Thursday, Mar 30

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Pocono Raceway for the second of a pair of trips this year. In the midst of the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania, the track has been infamous for its history of having rain within the area on a frequent basis.

This year, it is 50/50 on whether or not the poor weather will show up for Sunday’s 400. For the second straight year, the company is the title sponsor of the event, and they also have their colors on Aric Almirola’s No. 43 Ford. During Saturday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, the rain was able to hold off, and the Sun came out for a large portion of the 150-mile spectacle. The forecast is similar for Sunday’s race as 43 Sprint Cup Series teams are prepared to race at the ‘Tricky Triangle’ for 400-miles.

Kyle Larson, the newly turned 22-year-old, set a new track record on Friday afternoon during qualifying for the 400 at Pocono. Larson led the field to the green flag at Richmond International Raceway, but that was due to qualifying being rained out and set on practice speeds. The pole locked him into the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway for next year as it was his first career pole.

After winning the first race at Pocono this year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking to take out the broom stick. Earnhardt Jr. is second in points behind last weekend’s winner Jeff Gordon. After struggling to begin the weekend, the No. 88 team has picked up speed as they were fifth quickest in final practice. With 14 top-10s this year, he will be a factor in Sunday’s event. However, with Gordon coming off of his 90th career victory – he is expected to be strong once again this weekend. He will start fifth in his No. 24 car, but he has been one of the top-three fastest cars over the course of the weekend.

Brad Keselowski was extremely close to winning the June race at the triangular-shaped speedway. But with debris on his grille – Keselowski had to drop back behind Earnhardt Jr. with a handful of laps remaining in the race. On Saturday evening, the former Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series champion captured his 30th career race in NASCAR’s second-tier division. He dominated the race at Iowa Speedway – leading 146 of the 250 laps as he held off a hard-charging Michael McDowell after a late-race caution to score the victory. Keselowski flew back to Pocono as he will pull off the double for possibly the final time with Ryan Blaney possibly moving up to that ride in 2015.

Denny Hamlin will be racing without his crew chief Darian Grubb this weekend. Grubb was suspended for six events due to multiple rear firewall covers having issues following a third-place finish at Indianapolis. Hamlin’s replacement crew chief will be Mike Wheeler, whom of which has worked as the No. 11 team’s car chief since 2006. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota won his first pair of races at NASCAR’s highest level at Pocono back in 2006, and has been quick all weekend. Hamlin will start the 400 from the 13th position, but was ninth in Happy Hour and 15th in Saturday’s first practice session.

Stewart Haas Racing was strong in the June Pocono race. However, none of their four drivers were able to close the deal. Team co-owner Tony Stewart was leading the race, but had a pit road speeding penalty which dropped him back to the 13th position after pacing the field for 24 laps. Kurt Busch was the lone driver from the organization to finish inside of the top-10 after leading five laps in the 160-lap event.

Michael Waltrip Racing is looking for their first win of 2014. Clint Bowyer sits 10th in points and hasn’t finished outside of the top-15 at Pocono since the August race in 2012. His teammate Brian Vickers made his return to Pocono in June – finishing 19th. Moreover, he sits 17th in points and needs a solid run this weekend.

The green flag will take place at 1:05 p.m. ET as NASCAR moved up the start time by 13 minutes due to the pending weather.  

After being worried about entering Pocono Raceway in June, Kyle Larson seems to have figured out the ‘Tricky Triangle.’ Larson set a blistering pace in the final round of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series qualifying as he even made a pass around Matt Crafton – providing him a little extra momentum thanks to the draft.

The 22-year-old was inside of the top-two throughout the pair of practice sessions held on Friday. In qualifying, he ran a lap time of 53.282 seconds. After being quickest in the second session in qualifying on Saturday, he picked up the pace by approximately six tenths of a second. Larson will be making his eighth career Truck Series start on Saturday afternoon in the Pocono Mountains 150. This is his second pole of the weekend as he set a track record during qualifying for Sunday's 400. 

Austin Dillon will start alongside Larson during Saturday’s spectacle. Dillon was over a tenth of a second behind Larson’s time. Both drivers are competitors for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and Larson is currently ahead of Dillon as far as points are concerned.

John Wes Townley will not be racing the No. 05 truck for Athenian Motorsports. Townley is going to be held out of competition for a week as a precaution and will be reevaluated in North Carolina early in the coming week. Replacing him is NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer. Bowyer will start the truck in the 10th position. He will not need to go to the rear of the field because he qualified the truck. The 35-year-old will be making his first Truck Series start since Atlanta of 2011.

Both Kyle Busch Motorsports vehicles missed the cut for the final round of qualifying. This is just the fourth time that the team’s championship eligible driver Darrell Wallace Jr. missed the final session of qualifying. Wallace will start in the 15th position. Meanwhile, Erik Jones – making his Pocono debut – will start in the 13th spot.

“We just didn’t get the right toe. We didn’t have enough speed in the second round. We should be just fine for the race with plenty of speed,” Wallace said after qualifying. “The track conditions are really different. We’ve had some down weekends, so I’m not worried about it. That’s (strategy) going to be the biggest thing. If we can get up front and pick up a few positions early, we’ll be just fine.”

Tyler Reddick, Ben Kennedy and Timothy Peters round out the top-five in qualifying. Spencer Gallagher made the top-12 in qualifying for the first time this year, and will start a career-best 12th in Saturday’s race. 

Over the past four years, the Pocono Raceway has held a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in August along with the usual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and ARCA Series events at the track. In the four races at the track, fuel mileage has played a large role in the results of the event, and if history serves us right – the same will happen once again this weekend.

This year’s Truck Series race at Pocono will be slightly longer. NASCAR and the track came to an agreement to add 25-miles to what was a 125-mile event. With the added laps, teams will have to adjust their strategy accordingly – possibly throwing some off course during the late stages of the race.

Last year’s winner, Ryan Blaney, enters Pocono as the championship leader. Although he doesn’t have a win this season, the 20-year-old has been a model of consistency as the division nears the half-way point in the season. Coming off of three straight top-three finishes, he has moved from fifth in points to the top spot over the past four races.

Joey Coulter, the only other driver with a win at Pocono in the Truck Series, has three top-10s after 10 races his year. However, the move to GMS Racing has been smooth for him as things have begun to pick up – especially in qualifying. What he called his weakest point so far this year, Coulter has been able to start inside of the top-10 throughout the past four races. With a top-five finish needed for this team, expect the No. 21 Chevrolet to be racing near the front of the pack this weekend.

Austin Dillon will run his fifth Camping World Truck Series race of the 2014 season. Dillon, who is racing for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award in the Sprint Cup Series, has made several spot starts for NTS Motorsports this season. This weekend, he’ll be in the No. 3 truck for Richard Childress Racing for the second time this year (first was in the No. 2 truck). The reigning Nationwide Series champion and 2011 Truck Series victor has his sights set on contending for the win this weekend. In his previous two starts at Pocono, he has a pair of top-10s, yet he never led a lap at the “Tricky Triangle.” Racing in this event should help Dillon, who finished 17th in his first Cup Series race at Pocono in June.

Kyle Larson is making his second straight start in the Truck Series. Larson will be in the No. 32 Chevrolet for Turner Scott Motorsports instead of flying out to Iowa Speedway for the Nationwide Series race. He won the ARCA Series event at Pocono in June – holding off a hard charging Mason Mitchell in the process. After running the ARCA race, he capped off the weekend with a top-five finish in the Cup Series race. The team gave him a hard time all weekend as he didn’t know how to shift well in the Cup Series car, but that should change this weekend after his impressive run at the 2.5-mile track.

Here are some notables for the Pocono Mountains 150:

-Joe Nemechek returns to the No. 8 truck. This will be his sixth start of the season as he is looking for his fourth top-10 finish of 2014.

-Jason White is racing the No. 9 Chevrolet for NTS Motorsports. This will be his first Truck Series event since Daytona in February and his first at a non-restrictor plate track since Homestead of 2012.

-Justin Lofton will be racing his fourth race this year for NTS Motorsports. He finished in the runner-up position at Texas, and is looking to catch the attention of sponsors to run some more races.

-Ryan Ellis will be back in the No. 28 truck for FDNY Racing. Speedway Digest will have more on the team’s situation over the course of the weekend.

-Todd Peck will be racing his No. 40 truck for the second time this season. Peck qualified for the race at Dover, but parked his vehicle after a handful of laps.

-Erik Jones will be making his Pocono debut. Jones made his Nationwide Series debut with Joe Gibbs Racing at Chicagoland, and won the Truck Series race at Iowa. However, that has been his only top-10 finish this season.

-Kyle Martel will be running his first Truck Series race of the season. Martel made two starts last year with his family-owned team. In three career starts, his best finish was 21st at Pocono in his first event back in 2012.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is ready to tackle the “Tricky Triangle.” After arriving mid-week at the Pocono Raceway, the field has been set for the 33rd annual Pocono 400.

Denny Hamlin broke Joey Logano’s track record which was set in 2012 by flying around the Pocono Raceway at a blistering 181.415 mph. Hamlin is searching for his first top-10 at a track 1.5 miles long or larger. Even though he has a win at Talladega this year, Hamlin has struggled on the larger circuits, and is looking for some form of consistency after winning his second pole award of the year. Hamlin has won four previous races at Pocono, including his first pair of victories in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series back in 2006 where he won from the pole in both events.

Jimmie Johnson is coming off of back-to-back wins at Charlotte and Dover – both of which he dominated. After winning the Pocono 400 in 2013, Johnson has set his sights high for Sunday’s event. However, Johnson will have to come from mid-pack to contend for the win as he will be starting 20th in the No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson was eighth in the second practice session of the weekend and recorded the third fastest time during Happy Hour. Could Johnson win his fourth Pocono race this weekend?

Jeff Gordon comes into Pocono as the all-time wins leader at the track. Gordon was runner-up to his teammate, Kasey Kahne, in last year’s August Pocono event. However, Gordon is coming off a disastrous race at Dover where he was contending for a top-five position, but fell back approximately 10 spots within the final handful of laps.

Speaking of Kahne – he has been struggling with the handling of the No. 5 Chevrolet this weekend. He was 17th in the second practice and 14th in final practice. Although it is not horrific, compared to his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, he is struggling.

Brian Vickers has been fast all weekend. The No. 55 Toyota led the first practice session of the weekend, and was fastest in the first round of qualifying before falling to ninth in the final session. Vickers has not raced at Pocono since 2011 – making this race his first at the track since it was repaved. Entering Pocono, Vickers is 13th in the points standings in his return to full-time racing at NASCAR’s highest level.

Kevin Harvick was quickest in both of Saturday’s practice sessions, but his No. 4 team had to change their transmission. Harvick will not have to go to the rear of the field as NASCAR enables teams to change transmissions. Dale Earnhardt Jr. also had to have a transmission swapped before Happy Hour in the No. 88 Chevrolet. Aric Almirola also had a transmission issue after initially believing the engine had gone out on the No. 43 Ford. NASCAR enables teams to change transmissions at Pocono as well as the pair of road courses.

Mike Bliss is on standby for David Ragan whose wife is pregnant. Alex Kennedy spun out during practice on Saturday, but did not hit anything. 

The Pocono Raceway also opened up the apron by the apex in Turn 2 - the tunnel turn. Though not many drivers have attempted to drive down on the apron, Landon Cassill showed Speedway Digest what it would be like to drive into that area during a pace car ride on Sunday morning. The Chevrolet pace car immediately shot up the track and was extremely loose, and that was after going 115-130 mph. Cassill believes late in the race, someone might try to go down there, but he doesn't see many drivers taking that risk considering it is so rough on that part of the track. 

After a dominating performance on Saturday afternoon at Pocono, Kyle Larson showed once again that he has a boatload of talent. However, Larson also utilized his NASCAR Nationwide Series crew from Turner Scott Motorsports.

Larson’s crew, led by Scott Zipadelli, proved to be the difference maker in Saturday’s ARCA 200 at Pocono. The No. 4 car had a lead over Matt Tift at one point the event which surpassed 20 seconds – that’s nearly half of the entire Pocono Raceway.

After making a green flag pit stop, Larson received a pit road speeding violation – forcing his Chevrolet to have a pass-through penalty. Due to his large lead, Larson still held a five second lead over Tift. A large part of holding a 20 second lead was because of his Nationwide Series pit crew, who noticeably had about a five-10 second quicker pit stop compared to the rest of the top-10.

But with a car that was clearly going to be dominating this weekend with his Nationwide Series team, should he have raced on Saturday? Wouldn’t have participating in the ARCA Series test at Pocono been enough for the 21-year-old?

Well, on Friday Larson told Speedway Digest that he did not believe it was going to hurt him by racing the ARCA Series race. However, at the time, he believed it wasn’t helping him an exceptional amount considering the differences between the ARCA Series and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Not only does the ARCA Series use a different tire combination as they throw on Hoosier tires to their cars, but they also have less horse power than the Cup Series. In the Cup Series, drivers have been shifting at least two-four times per lap at Pocono. Moreover, the ARCA Series does not shift at all at Pocono besides on the restart. Larson even joked about how Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates was making his practice shifting by driving around town in a manual vehicle – a Chevrolet Camaro to be specific.

The only driver who was able to contend with Larson for the victory was Mason Mitchell. Mitchell led several laps after the final restart, but as the field was coming to two laps remaining in the 200-mile spectacle, Larson flew by Mitchell, who owns his own team – Mason Mitchell Motorsports. He ended up beating Mitchell by approximately one second.

Justin Boston and Matt Tift had strong cars that might have been able to contend with Larson, but they’re days came to an end early as both of them got into a wreck with 15 laps remaining in the event. Justin Allison also had a strong car, yet his No. 88 Ford was stuck in fourth gear and caused him to fall back mightily on the restart.

Larson might have dominated the race, but he stated that he learned a few things which could help him on Sunday for the Pocono 400. He had to maneuver through traffic for the majority of the day, and also had an intense battle with Mitchell. Another thing which Larson could have learned this weekend was the line which he takes going to pass drivers in the corners. But that is about all he could learn with such drastic differences in the two divisions.

The California native was 12th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series final practice held early Saturday afternoon after running 25 laps – the third highest amount behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski. He was also inside of the top-10 in the second practice of the weekend, and was fourth of nine cars to run 10 consecutive laps.

Larson will start his first Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono in the 14th position. 


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