Posted: 12:21 p.m. Sunday, June 9, 2013
By Jordan Bianchi
A look at the storylines and drivers to keep an eye on during today's NASCAR Party in the Poconos 400.
How aggressive is too aggressive for Denny Hamlin?
After a second and fourth in his fulltime return from a back injury, Denny Hamlin made it look easy and that despite missing four races he would rally to make the Chase.
But all that was before last week's 34th-place finish at Dover, which came as a result of a cut tire. Now Hamlin is starring at a 74-point deficit and his path to the Chase is significantly more complicated, as he needs a combination of speed and luck to climb back into wildcard contention. But having used his mulligan, the biggest challenge facing him and his team is how aggressively do they pursue wins?
Weather is always a factor at Pocono
Rain is a threat anytime there's a race at Pocono and this weekend is no different. Persistent rain wiped-out practice and qualifying on Friday and there were light showers during Saturday's morning practice. The forecast for raceday calls for sunny skies with minimal chance for rain.
But remember, this is Pocono and the weather can change as quickly as Kurt Busch's temperament.
One side effect of limited practice time this weekend is the advantage that it gives Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. The two teams tested at Pocono last week and with the weather expected to be vastly different than it was during Saturday practice, RCR and SHR should have a better feel on how the track will evolve over long runs. Is this a significant advantage? Probably not, though it is one worth watching.
Beware those mechanical gremlins
Because of the high speeds and high rpms in addition to drivers continually shifting, few tracks stress equipment more than Pocono. It's a common occurrence to see cars head to the garage early due to a broken transmission or a blown motor. This in part is the reason why Toyota, which has struggled with reliability, has scaled down the amount of horsepower its engines produce.
One potential downside, however, to less horsepower could be a dip in performance. And while cars of Joe Gibbs Racing have dominated this season, the question this afternoon is whether less engine torque will cause its Toyota-powered cars to lose speed and with it, its edge over the rest of the field.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Pocono isn't normally associated as one of Jimmie Johnson's better tracks, but in his last 11 starts here he has nine top 10s and overall, his 9.0 average finish is tops among active drivers. He was also fastest in final practice.
2. Kasey Kahne
The driver of the No. 5 car is generally hit-or-miss at Pocono, either finishing near the front or well down the running order. And with a runner-up finish here in August along with being quick in practice gives credence that Kahne will be in position this afternoon to claim his second Pocono win.
3. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin said it himself Friday that he needs not just one win but two to make the Chase. And there are few better tracks for him than Pocono, the site of his first career win and two others since. The biggest uncertainty about his chances today of course center on whether his engine can hold up to the strain of racing around the 2.5-speedway.