Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Gander RV 400
The Place: Pocono Raceway
The Date: Sunday, July 28
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400 miles (160 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 50),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 100), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 160)
2018 Race Winner: Kyle Busch
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: U.S. Cellular 250
The Place: Iowa Speedway
The Date: Saturday, July 27
The Time: 5 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 5 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 218.75 miles (250 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 250)
2018 Race Winner: Christopher Bell
NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series
Next Race: Gander RV 150
The Place: Pocono Raceway
The Date: Saturday, July 27
The Time: 1 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 12:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 150 miles (60 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 15),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 30), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 60)
2018 Race Winner: Kyle Busch
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Kyle Busch looking for a tricky triple of consecutive Pocono wins
NASCAR fans have likely become accustomed to Kyle Busch’s domination at short tracks such as Bristol Motor Speedway, where he has a combined 22 victories in NASCAR’s three national series. But his recent work at the 2.5-mile Pocono (Pa.) Raceway – site of Sunday’s Gander RV 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has been mighty impressive too.
Busch is not only the defending race winner but has won three of the last four races at the Pocono track, including the June race this season. In fact, a victory on Sunday would make him just the third driver in history to win three consecutive races at “The Tricky Triangle” – joining an esteemed list that includes NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (1982-83) and the late Tim Richmond (1986-87).
A victory in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota would also make him only the eighth driver ever to sweep a season’s races at Pocono, joining Jimmie Johnson (2004) and Denny Hamlin (2006) as the only active drivers on that list.
But Busch’s intentions this week are more fundamental than a place in history. It’s been seven weeks since his last Victory Lane celebration – which, coincidentally, happened at Pocono – and he’d like to win again.
Busch enters the race a mere three-points behind championship leader Joey Logano with six races remaining before the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Playoffs begin. With his four wins, Busch is safely in that 16-driver field, but he’d love to also earn the bonus points awarded to the regular season champion.
As it stands, Busch has led the most laps (959) of any driver this season – by a substantial margin. Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski, a three-race winner, is next on the list with 790 laps out front. In addition to Busch’s four victories, he has three runner-up finishes, the most recent runner-up showing at Kentucky two weeks ago. He has 17 top-10s through the 20 races to date.
Busch’s recent work at Pocono, in particular, has set the Monster Energy Series standard. He’s led the most laps in each of his three race wins and in 2017 won the race from the pole position. He’s finished top-10 in the last six races and led laps in the last eight. The lap total during just the last eight races (341) is 84.4 percent of his career laps led total (404) at Pocono.
“Trying to pass people is the trickiest part because it’s so finicky there after getting your car set-up to run by yourself in practice, but also getting it good for the traffic during the race and being able to out-corner guys out there,’’ Busch explained. “Having a lot of horsepower is important there, as well. Hoping we can have all of those things go right for us this week with our Skittles Toyota.’’
Four-time Pocono Raceway winner Denny Hamlin arrives in the idyllic Pocono Mountains for Sunday’s race understandably feeling on the verge of another victory. His past and present performance point to a good showing this weekend.
Not only is he the winningest active driver at the track, Hamlin has led laps in the last eight straight races coming to Pocono and finished a dramatic runner-up to Kevin Harvick last week at New Hampshire.
For this year’s Daytona 500 winner Hamlin, Pocono has been the Not-So-Tricky Triangle – a positive variation on its traditional nickname. Hamlin won the first two Cup races he competed in here – from the pole position – in 2006. Twice he’s won back-to-back races – the 2006 sweep and again in fall, 2009 and spring, 2010.
Hamlin’s 694 laps led at Pocono is second only to Jimmie Johnson’s 740 and includes a spectacular 2006 showing of this race when he led 151 of the 200 race laps. He’s finished top-10 in four of the last six Pocono races and was sixth in June. And his 7.074 average start through 28 races is second best all-time to NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson out of drivers with more than one start, who averaged a 4.667 start, but in only six races.
In the last five weeks of the 2019 schedule, Hamlin has three top-five finishes including that runner-up finish last week at New Hampshire. Six times he’s finished fifth place in a race. His 113 laps led at New Hampshire was second only to teammate Kyle Busch’s 118.
In all, Hamlin has 12 top-10 finishes including his second Daytona 500 victory to open the season and then a win at Texas in April.
The combination of his work in particular at Pocono, and in general during this season, has given the No. 11 JGR Toyota team every reason to feel optimistic about this weekend.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had success in the past at Pocono and it’s a track where I’m always hopeful I can get a win for our team,’’ Hamlin said. “Our team is currently on a streak of some solid performances and I’m looking forward to continuing that this weekend.’’
Team Penske – Consistent and strong
Pocono Raceway is a venue where all three Team Penske drivers have hoisted trophies in Victory Lane. And that feel-good may be the difference this week for the team which has five wins on the season but hasn’t won a race since June 9, when current Monster Energy Series points leader Joey Logano claimed his second victory of the year at Michigan.
Logano (two) and veteran Brad Keselowski (three) have contributed multiple wins to the Penske team’s stellar work this season, and Pocono may well be the venue their 25-year old teammate Ryan Blaney joins the 2019 trophy club.
Blaney has led 362 laps this season – the seventh most of any driver and the best output by any driver still winless at this point. He has six top-five and eight top-10 finishes in the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, including four top 10s in the last six races. His best showings are third place results at both Phoenix and Sonoma. He was fourth at New Hampshire last week.
Pocono is understandably a special place for Blaney. He won his first career Cup race there in 2017 and answered that with a pole position in 2018. He has finished 12th in the last two races at the track.
His reigning series champion teammate Logano holds a slim three-point edge over Kyle Busch atop the points and has paced the standings for the last six weeks. He’s been ranked first or second for all but three weeks of the 20-race season to date.
The last five-race stretch has been a little uncharacteristic of Logano’s No. 22 team. He’s had three top 10s – including a ninth place at New Hampshire last weekend, but he’s also had a pair of finishes outside the top-20. Logano, who dominated at Pocono winning from the pole position in the 2012 early summer race, was seventh at the track this June.
Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, has three wins so far this year – but his last was May 11 at Kansas Speedway. Pocono has been a solid mark on his resume. He won the 2011 edition of this race and a pole position in 2016. He was runner-up to Kyle Busch earlier this summer – one of four runner-up finishes for the driver of the No. 2 Ford at the track. He’s led laps in the last six Pocono races and had an impressive streak of six top-five finishes snapped in this race last year when he crashed out. He’s had two top-10s in the last five races this season and is coming off a 10th-place showing at New Hampshire, where he started from pole position.
Drivers looking to make a move to the Playoffs
With six races remaining in the regular season, the championship points drama isn’t just dominating the top of the Monster Energy Cup standings, but is a very real situation for the final few drivers trying to earn one of the 16 playoff positions.
Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson is 13th in the points standings, only 31 points over Jimmie Johnson and Daniel Suarez, who are just outside the Playoff cutoff with 488 points each.
Larson holds only a slim three-point edge over Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones in 14th. Jones is seven points up on 15th place Ryan Newman and 11 points up on 16th place Clint Bowyer.
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is 17th, tied in points with Suarez but holds a slim statistical advantage over Suarez with one more top-five.
Johnson (three) and Newman (one) are the only drivers among this group of six with a previous win at Pocono. Jones was best among the group at the first Pocono race of 2019, finishing third. Bowyer was fifth and Suarez was eighth. Newman (16th), Johnson (19th) and Larson (26th) followed.
Among the younger trio, Suarez, 27, started from pole and finished second in this race last year – his career-best effort in the Monster Energy Series. Jones, 23, has four top-10s in five starts at Pocono and Larson, 26, has five top 10s in 11 starts at the track – including a runner-up in 2018.
Among the veterans, Johnson leads with 20 top-10 finishes in 35 starts at Pocono, but he’s had only one in the last seven races – an eighth-place finish in the June race of last year. Newman has 15 top10s in 35 starts, but only one in the last nine Pocono races. He was eighth in this race last year. Bowyer has 11 top 10s in 27 starts. However, he’s finished 11th or better in three of the last four Pocono races. His career best showing is fourth in 2014.
Sunoco rookie review
As it has been the entire season, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year points standings remain relatively close. Richard Childress Racing driver Daniel Hemric is ranked 25th in the Cup standings and holds a 42-point edge on JTG Daugherty Racing driver Ryan Preece, who is ranked 26th, heading into the second Pocono (Pa.) Raceway event this weekend. Front Row Motorsports driver Matt Tifft is 31st in the standings.
Hemric, 28, of Kannapolis, N.C. is actually coming off one of his toughest outings – crashing out and finishing a season-worst 37th at New Hampshire last Sunday. Preece, 28, of Berlin, Conn., meanwhile, recorded his second consecutive 21st place finish at Loudon, N.H.
There’s reason for optimism. Hemric was 13th at Pocono in June – his third-best showing through the opening 20 races. That finish in particular was good for him and the team, starting off a five-race streak of top-20 early summer finishes. Preece was 23rd at the last Pocono stop and Tifft finished 33rd.
Last week’s event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway furthered a positive competition sign for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Through the first 20 races of 2019, green flag passes for the lead are up 43.2 percent over last year.
In fact, that statistic was upward in 13 of the 20 races to date and five of those races – at Las Vegas, Bristol, Tenn., Kansas, Chicago and Kentucky – saw record-setting green flag passes for the lead
Pocono Raceway, where the series races this weekend, is among the uptick. The track saw a significant increase in green flag passes for the lead (21) in June – up 91 percent over last season.
Total green flag passing in general has also increased significantly from last season – up 33 percent through the first 20 races (from 51,788 green flag passes in the opening 20 races of 2018 to 68,859 during that same time frame this season.).
Mixing it up to end the regular season
The 2019 Monster Energy Series regular season schedule wraps up with six unique venues – providing opportunities for a wide variety of drivers to win their way into the Playoffs. Below is a look at the six remaining facilities in the regular season:
Pocono Raceway – The 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle” has three unique turns (Turn 1 – 14 degrees of banking, Turn 2 – eight degrees, Turn 3 – six degrees) and long straights (frontstretch – 3,740 feet, backstretch – 3,055 feet, shortstretch – 1,780 feet). Jimmie Johnson (three wins), Ryan Newman (one), Chris Buescher (one) and Ryan Blaney (one) have all won at Pocono but not, yet, anywhere this year. And Pocono recently announced the PJ1 traction compound would be added in all three of its turns, helping provide another lane option for passing opportunities.
Watkins Glen International – The Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York hosts this historic 2.45-mile, seven-turn road course. Of note – all of the active previous winners at The Glen have found Victory Lane in 2019.
Michigan International Speedway – The Irish Hills provide the backdrop for this spacious, smooth and speedy two-miler that features 18 degrees of banking in the corners. Kyle Larson’s three wins each at Michigan is the most among active winners who haven’t won in 2019. Ryan Newman has a pair of wins there, while Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer have one apiece.
Bristol Motor Speedway – Thunder Valley sets the scene for the half-mile, high-banked short track featuring variable banking (from 24 to 28 degrees) in the turns. All the active former Bristol winners are already victorious in 2019.
Darlington Raceway – “The Track Too Tough To Tame” is an egg-shaped 1.366-mile track with 25 degrees of banking in Turns 1 and 2, and 23 degrees of banking in 3 and 4. Jimmie Johnson’s three wins top the list of drivers who have bested the challenge of the unique configuration and he is the only active former winner at Darlington who has not won this season.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway – While Pocono is a triangle that modeled Turn 2 after Indianapolis, the “Brickyard” is basically a 2.5-mile flat rectangle, featuring short straights between the turns, which are all banked at nine degrees. Jimmie Johnson’s four wins at the famed track are most among active drivers and are second-most all-time (to Jeff Gordon’s five). Joining him on the list of active Brickyard winners who are searching for their first win this season are Paul Menard and Ryan Newman (one win each).
Parade Laps: Insights ahead of this week’s driver media rotations
Six drivers from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – Richard Petty Motorsports’ Bubba Wallace, Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer, Germain Racing’s Ty Dillon, Front Row Motorsports’ Matt Tifft, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson and Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto will be participating in this week’s media rotations at Pocono Raceway in advance of Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Gander RV 400 (3 p.m., ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Bubba Wallace, 25, of Mobile, Ala, is looking for his first top-10 of the 2019 season as the series heads back to the venue, Pocono Raceway, where he made his Monster Energy Cup Series debut in 2017. Wallace finished 26th in the early summer race, his first of four starts with the Richard Petty Motorsports team while the team’s fulltime driver recovered from injuries. His work helped him earn a fulltime job with RPM. After suffering a pair of DNFs in the 2018 Pocono races, Wallace recovered with a 21st place showing there this June. He is coming off a 22nd place finish at New Hampshire last weekend.
Alex Bowman, 26, of Tucson, Ariz., scored his first career victory at Chicago a month ago and that marks his last top-10 in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. On the season Bowman has six top-10 and four top-five finishes. He was 14th at Loudon, N.H. over the weekend and is ranked 10th in the Cup points entering this weekend’s race at Pocono. The “Tricky Triangle,” as Pocono is affectionately known, has been a promising venue. Bowman was third in his Hendrick debut there in 2018 – his best showing in seven starts. He was 15th in June.
Clint Bowyer, 40, Emporia, Kan., would like to right his ship, so to speak, after earning only a single top-10 (sixth place at Kentucky Speedway) in the season’s most recent six races. He was 20th at New Hampshire on Sunday in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and his best showing of the year is runner-up at Texas in April. Bowyer has 11 top-10s in 27 starts at Pocono, including a fifth place this June, when he also led two laps. His career best finish is third in 2009. He’s only finished outside the top 20 one time in his last eight Pocono starts.
Ty Dillon, 27, of Lewisville, N.C., is having a career year, statistically, even if he isn’t a sure-bet Playoff contender yet. The driver of the No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet has a best-ever two top-10 finishes already – both at Daytona (sixth in February and fourth in July). It’s the first time in his three-year fulltime career he has earned multiple top-10s. Dillon’s best finish at Pocono is 17th in 2017. He finished 27th in June.
Matt Tifft, 23, of Hinckley, Ohio, reached a rookie milestone earlier this month, earning his first career top-10 – a ninth place finish at Dayton International Speedway. He has three top 20s on the year – a pair of 20th-place finishes at Phoenix and Charlotte – in addition to his Daytona work. Tifft, who drives the No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford, started 30th and finished 33rd in his Pocono Cup debut earlier this summer. He has scored a top-10 finish in both the Xfinity Series (10th in 2017) and Gander Outdoors Truck Series (eighth in 2015) previously at Pocono.
Kyle Larson, 26, of Elk Grove, Calif., is currently ranked 13th in the Cup points standings after an up-and-down spring run. He has seven top-10s and three top-five finishes but also five DNFs on the season. The five-time Cup race winner’s best showing is runner-up at Chicago. He’s finished top-10 in three of the last five races. Pocono Raceway has shown promise for the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. He won the Busch Pole position in only his second Cup race there in 2014 and finished a career best runner-up at Pocono in June, 2018. He has five top-10 finishes in 11 starts and was 23rd earlier this season.
Matt DiBenedetto, 27, of Grass Valley, Calif., got an early start to celebrating his birthday – this Saturday. The driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota scored his second top-five of the season with a fifth place Sunday at New Hampshire. He has three top-10 finishes in the last five races and is 24th in the championship standings – his best position outside of a 20th place ranking following the season-opening Daytona 500. DiBenedetto is still working on his first top-10 at Pocono. He has four DNFs in nine starts but earned a career best 17th place there this June.
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Xfinity’s Big 3 plan to shuck the competition at Iowa Speedway
All three of the formidable “Big 3” in the NASCAR Xfinity Series – Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer – have been impressive this season; winning 13 of the first 19 races of the year – an astounding combined winning percentage of 68.4%.
What’s even more remarkable is Christopher Bell and Cole Custer have now become just the second duo of drivers in series history to win five or more races each in the first 19 events of a season – a feat the series hasn’t seen in 35 years; when Jack Ingram and Sam Ard both won seven races each in the first 19 races of the season in 1984. If either Bell or Custer wins this weekend their Xfinity Series legend status will just grow as only six drivers in series history have won six or more races in the first 20 races of the season – Tommy Ellis (six wins, 1983), Sam Ard (seven wins, 1984), Jack Ingram (eight wins, 1984), Larry Pearson (six wins, 1987), Chad Little (six wins, 1995) and Kyle Busch (six wins, 2009; eight wins, 2010; six wins, 2011; eight wins, 2013; seven wins, 2016).
Iowa Speedway is another facility on the Xfinity Series schedule the Big 3 have found success; particularly Christopher Bell, who is going for his third consecutive win at track this weekend – a feat only accomplished by one other driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2011 sweep, 2012). Below is a statistical look at the Big 3 at Iowa Speedway heading into this weekend’s U.S. Cellular 250 this Saturday at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.