Drivers looking to outsmart Tricky Triangle

Pocono Raceway is the definition of unique—and tricky. Being the only track on the NASCAR circuit that isn’t an oval or a road course, it tends to give drivers and crew chiefs fits.

It’s home to three distinct corners that involve shifting and strategizing where and when to pass. Pocono has resulted in some of the best shows in recent memory. The race might come down to fuel mileage or a late race restart, but one thing is for sure: drivers better not get tricked by the Tricky Triangle.

WHAT: Axalta Presents the Pocono 400 (400 miles, 160 laps. Stages of 40, 40 and 80 laps)

WHEN: Sunday, June 11, 2017. Green flag scheduled just past 3 p.m. on Fox Sports 1

WHERE: Pocono Raceway, 2.5-mile asphalt triangle in Long Pond, Pennsylvania

FAVORITES: Brad Keselowski (11/2), Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. (6/1)


Photo: Getty Images

LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Kurt Busch stretched the fuel in his No. 41 Haas Automation vehicle just far enough last season in this event to grab his first victory of the 2016 season, snapping a 35-race winless streak. He held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the win, who swept the Pocono races back in 2014.


THE FIELD

Kyle Busch won the pole for the Axalta Presents the Pocono 400 by laying down a lap of 179.151 mph (50.237 seconds) in his No. 18 Toyota on Friday evening. The pole is his second of the season, third at Pocono and 21st of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career.

His crew chief, Adam Stevens, along with the No. 18 rear tire changer and carrier have been suspended four races due to the left rear tire coming off the car last weekend at Dover. Joe Gibbs Racing engineer Ben Beshore will call the shots as the interim crew chief.

Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth, Ryan Blaney and Kurt Busch rounded out the top five starting spots when qualifying concluded, with Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman capping off the top ten.

Some other notable starters include Kevin Harvick in 12th, Erik Jones in 15th, Denny Hamlin in 18th, Jimmie Johnson in 19th, Chase Elliott in 25th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 28th.


IS THIS THE WEEK JGR WINS?

Twelve races in, zero wins, and a bunch of frustrated Joe Gibbs Racing employees.

From the owner himself, to the four drivers, to everybody working at the race shop in North Carolina, the championship-winning organization is scratching their heads as to why none of their drivers have visited victory lane so far in 2017. But that could change at Pocono.

Hamlin has multiple wins at Pocono, including sweeping the races in his rookie season in 2004. Kenseth won an event at this track in 2015 and Busch is starting on the pole. Suarez is young and inexperienced, but he has been learning fast and is coming off his career-best finish of sixth.


WELCOME, BUBBA

Regan Smith filled in for the injured Aric Almirola for the past couple weeks in the famed No. 43 Ford, but this weekend, there will be a new driver making his debut behind the wheel.

Darrell Wallace Jr. has been tabbed to drive the Richard Petty Motorsports entry for the remainder of Almirola’s recovery period. Wallace Jr., commonly known as “Bubba,” will become the first African-American driver to make a Cup start since 2006 (Bill Lester) and the sixth one in NASCAR history when he rolls off the grid in 16th. The last African-American driver to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event was Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in 1963.

Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

“The No. 43 is the most iconic number in NASCAR,” Wallace told NASCAR.com earlier this week. “That’s huge. It’s something that represents 200 wins. Richard Petty, the King himself, I’ll be driving for him. There are just a lot of factors going into this weekend that make it that much sweeter. And really that much more bad-ass to be driving for him.”

The opportunity comes at a great time for Bubba, as Roush Fenway Racing announced that after Pocono, Wallace’s No. 6 XFINITY team will be suspended immediately due to a lack of sponsorship. He sits fourth in the championship standings but will see his playoff and title hopes go by the wayside due to the unfortunate realities of the sport.


JOHNSON LOOKS AHEAD FOR ANOTHER MILESTONE

Photo: Getty Images

Jimmie Johnson is looking to tie two more legends this weekend.

Last weekend, his 83rd career victory and 11th at Dover tied him with Hall of Famer–and childhood hero–Cale Yarborough on the all-time wins list. This weekend, he traded in his Cale tribute helmet for a Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip tribute helmet. If he wins this weekend, or whenever he wins No. 84, he will tie those two HOFers for fourth on the all-time wins list.


FROM THE REAR

Two former winners at the Tricky Triangle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr., will start from the rear of the field when the green flag flies on the 400-miler on Sunday afternoon.

Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet blew an engine in the first practice while shifting and the motor was replaced. Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota also changed motors on Saturday afternoon, according to a Furniture Row Racing spokesperson. Shifting has always been part of the game at Pocono, meaning the transmissions in these 3,500-pound race cars will be taking a beating all afternoon.


PREDICTION

As much as I actually don’t want to stick to my guns this week on Victory Lane, I’m a man of my word—so I will. Kevin Harvick is going to win today and grab his first checkered flag of the season. But hypothetically, if I wasn’t picking him, I’d go with Denny Hamlin.

Photo: Getty Images