Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Friday, June 5, 2009

Pocono 500 Preview

The Sprint Cup Series travels to the Pennsylvania mountains this weekend for the first of the series' two annual stops at the historic Pocono Raceway. The Pocono 500 will not only mark the second half of the Race to the Chase, but it will also usher in TNT's summer coverage of the sport -- and begin a new era of restarts.

NASCAR announced on Thursday that, starting with this weekend's race at Pocono, every restart will be double-file -- much like those we saw last month in the Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Lead-lap cars will line up double-file, with the leader having the option of restarting on the low or high line, while lap-down cars will be placed at the tail end of the field, where they can race each other for the free pass without impeding the leaders.

The free pass will also be given throughout the entire race; under the old rule, no free pass was given if a caution came out with less than 10 laps to go.

There are probably some kinks to work out, but I applaud NASCAR for trying something to improve the racing. Double-file restarts have long been a staple of Friday and Saturday night short track racing, and it obviously made the All-Star Race more exciting, so why not do it every weekend?

If it improves the racing, I'm all for it.

Kasey Kahne won this race last year, adding to a hot streak that saw him win both the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Though he hasn't been on such a tear this season, Kahne debuted the new Dodge engine last week at Dover to the tune of a sixth-place finish. That gives the No. 9 Dodge momentum, and Kahne loves the tricky Pennsylvania triangle. Don't be surprised if he pulls off another one on Sunday.

Then again, Pocono is practically Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards' personal playground. Hamlin collected his first two Sprint Cup wins at Pocono -- in his rookie season, I might add -- while Edwards also boasts a pair of wins at Pocono, including the race last August. Hamlin has six career starts at Pocono with five top-10s and four top-5s. Edwards has four top-10s and three top-5s in eight career starts there.

Look for Hamlin and Edwards to put their early-season struggles and bad luck behind them this weekend, with one of those two possibly even collecting his first win of the year.

Jeff Gordon leads all active full-time drivers with four career wins at Pocono (Bill Elliott, a part-timer who won't attempt to qualify for this weekend's race, has five wins at the triangle). Gordon's last Pocono win came in June 2007, when he beat Ryan Newman ... and the rain.

Though I've said repeatedly that Kyle Busch is a threat to win everywhere the series goes, his career record at Pocono might speak otherwise. In eight career starts at Pocono, Busch has an average finish of 22nd, with just two top-1o finishes. He finished 43rd and 36th in both of last year's races. Brother Kurt Busch, meanwhile, has two career wins at Pocono.

The thing about Pocono, thanks to its unique configuration, is that no driver will ever handle perfectly in all three corners. Pocono is a track of compromises, with many teams choosing to focus mostly on the flat Turn 3, because getting good speed off that corner gives the drivers a lot of speed heading down the mile-plus long front straightaway (the longest in NASCAR), which could set up the rest of the lap.

Road-course aces tend to do well at Pocono, because the configuration almost makes the track feel like a combination between an oval and a road course ("roval," depending on who you talk to). Drivers used to shift at Pocono, but new gear rules instituted last season rendered that practice moot.

Generally speaking, drivers who perform well at Pocono will also succeed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The series will come to Indy at the end of July, with a second trip to Pocono following the week after.

But for this weekend's race, keep an eye on Kahne, Hamlin and Edwards; one of those three will pick up their first win of the season this weekend. My pick? Complete gut feeling here, but I think we're gonna see a backflip for the first time in 2009.

Carl Edwards will win the Pocono 500.

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