Love it or hate it, Pocono Raceway a major player in Chase for the Cup

Updated: June 13, 2008, 12:32 PM ET

AP Photo/Russ Hamilton

Two-time Pocono winner Denny Hamlin on the tri-oval: "Pocono is really unlike any other track."

Start Your Engines

The late Rodney Dangerfield would have been able to relate to Pocono Raceway. No track in NASCAR gets so little respect.

Whenever there's talk about changing something in Sprint Cup, the discussion eventually ends up about Long Pond, Pa. Shorten the races? Sure, start by turning 500 miles at Pocono into 400 or fewer. Tweak the schedule? Yes, some tracks don't need two dates, like Pocono. Add excitement to a sometimes dull series? Catch the next bus out of Long Pond.

So on it goes, including last week from four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who called the track "outdated" and said it needs "a ton of upgrades." And this is your defending Pocono 500 champion talking.

But until further notice, that's still just talk. Pocono hosts two races in the next two months, two of the last 13 races to earn points toward the Chase for the Cup. In the big picture, the 2.5-mile triangle-shaped track will play a more significant role in deciding a champion than those in Las Vegas, Darlington or Indianapolis.

It's time to get used to Pocono again, starting Sunday with the Pocono 500.

"Ever since I ran there back as a rookie in 2001, I have really liked the Pocono track," said Penske Racing's Kurt Busch, who was among the best last week at a test session there. "It's a challenge that I always enjoy. Through the years, it seems like we always get a big boost every time we race there."

Busch has won at Pocono twice, including last year's August race, and at 21st in the standings he'll need to find that success again to make a long-shot push for the Chase.

Teammate Ryan Newman is also on the outside of the top 12, sitting in 14th after three consecutive weeks of finishes off the lead lap. He won at Pocono in 2003 and likes the challenge of the unusual three-turn layout.

"It's a driver's racetrack. It has three independent corners. They drive differently and you have to adapt," Newman said. "Turn 1 is pretty difficult. The Tunnel Turn is probably the hardest corner. It's a place that I look forward to, and I think that the team does, too."

No one looks forward to it more than Denny Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, ninth in points, won both Pocono races as a rookie and followed that up with sixth and third last year, making the track an unlikely favorite.

"I think that's something we have been trying to figure out since that first season there when we had so much success," Hamlin said. "Pocono is really unlike any other track."

It's a blessing and a curse.

Rocket Man

Kyle Busch: Two good measuring sticks to gauge your success in NASCAR: (a) The fans boo you. Loudly. (b) People start to steal your stuff.

You get booed when you're fiercely successful, and in winning at Dover for his fourth Cup win of the season and 10th across Cup, Nationwide and Truck, Busch is certifiably ablaze. Friday night his helmet was stolen from the garage, perhaps by a fan who figured by year's end it would be worth some serious money after Busch wins the Cup and Nationwide titles and 25 total races. Maybe, but all the thief got was trouble. The culprit was nabbed while leaving the track.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Standings

You Gotta See This

Slippery Slope

Stewart

Tony Stewart: Good luck trying to catch Smoke without a smile when he arrives to Pocono this weekend. Wednesday at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, Stewart put on another great show with his fourth annual Prelude to the Dream late-model dirt race, raising a million bucks for a new Victory Junction Gang Camp near Kansas City and dominating the event on the half-mile oval. No one came close to passing him in the 30-lap feature after he grabbed the lead on Lap 1.

The bigger question is whether he'll still have that smile when he leaves Sunday night. His Sprint Cup team hasn't found a groove yet but is finding misfortune, the latest coming at Dover with an accident that sent him out in 41st and dropped him three spots in points to 11th, dangerously close to the Chase cutoff.

But Stewart's tendency is to heat up with the weather, as 28 of his 32 Cup wins have come in the final two-thirds of the season. Last we checked, it's getting a little hot out there.

Going The Wrong Way

Riggs

Scott Riggs: This would be your definition of a bad week in NASCAR: Swallow a massive 150-point fine for a rules violation (and get little sympathy from your peers), finish 39th upon returning to the track, and have both add up to a fall to 36th in owner points.

That's all Riggs went through last week in the No. 66 Haas-CNC Motorsports Chevrolet. Not that his season had gone swimmingly anyway, as Riggs has yet to notch a top-15 finish. But if he doesn't get in the show on qualifying time this week, the penalty for tampering with the rear wings could linger for far longer than the accompanying $100,000 fines his owners are paying.

Showing Some Love For …

Hornish

Sam Hornish Jr.: You're forgiven for not paying attention to the Raybestos Rookie of the Year race. It's not nearly much fun as watching, say, Kyle Busch run roughshod over everyone at the front of the field.

But in that race within the race, Hornish is making it interesting. The Penske Racing rookie -- in the truest sense of the word, having come over from the IndyCar Series -- tied Regan Smith of Dale Earnhardt Inc. atop the standings with an 18th-place day at Dover. That came on the heels of a 13th-place finish at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, Hornish's best finishes since 15th in the Daytona 500.

"I feel like these are the finishes that we should have been having all year," said Hornish, who also took a load off himself by moving into the top 35 in owner points. "I feel like we're starting to turn the corner a little bit, so hopefully we'll keep it going."