NASCAR at Pocono 2013: Party in the Poconos 400 viewer’s guide

John Harrelson

A look at what you need to know as you watch today’s NASCAR race at Pocono.

A look at the storylines and drivers to keep an eye on during today's NASCAR Party in the Poconos 400.

Storylines

How aggressive is too aggressive for Denny Hamlin?

After a second and fourth in his fulltime return from a back injury, Denny Hamlin made it look like, despite missing four races, he would rally to make the Chase.

But all that was before last week's 34th-place finish at Dover, which came as a result of a cut tire. Now Hamlin is at a 74-point deficit and his path to the Chase is significantly more complicated, as he needs a combination of speed and luck to climb back into wildcard contention. But having used his mulligan, the biggest challenge facing him and his team is how aggressively do they pursue wins?

Weather is always a factor at Pocono

Rain is a threat anytime there's a race at Pocono and this weekend is no different. Persistent rain cancelled practice and qualifying on Friday and there were light showers during Saturday's morning practice. The forecast for raceday calls for sunny skies with minimal chance for rain.

But remember, this is Pocono and the weather can change as quickly as Kurt Busch's temperament.

One side effect of limited practice time this weekend is the advantage that it gives Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. The two teams tested at Pocono last week and with the weather expected to be vastly different than it was during Saturday practice, RCR and SHR should have a better feel on how the track will evolve over long runs. Is this a significant advantage? Probably not, though it is one worth watching.

Beware of those mechanical gremlins

Because of the high speeds and high rpms in addition to drivers continually shifting, few tracks stress equipment more than Pocono. It's a common occurrence to see cars head to the garage early due to a broken transmission or a blown motor. This in part is the reason why Toyota, which has struggled with reliability and has scaled down the amount of horsepower its engines produce.

One potential downside to less horsepower could be a dip in performance. And while cars of Joe Gibbs Racing have dominated this season, the question this afternoon is whether less engine torque will cause its Toyota-powered cars to lose speed and with it, its edge over the rest of the field.

Favorites

1. Jimmie Johnson

Pocono isn't normally thought of as one of Jimmie Johnson's better tracks, but in his last 11 starts here he has nine top 10s and overall, his 9.0 average finish is tops among active drivers. He was also fastest in final practice.

2. Kasey Kahne

The driver of the No. 5 car is generally hit-or-miss at Pocono, either finishing near the front or well down the running order. And a runner-up finish here in August along with being quick in practice gives credence that Kahne will be in position this afternoon to claim his second Pocono win.

3. Denny Hamlin

Hamlin said it himself Friday that he needs not just one win but two to make the Chase. And there are few better tracks for him than Pocono, the site of his first career win and two others since. The biggest uncertainty about his chances today of course center on whether his engine can hold up to the strain of racing around the 2.5-speedway.

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