Jacksonville Sports Day

NASCAR NOTES: Pocono Preview, Martin Truex Jr. On a Roll

Martin Truex Jr. is not only the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ most recent winner – earning the victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday night – he is the defending winner of this week’s race, the Pocono 400 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.

The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry collected his third win of the season last weekend and surely feels optimistic arriving at another of his best tracks. Truex won the 2015 Pocono early summer race leading a race-best 97 of the 160 laps and his victory in this race last year gives him three top-10s in his last four starts there. He’s led laps in four of the last five Pocono races.

And he earned a front row start three consecutive times from 2016-2017 seasons – winning the pole in 2016 and starting on the outside of the front row both races in 2017.

Leading laps has proven to be a good indication of how strong the 2017 Cup champion’s team is at a race track. He’s led at least 100 laps in all three of his 2019 victories and in fact 434 of his season total 459 laps out front (94.5 percent) have been in his winning venues (at Richmond, Dover and Charlotte).

Truex is ranked sixth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver championship points standings with two runner-up finishes (at Atlanta and Phoenix) in addition to his three wins.

Kyle Busch back on top
Kyle Busch reclaimed the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points lead from reigning series champion Joey Logano last weekend with his third-place finish at Charlotte. Busch has top-10 finishes in 12 of the season’s 13 races, including three victories (at Phoenix, California. and Bristol), a runner-up showing in the Daytona 500 and third place finishes at Las Vegas, Martinsville and Charlotte.

Busch has led laps in 11 of the 13 races and led 60 or more laps six times – topped by a 177-laps out front en route to his ISM Raceway win.

It may have taken Busch a little time to finally earn that first victory at the “Tricky Triangle” as Pocono is known, but he’s clearly on track now. Both his wins have come in the last three-race span. He won his first Pocono race in 2017 from the Busch Pole position.

The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry has led 239 laps in the last four Pocono races. He’s led 262 laps in the last seven races, which means 81 percent of his 325 Pocono laps led total came in that time frame.

Last year, Busch won in every series at the Pocono track – claiming his second Cup win and notching his first NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series victories as well.

Hamlin stands atop the mountain at Pocono
Denny Hamlin arrives at Pocono Raceway with fond memories and high hopes. He won his first two races at the track from the pole position in 2006 – a feat never accomplished at the storied race venue. He and Jimmie Johnson (2004) are the only active drivers to sweep a season’s races and Hamlin answered his work in 2006 with back-to-back wins in 2009-10. His four-win total is most in this weekend’s field.

The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry could use a Pocono boost after a comparatively frustrating May. Hamlin won the Daytona 500 and answered with a trophy at Texas Motor Speedway in April. But after a fifth-place showing at Richmond in April, Hamlin has had four straight finishes outside the top-10 and is ranked seventh in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points.

Pocono may well be the panacea. Not only does he boast an overall top record there among his competitors, he has three top-10 finishes in his most recent five starts. He’s earned 16 top 10s and 10 top fives in 26 starts. And his 693 laps out front is second only to three-time race winner Jimmie Johnson (740 laps led) in this week’s field.

Hamlin has a 7.1 average starting position through 26 races – a phenomenal statistic – and an average finish of 12.6. Of drivers with more than one start at Pocono, only the late NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson has a better average starting position (4.667) but that came in only six starts compared to Hamlin’s 26.

“We had a really fast FedEx Toyota in Charlotte and it’s crazy how many cars we passed over the course of the entire race, repeatedly going from the back to the front,’’ Hamlin said. “Unfortunately, our finish doesn’t reflect how good of a car we had, but I’m proud of the speed our team brought to the race track and if we can bring that speed with us to Pocono, we will be in great position to win.’’

“Historically, the FedEx #11 has had some success and we will be entering Pocono confident that we can secure another victory.’’

Potential for Penske power at Pocono
The perennial powerhouse Team Penske team continues to wrestle with Joe Gibbs Racing for high honors this season.

Penske’s Brad Keselowski joins two JGR teammates (Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.) with three wins through the opening 13 races of 2019. And Penske driver Joey Logano – the reigning Monster Energy Series champion – has exchanged the points lead with Busch for most of the season as well. He won at Las Vegas and has nine top-10s. And the team’s newest addition, Ryan Blaney, has held his own with the veterans even as he looks for his first win of the season. All three drivers are ranked among the top 10 in the standings.

Pocono Raceway is not necessarily a place where Penske cars have dominated and collected trophies like they have elsewhere on the schedule. But each of the Penske trio has a Pocono victory and reason to feel optimistic this weekend as the series returns for the first of two summer stops.

Logano won from the pole position in 2012 driving for the JGR team. He has six top-10 finishes since the victory, but only two in the last seven races. In 2018, the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford was ninth and 26th in the two races at Pocono.

Keselowski, who drives the No. 2 Team Penske Ford Mustang, had six consecutive top-five finishes – six of the last seven races – before last summer’s second event when he crashed in the waning laps of the race. He has three runner-up showings (2014,15,16) since his 2011 victory and his average finish is a stellar 11.7 in 18 starts.

There will always be a special place for Pocono in Blaney’s heart since he scored his first Monster Energy Series win there (in June 2017). He has five finishes of 12th or better in six starts, was sixth and 12th in the two races last year and boasts the same 11.7 average finish as his teammate Keselowski.

Kurt Busch brings confidence to Pocono
Chip Ganassi Racing veteran Kurt Busch brings a lot of confidence and a successful resume to Pocono Raceway. His three wins are second only to Denny Hamlin’s four wins among active drivers (Jimmie Johnson also has three wins).

In 35 starts at Pocono, Busch has 20 top-10 finishes, which also ties him with Johnson for most in the field. No one on this week’s grid has more previous top-five showings (14) than Busch at the track. And Busch is one of only four drivers currently ranked among the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ top-16 with multiple pole positions (two) and wins (three) at Pocono.

His 102.8 driver rating is third best in the field and second only to Hamlin among those drivers with at least 10 starts. He has top-10 finishes in four of his last six starts at the 2.5-mile Pennsylvania track.

Busch returns to Pocono this week looking for his first win of the season and first driving the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. He has eight top-10 finishes through the opening 13 races of 2019, including a runner-up showing at Bristol, Tenn. and a third place at Atlanta. He’s had top-10s in two of the last four races but is coming off a 27th-place finish in Charlotte.

Fans treated to impressive racing as 2019 season rolls on
The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has brought some great racing action to the fans this season. It has also brought some solid statistics to back up all the stellar racing everyone has seen through the first 13 races of 2019.

For starters, green flag passes for the lead (513) are up 56% compared to last season’s first 13 events (330). Three of the 13 races this season have produced record-setting green flag passes for the lead; producing more green flag passes for the lead than ever before – Las Vegas (47), Bristol (47), and Kansas (41).

Additionally, in the year-over-year comparison, 2019 has seen significant gains in green flag passes for the lead in nine of the 13 races this season; including all five of the 1.5-mile tracks (Atlanta, Las Vegas, Texas, Kansas and Charlotte).

Plus, nine of the 13 races this season have produced more green flag passes for the lead than the five-year average (See chart below).

But that’s not all, passing is up through the field as well; total green flag passes (45,590 GFP) through the first 13 races of the season are up 30% compared to 2018 (35,069 GFP). With nine of the 13 races in 2019 seeing an increase in green flag passes compared to last season; including the Daytona 500, Talladega, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover and four of the five 1.5-mile tracks (Las Vegas, Texas, Kansas and Charlotte).

Youth can move at Pocono
Several of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series most promising members of the sport’s “youth movement” certainly “move” well at Pocono Raceway. Three drivers in this weekend’s field scored their very first Cup win at Pocono – Denny Hamlin (2006), Chris Buescher (2016) and Ryan Blaney (2017).

Fourth-year series JTG Daugherty Racing driver Buescher, 26, is still looking for his second Cup trophy. However, third-year Cup driver Blaney answered his Pocono showing with a win in the Charlotte ROVAL Playoff race last fall. The Team Penske driver, 25, has five top-12 finishes in six Pocono starts and won the Busch Pole in this spring race last year.

Erik Jones, 22, of Joe Gibbs Racing, has three top-10 finishes in four starts at Pocono, including a third place in his 2017 Cup debut on the “Tricky Triangle.” He’s led laps in three of his four Pocono races. Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott, 23, has five top-10 finishes in six races at Pocono with a best showing of fourth place in his 2016 Pocono debut.

Richard Petty Motorsports driver Bubba Wallace, 25, made his Monster Energy Series debut at the track in 2017 and scored his best showing (16th) to date in that race. He led four laps in the spring race of 2018 before his No. 43 Chevrolet retired with engine issues. He does have a pair of top-10 finishes in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series at the track as well.

Sunoco Rookie update
JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ryan Preece continues to pace the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings by a slim eight points over Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric.

The last few races have been challenges for both. Preece, 28, has a pair of top-10 finishes on the year, highlighted by a third place showing at Talladega, Ala. four races ago. The driver of the No. 37 Chevrolet hasn’t had a top-20 since, however. His 25th-place finish at Kansas two weeks ago is best in that stretch. This will be his Cup debut at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. He finished 17th in the 2016 Xfinity Series race there – his only previous start on the track.

Hemric, 28, similarly had his best season showing at Talladega, Ala. – a fifth place and his only top-10 of the season. He also has struggled some in the past month, earning a best of 18th at Kansas in that time. The driver of the No. 8 RCR Chevrolet does have the most experience at Pocono’s Tricky Triangle, previously earning a pair of top-10 finishes in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition and another in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

Matt Tifft, who is ranked 31st in the points standings, is coming off the best rookie showing at last week’s Charlotte Motor Speedway. He finished 20th equaling his best result of the season (Phoenix). He has top-10 finishes in the Gander Trucks (2015) and Xfinity Series (2017) at Pocono.

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