The first half of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season focused on the number of high-caliber drivers still looking for a win – among them still, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman – thanks to some new rules for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. While these drivers and their winning ways – or lack thereof – will still be in the spotlight, additional focus will be placed on drivers improving on their early season performances at some tracks as well as on the rookies – specifically the battle between Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon.
The next race on the Sprint Cup Series schedule is the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, June 8, the first of two races in the next nine weeks at the 2.5-mile track known as the “Tricky Triangle” due to its three distinct corners. Hendrick Motorsports veteran Jeff Gordon leads all drivers – past and present – with six wins at the track, and, surprisingly, Jimmie Johnson is not the driver creeping up behind Gordon in second – Denny Hamlin owns that title, having won in his first two visits to the Pennsylvania track back in 2006. Gordon has the most recent win of the two – the second race of 2012 – and also the best finish last season with a runner-up finish in August.
Of the five drivers previously mentioned looking for their first win of the season, only Kenseth is lacking a trip to victory lane at Pocono. Kahne was the most recent winner at Pocono last August, and also won in the June 2008 race. Stewart got his first win in June 2003, following it up with a second in June 2009 – Stewart’s notorious for getting hot in the summer, and his seventh-place finish at Dover was likely just the beginning. Biffle took the win in August 2010, while Newman’s win came in July 2003.
Among the drivers who have been showing improvement this season is Danica Patrick, who has picked up her career-best finish (seventh at Kansas) and three straight top 10 starts (Talladega, Kansas and Charlotte) in the last four races. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., like Patrick in his sophomore season in Cup, has already matched his top 10 total from last season (three), and has been impressive at the most unpredictable tracks – Daytona (seventh), Bristol (second) and Talladega (10th); these are all tracks that the series will revisit in the coming months, and Stenhouse Jr. will be looking for repeat performances.
In the Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle, Larson (154 points) and Dillon (135) are close, but the fact that Larson is out front could be considered a surprise. Dillon, who won both the Camping World Truck Series (2010) and Nationwide Series (2012) rookie titles, was considered by many the front runner going into the season, simply because he had more stock car experience. Larson, who raced open-wheel sprints and midgets prior to 2012, is in only his third season in full-body stock cars – and his results so far are impressive, winning the K&N Pro Series East title in 2012 and the Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year title in 2013.
In this season’s 13 races, Dillon has been the Rookie of the Race just four times, while Larson has won the award nine times. Larson, who is running as many Nationwide Series races as possible in addition to his full-time Cup schedule, has two wins in the Nationwide Series as well as a runner-up finish at the Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in his home state of California to his credit. The competition had better watch out, because Larson will likely end up in the Cup Series victory lane before the end of the season – maybe even twice.
Qualifying for the Pocono 400 gets underway Friday, June 6 at 4:35 p.m. ET, with the green flag waving on Sunday, June 8 at 1 p.m. ET.
Source: “Statistical Advance: Analyzing the Pocono 400,” NASCAR Media, June 3, 2014