NASCAR Sunday: Tight Race At The Top Heads Into The Poconos

The drivers of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series make their way to the Pocono Mountains of northeast Pennsylvania on Sunday afternoon for the 14th race of the 36-race schedule, and they do so with the top of the standings getting tighter with each passing week.Matt Kenseth’s third-place finish last week in Dover moved him to within a point of standings leader Greg Biffle, the closest Kenseth has been the top since he kicked the year off by winning the Daytona 500. Biffle struggled to 11th, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also took advantage to move to within ten points.

Against this competitive backdrop awaits one of the circuit’s interesting tracks. “Pocono is three tracks in one,” TheSportsNotebook’s resident NASCAR junkie Bill Flaherty—the writer’s brother—said on Friday afternoon as he made his long haul trucking run out of Chicago. “It’s a tri-oval and each corner is different.” Bill went on to add that the differences in each corner have given rise to the saying “if you’re happy in one, you’re crappy in another.”

The track dynamics, with its three corners and three straightaways are more than just an interesting storyline. They have actual race consequences that likely serve to favor the early leaders. Because it’s a long way around, a driver can go short on fuel and if they do, it’s difficult to make it to the pit on fumes. “If you’re out of fuel on the backstretch you’re SOL,” Bill said bluntly. What this amounts to is that a driver who digs an early hole will find it difficult to mount a sustained rally. On the flip side, the long track makes accidents less likely—obviously not impossible as Jeff Gordon would happy to remind anyone after the crash he took her six years ago. But the odds are against it. So while a big comeback is harder to pull off, so too is it harder to have the kind of disaster that wipes out your entire race. Essentially, Pocono is a conservative track in terms of its impact on the race and the standings.

This is the first of two races that will go at Pocono over the next three months. Gordon had a better experience here a year ago, getting a win in August, while Brad Keselowski won here last June. Keselowski is in 11th place, but with a win already under his belt would be a solid wild-card choice if the season ended today and repeating his 2011 performance only furthers his chances. One driver who hasn’t won here, at least in the last five years, is Jimmie Johnson. The circuit’s top star is coming on strong, with last week’s win in Dover moving him to fifth place, 33 points in the lead. It’s safe to say the leaders are all seeing JJ in their rearview mirror right now.

One driver who won’t be racing is Kurt Busch, who made what are termed threatening comments to a media member. When asked if his probation affected his driving, Busch said it’s effect was to keep him from punching the reporter in the nose. I’d like to take Busch’s side, because in general I think those who go after the media are doing the world a public service, but the question did seem pretty reasonable.