce is strong every week once again, and Busch has three top-two finishes at Pocono since joining Penske. They’ll be strong.
Tony Stewart: Sure, he hasn’t won here since 2003, but six of his past seven Pocono starts have resulted in finishes of 7th place or better, including a second the last time the series raced here. Stewart-Haas is knocking on the door of its first win, and with the Prelude to the Dream rained out, you can bet that Tony’s fixing to put up a good showing for the troops who were to benefit from the event. (For the record, the Prelude’s been postponed to September 9th. Mark it in your calendars.)
A reminder, as we start the second leg of One and Done, on the drivers within the game who are not running complete schedules:
Two drivers in the game are no longer racing in Sprint Cup. Aric Almirola’s team lasted seven races before folding due to lack of sponsorship; it may return later in the year. In the meantime, he’s racing a truck at Texas for Billy Ballew this weekend. Travis Kvapil’s team only lasted five; it won’t return, and Kvapil is searching for other opportunities. He was last spotted at Talladega as a standby driver for Sam Hornish Jr., who had the flu that weekend.
Two other drivers are running limited schedules. Brad Keselowski is splitting time between Hendrick Motorsports and Phoenix Racing in Cup. He only has four races with Phoenix before November (the first race at Loudon, Daytona, Bristol, and Richmond), and after failing to qualify for last week’s race with Hendrick, does not return to that car until Chicago in July. Regan Smith is running a limited schedule with Furniture Row Racing, and despite missing six races thus far, has that car 38th in owners’ points. He finished 22nd last week at Dover, will attempt to qualify this weekend at Pocono, and will take the rest of the month off before returning in July to run Daytona and Indianapolis.