Weekend Preview: Pocono Raceway

Just six races to go in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season

With six races remaining to set the 16-driver 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field, the summer race season has provided plenty of compelling action both atop the championship standings and around that important 16th place cutoff position. There are 11 drivers locked into the Playoffs with five positions still to be settled in this next month and a half.

The NASCAR Cup Series visits four tracks for the first time this season in the remaining six-race span to set the postseason field, including Sunday’s HighPoint.com 400 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

With a victory – his third of the season – last week at New Hampshire, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. arrives in Pocono with a 17-point advantage over Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron in the regular season standings.

A rough day in New England for Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch, he finished last after an early-race single-car incident, has shuffled the upper portion of the points standings. Busch went into the weekend ranked second, only 36 points off Byron’s then-leading pace. But now the two-time series champion has fallen to fifth, 74 points behind Truex.

Among the top five drivers in the standings – Truex, Byron, Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Busch – all but Byron and Bell have previous wins at the 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle” as the three-turn Pocono Raceway is called.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin is tied with NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon for the most Pocono wins – establishing his excellence at the track immediately with a sweep of the two Pocono races in his 2006 rookie season. It looked as if Hamlin would have the record all to himself after crossing the finish line first in last year’s Pocono race, but both he and then-teammate Busch – who finished runner-up – were disqualified after the race for technical violations, giving the victory to third-place finisher Chase Elliott.

Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, still bristles at being called “the winner” from that race, but a victory there this weekend sure would go a long way toward turning his 2023 fortunes. After missing five races with injury and another for an aggressive driving penalty, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion finds himself well outside the top-16 heading to Pocono – a full 60 points behind Michael McDowell in that final 16th place Playoff position.

Elliott has four top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 13 Pocono starts. Before he was awarded the victory last summer, his previous best finish had been fourth place (2016, ’19 and ’20).

Closer to the cutoff line, 15th place Bubba Wallace holds a slight two-point edge on 17th place Daniel Suarez. McDowell has only a single point up on the Trackhouse Racing driver Suarez. Kaulig Racing driver A.J. Allmendinger is ranked 18th, 20 points behind McDowell.

Rookie Ty Gibbs is only 31 points out of a Playoff position in what has been a quiet, steady, successful opening season for the defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion. He’s had five top-10 finishes this season – three ninth-place showings his best to date. He made his NASCAR Cup Series debut at Pocono last year, substituting for injured 23XI Racing driver Kurt Busch, and finished 16th.

“It’s really cool for us and being a rookie, it’s really special to run up front and having a chance to run for the Playoffs,” said Gibbs, who drives the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “Just need to have a couple good weeks and we’ll be back in it, hopefully and be able to go and race for a win and that will take care of all that.”

“I think I’ve had a good experience at almost all the upcoming tracks except the speedways and so I’m happy about that. I enjoy Pocono, Michigan and Richmond. I’m excited for them and hopefully we can knock off a win.”

There are 10 Pocono race winners in this week’s field, including Hamlin, Kyle Busch (four) and Truex (two) who are multi-race winners. Elliott, Alex Bowman, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Chris Buescher and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano all have a trophy too.

Among those, only Bowman and Elliott are currently outside the top-16 in the Playoff standings. Bowman missed three races recovering from a concussion and sits 20th in the standings, 42 points behind McDowell.

Practice for the HighPoint.com 400 is scheduled for 2:35 p.m. ET on Saturday with Busch Light Pole Qualifying following at 3:20 p.m. – both sessions airing on USA Network at 3 p.m. ET.

 

NASCAR Xfinity Series’ streak of different winners at Pocono could continue

Historically speaking the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Pocono Raceway is anybody’s to win. In seven races at the 2.5-mile oval, there have been seven different winners. The only previous winner in Saturday’s field is Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer, who hoisted a trophy there in 2019.

A victory in Saturday’s Explore the Pocono Mountains 225 (5:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) represents a championship Playoff ticket for someone since only seven of the 12 Playoff positions have already been filled.

With his victory last week at New Hampshire, John Hunter Nemechek has extended his career best single season win total to four and he leads three-race winner Austin Hill by 33 points and one-race winner Justin Allgaier by 60 points in the standings. Nemechek has one top-10 – a seventh place in 2018 – in two series starts at Pocono. Hill also has a pair of starts at the track with a best effort of eighth place last year.

It may be Custer – who sits fourth in the championship standings – that everyone needs to keep an eye on. He has never finished worse than 10th in four starts at Pocono. Another driver with not only an impressive history at Pocono, but some extra motivation to score his first win in more than a year is Kaulig Racing’s Daniel Hemric. The 2021 series champion has not won a race since his title-clinching win at Phoenix in that season finale. He has four top-10 finishes in five Pocono starts.

Another driver still racing for his first win of the season – and the automatic Playoff berth – is JR Motorsports’ Josh Berry. He has a pair of top-10 finishes in two Pocono starts, including a third place run last year.

Custer’s SHR teammate Riley Herbst currently holds that all-important 12th place in the driver standings, only 18 points ahead of Parker Kligerman who will be making his Pocono debut this weekend.

NASCAR Cup Series regular and 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, Daniel Suarez will drive the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet this weekend. He’s earned top-10 finishes in both his previous Xfinity Series starts at the track.

Custer will similarly be competing in two Pocono races. He’s driving the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Ford in the NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday in addition to his Xfinity Series duties.

Cars roll off for practice on Friday at 3:35 p.m. ET followed by Pole Qualifying at 4:05 p.m. ET – both sessions televised on USA Network and streamed on the NBC Sports App.

 

NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series drivers have just two chances left to make the Playoffs

The NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series returns to action after an off-week and now only two races remain to set the 10-driver Playoff field, so Saturday afternoon’s CRC Brakleen 150 (Noon ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) could go a long way to formalizing the championship field.

No current fulltime series driver has won this Pocono race, however six drivers in Saturday’s field have won in an ARCA Menards Series race at the track – including championship leader Corey Heim, his closest regular season championship challenger Zane Smith, as well as Christian Eckes, Ty Majeski, Grant Enfinger and Taylor Gray.

The regular season title is still very much up for grabs in this final two race swing before the Playoffs. The two-race winner Heim holds a 26-point edge on reigning series champion and fellow-two race winner Smith in what is essentially a two-driver duel for the extra 15-point Playoff bonus awarded the Regular Season Champion.

The other drivers with secure Playoff positions include 2023 race winners Eckes, Enfinger, Carson Hocevar and 2021 champion Ben Rhodes. Majeski, Matt DiBenedetto, rookie Nick Sanchez and three-time series champion Matt Crafton hold the remaining Playoff positions as of now.

Stewart Friesen is only 1-point behind Crafton and 2-points behind Sanchez however, and Gray is 24-points behind Crafton for that 10th place transfer.

NASCAR Cup Series regulars Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain will compete in Saturday’s race. Busch is the only driver to win multiple Truck Series races at Pocono (in 2015 and 2018) and his 148 laps led at Pocono is most in series history. This weekend, the two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion is hoping to earn a milestone 100th victory for his Kyle Busch Motorsports truck team.

Practice will take place Friday beginning at 1:35 p.m. ET, immediately followed by qualifying. Both sessions will air on FS1.