As NASCAR's regular season winds down the Sprint Cup Series heads to Pocono Raceway, a track that often confounds drivers and teams due to its unique triangular-shaped layout. Here is a look at the storylines and drivers to watch for during the GoBowling.com 400.
The race to the Chase heats up
With just six regular season races remaining the pressure mounts for those drivers who find themselves on the Chase bubble. A mere 31 points separates Greg Biffle (eighth in the standings) from Ryan Newman (16th overall) and among those competing for a spot in the playoffs are Jeff Gordon (10th), Tony Stewart (11th), Brad Keselowski (13th) and Kurt Busch (14th) -- all former series champions.
A win, along with the points that come with it, by any driver on the bubble would do wonders. But for those with a victory this season (Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Stewart, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman) a second win would virtually guarantee a Chase berth via the wild card.
"Another win would be amazing just based on the history of what I've seen with the wild cards," said Newman, who won the Brickyard 400 last Sunday. "Two is pretty much going to lock you into a wild card spot. And we still have a shot."
Johnson eyeing Pocono sweep
When the Cup circuit raced here in June it was Jimmie Johnson who ruled supreme. Starting from the pole the five-time champion dominated leading 128 of 160 laps and cruising to his third victory of the season.
By all appearances the series points leader is poised to replicate his performance as he is again the class of the field.
In qualifying, Johnson broke the previous track-record to earn the pole and did so driving a different car than the one he went to Victory Lane with two months ago. If someone else is going to win the GoBowling.com 400 they will likely need the No. 48 team to stumble due to a self-inflicted mistake, similar to what happened last week at Indianapolis and in other races this season.
- Because rain washed out practice Saturday, NASCAR will throw a competition caution on Lap 20 to allow teams to assess tire wear.
- If Johnson wins today, he will join Denny Hamlin as the only drivers to win both Pocono races from the pole in a single season.
- Don't bet on seeing a first-time winner. Since the track began hosting NASCAR races in 1974 only two drivers, Hamlin and Jeremy Mayfield, scored their maiden Cup victory at Pocono.
- Mark Martin leads all active drivers in top fives (20) and top 10s (34) at Pocono. However, the veteran has never won a race on the 2.5-mile track in 54 starts, though he does have seven runner-up finishes.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Besides having won here from the pole in June and setting fast time in qualifying, here is another reason why Johnson is the favorite Sunday: He is the only driver with an average finish in single digits (8.7) at Pocono and enters having placed no worse than ninth in his last five starts.
2. Kyle Busch
This has never been one of Busch's better tracks, but his recent record here suggests he has figured out how to navigate the "Tricky Triangle" and may collect his first Pocono win. In his previous seven starts he has two seconds, a third and a sixth. And he was second-quickest in both practice and qualifying.
3. Kurt Busch
Unlike his younger brother, Kurt Busch has had success here as he owns a pair of Pocono victories. He also has five top 10s in his last seven starts including a seventh in June and additionally, he was fastest in the only practice session of the weekend.